Here you are, back online, looking for advice about getting rid of your travel anxiety. Good for you for sticking with it! I’m sure your persistence is going to pay off.
Isn’t the internet great for finding answers? Unfortunately, it’s easy to come across bad advice here too. It’s all mixed in with the good stuff, which makes it hard to know the difference.
And to make things even worse, the bad advice often has a kernel of truth hidden somewhere in the middle of all the hype and misrepresentation. But it’s like a needle in a haystack. You practically have to be a mental health professional or a recovering hodophobe to tease out the truth.
Luckily, I’m both. And since helping people get rid of their travel fears is my passion, I’ll be happy to jump in and help you sort through what you’ve been reading on oh-so-many websites. Here are some of the worst suggestions you’ll find on the web for getting rid of your travel anxiety.
Bad advice for getting rid of your travel anxiety #1 – “See your doctor before you go”
The kernel of truth
When you consult with your doctor, you’ll most likely be given a prescription for a benzodiazepine (brand names – Xanax, Klonopin, Atavan, Valium). These drugs sometimes quickly lower anxiety – there’s your kernel of truth.
What else is in that haystack
Telling anxious people to consult their doctor before a trip is code for telling them to manage their fears by taking powerful drugs. How else could a doctor get rid of your fears? There’s no surgical procedure for removing them.
Benzodiazepines are some of the most dangerous medications available to patients, yet they’re widely prescribed and easy to obtain. All I had to do to get them was ask.
I knew the benzos were highly addictive substances. I’d worked for years to help people get off them. You’d think I’d know better, right?
But I’d just started flying again after a couple of decades of being grounded by my fears, and I was afraid they’d reemerge in flight. There I’d be, I imagined, miles up in the air… panicking… freaking out… Brrr…
So even though I knew that almost half the people who take benzos regularly will develop an addiction to them, my anxiety tricked me into filling the script. I wasn’t going to take them regularly, after all. I was only going to take them in the air.
It was easy to stick with my resolve, as it turned out. When I took the pills at the prescribed dose, I didn’t get any of the euphoria my addicted patients had described to me. I didn’t get an immediate sense of calm, a release from my fears. Nope. Not at all.
Instead, my anxiety got worse. Much worse. I was a trembling, gelatinous mess on those first few flights I pill-popped and boozed my way through after I’d made up my mind to fly again.
I’d heard of this effect from my clients, and I knew about it from the professional literature. But usually, the side effect of worsening anxiety comes only after an interval of successful use.
Normally, the pills work for a while, maybe even for a good long while. Then suddenly, they don’t work anymore, and the fear returns in all its fury.
Anxiety on the rebound is often worse than the original fear. So, while it’s true that benzos can decrease anxiety in some people for some amount of time, it’s also true that they can increase it. Believe me, this is not what you want. Brrr…
Maybe I should be grateful the pills had this effect on me. They didn’t provide the relief I’d hoped to get, so of course I never craved them. I didn’t get addicted.
Maybe you wouldn’t either. Your doctor will probably tell you benzos are safe when used according to directions. And most of their patients who later became my patients took their doctors’ advice.
But it’s bad advice. Lots of benzo addicts started out by taking benzos only as directed. That’s just not where they ended up.
Other problems with “seeing your doctor”
The rates of addiction to benzos are high, but let’s assume for a minute that you beat the odds. If we take the risk of getting hooked off the table, are benzos safe then?
Nope. Not at all. These drugs are sedatives, and people don’t operate their best when they’re under sedation. They don’t navigate their best either.
Travel fears have lots of targets, but the fear that something bad will happen to you while you’re on the road is a big one. You may be like me, afraid that something bad will happen on the flight. Maybe you’ll be injured. Maybe you’ll be killed.
In fact, almost certainly not. Planes are safe (I remind myself of this a lot). They don’t drop out of the sky, the way I used to fear they would. But sometimes they do make sudden, jarring drops in altitude when they encounter turbulence. You want to be buckled up when this happens. You don’t want to be stumbling toward the bathroom under the influence of a sedative. You don’t want to be rolled off the plane sporting a splint when it lands safely at your destination.
And even if you’re mobile when you arrive, you’ll want your wits about you. Benzos impair cognition. They impact your memory. They may increase your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease, even with infrequent use. You don’t want to make travel decisions under the influence of a drug that alters your consciousness. When you’re on the road, you want to be your savviest self.
If you want to play it safe, you don’t have to stay home, but you might want to steer clear of dangerous destinations. Avoiding the sites that tell you to see your doctor before you go is a good start. It’s some of the worst advice on the web.
Bad advice for getting rid of your travel anxiety #2 – “Stay hydrated”
The kernel of truth
Good self-care practices will make you a less anxious person overall. If you’re eating your 5-to-7 servings of fruits and veggies every day, you probably don’t ever have to worry about getting dehydrated. But you could make the argument that staying hydrated is a good self-care practice so grab a glass of water and “bottoms up!”
What else is in that haystack
I didn’t fly for about twenty years, and I stayed out of the air because I was afraid my plane would crash, not because I needed a drink. I was afraid of being in the sky and getting the bad news, of the moments spent hurtling toward the ground, of the certainty of my impending death, of the uproar and panic I imagined would ensue.
Over the twenty years I was grounded, I drank water lots and lots of times, and I can tell you this: when it flowed out of my body, it did not take my travel fears with it.
It’s true that severe dehydration will produce changes in the way you feel, but the Mayo Clinic doesn’t even list travel anxiety (or anxiety of any kind) as a particular outcome of letting yourself dry out. And unless you’ve recently experienced fever or diarrhea or vomiting, you’re probably not dehydrated anyway.
“Stay hydrated” sounds like an easy fix, so it gets passed around from internet site to internet site. After all, isn’t an easy fix what everyone wants? If only it were true.
But it’s not. It’s easy to take a drink. That isn’t going to fix anything.
Bad advice for getting rid of your travel anxiety #3 – “Do breathing exercises”
The kernel of truth
Developing a relaxation practice of some kind can play an important part in putting your travel anxiety behind you. Many effective relaxation practices utilize breath regulation or breath focus as techniques.
It’s also true that shallow breathing decreases carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream, a chemical change that tells your body something is wrong. “You must be scared” is the message the body receives. “And if you’re scared, something must be wrong.”
Doing any of the “breathing techniques” discussed below can affect your anxiety. Breath counting moves your attention to the physical world, to the body, a place where (almost certainly) nothing is wrong. It moves you out of your head, where the anxious imagination is spinning its horror stories. That can work in your favor, for sure.
The other stuff in the haystack
Remember Pavlov? If the name rings a bell, you might recall him as the scientist who taught us about classical conditioning. According to the laws of classical conditioning, once two events get linked together in your experience (like the ringing of a bell and the appearance of your dinner), your body will be primed to react to both of them in a way that used to be true only for one (like producing saliva when a bell rings, instead of only when you eat).
Breath-focused relaxation practices work best when you condition yourself to associate them with feelings of calm. When breath focus or breath counting is used as part of a regular relaxation practice, it can be highly effective at reducing anxiety.
But when these techniques aren’t used until you’re already feeling scared, there’s a chance that the fear and the breathing techniques will get linked together in your mind and body. If you use breathing techniques only when you’re frightened, you may begin to associate your breathing focus with your fear. Then focusing on your breath alone will start to scare you. This is not what you want.
Breathing deeply can send a signal to your body that you’re okay, so if fear comes out of nowhere and you want to calm yourself down right now, it’s certainly worth a try. Is it sufficient for ending a phobia? No. In fact, the whole time I was drinking water and staying off of planes, I was breathing too. And often, breathing deeply, I might add.
People have all kinds of breathing pointers for you. Johnny Jet says you should breathe slowly and deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. Smarter Travel suggests inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 10. USA Today recommends inhaling to a count of 4, holding your breath for a count of 4, and then exhaling to a count of 4. And Very Well says you should breathe slowly and with purpose. But don’t you already have a purpose for breathing? I know I do. It’s to stay alive.
Details like this are plentiful on the web. Proof that these methods work long-term when isolated from the development of a relaxation practice is hard to find. But don’t get discouraged. There are plenty of evidence-based practices that will help you get in control of your fear and even overcome it. Want to know what they are? Cast off the bad advice people keep trying to give you and focus instead on the best travel anxiety tips you can find on the web. You can learn what they are by clicking here.