Hodophobia is an unreasonable or excessive fear of travel. Two words from ancient Greek were combined to form the term – “hodo,” meaning “path,” “road,” or “travel” and “phobia,” meaning an extreme or irrational fear or horror. Hodophobia is one example of a specific phobia, which is a diagnosable mental disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental health professionals should give the diagnosis of specific phobia when all the following criteria are met:
- “Marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation…
- The phobic object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety.
- The phobic object or situation is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.
- The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger posed by [it].
- The fear is persistent, typically lasting for at least six months or more.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment…
- The disturbance is not better explained by the presence of another disorder…[i]“
Types of specific phobias
There are four types of specific phobia. One of these is “situational,” meaning that an experience rather than an object provokes our fears. The fear of travel (hodophobia) is one such situation. Related specific phobias such as the fear of flying (aviophobia), the fear of catching a virus while abroad (nosophobia), the fear that baggage handlers will lose or destroy your luggage (disposophobia), or even the fear of being out of cell phone contact in remote locations (nomophobia) can also be triggered when we hit the road. You may be diagnosed with “specific phobia, situational type” if you have clinically significant fear about any of these things.
Other disorders anxious travelers might have
Although some people with hodophobia experience fear only about travel, 75% of people with one specific phobia will have others as well. Other anxiety disorders also co-occur with hodophobia. The following are the ones most likely to affect our travel plans:
- Separation anxiety disorder. This disorder is just what it sounds like; some people have an excessive fear about being separated from the significant others in their lives. They don’t like to leave their safe person behind, even to go to school or to work, and they definitely don’t want to get so far away that they couldn’t quickly reconnect with the people they love if the need arose. We’re social creatures with deep needs for connection and it’s natural to have some anxiety about being far away from the special people in our lives. But you won’t be diagnosed with separation disorder or any of the disorders here unless your anxiety causes “…clinically significant distress or impairment in social, academic, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”[ii] If you can’t travel because you restrict your life to the “safe zone” where your peeps are easily accessible to you, your life is being significantly impacted.
- Social anxiety disorder. People who fear social situations to the extent that they warrant a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder are really less afraid of people than they are of being negatively judged. They fear situations that might reveal them to be lacking in some way. They feel embarrassed if they don’t know exactly what to do in every situation, every second of the day. Imagine how this fear gets evoked when you go to an unfamiliar place where you don’t know the language or don’t speak it fluently, where you’re unfamiliar with the public transportation system, the culture and customs. You’re bound to goof up at least a time or two. People with social anxiety disorder try to avoid negative judgement by avoiding people. But in eliminating the possible pain of negative judgment, they also eliminate the joy that comes from receiving others’ positive regard. Too afraid to risk doing something stupid, they do nothing at all. When they might be out among the universal family of lovely people across the world, they sit at home instead in fearful isolation.
- Panic disorder. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you won’t soon forget it. Panic attacks may accompany any of the disorders we’ve been talking about, but panic disorder is only diagnosed when you have excessive worry about having them or you make frantic attempts to avoid them. And here’s the thing; who wouldn’t? Most people who’ve lived through the sweating palms, dizziness, pounding heart, tingling extremities, and overwhelming feelings of impending doom that mark a panic attack would do just about anything to avoid having another. People who have panic disorder fear that even a normal heightening of nerves, such as the prickle of anticipation they might have when boarding a plane, would be sufficient to bring on an attack. They avoid the situation because of their fear of panic rather than because of their fear of flying. Travel, an activity filled with unknowns, could seem unbearable to people who have panic disorder. Desperate to keep fear under control, they avoid travel and miss out on a life full of rich experiences.
- Agoraphobia. You may think people who have agoraphobia are house-bound. Sometimes, that’s true, but it isn’t always the case. There are five situations that people with agoraphobia are likely to avoid. At least two of these fears must be present to make the diagnosis. Those five are: 1) Using public transportation (e.g., automobiles, buses, trains, ships, planes). 2) Being in open spaces (e.g., parking lots, marketplaces, bridges). 3) Being in enclosed places (e.g., shops, theaters, cinemas). 4) Standing in line or being in a crowd, and 5) Being outside of the home alone.[iii] All these situations are integral to the experience of travel. People with agoraphobia usually don’t take public transportation, but even driving their own car could bring up anxiety about being in an enclosed space. And of course, sailing off into the wild, blue yonder is unthinkable when you’re afraid of wide, open spaces. But then again, living your life confined to your home base is pretty scary, too. Being at the end of your life and having no stories to tell of your travels is scary. And it’s terrifying to think you didn’t experience life as fully as you wanted to because of your unrealistic fears.
- Generalized anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive worry. The worry is not usually about one or only a few situations; it’s more global and pervasive. Just think about how many situations related to travel are worrisome. I worry about how my dogs are coping while I’m away, about how high the weeds in the yard are getting, and about the possibility that some Facebook friend turned meth-addicted home invader will see my pics and realize I’m out of town. If you can’t control the worry, as people with this disorder typically cannot, it may seem like there’s no way to quell the anxiety except by limiting the frightening stimuli you let into your life. Giving up a life of travel in exchange for a life of watching the Travel Channel reduces worry. It also reduces exhilaration, delight in new experiences, and the feelings of competence that emerge when you start to overcome your fears. Is that a worthwhile exchange?
What causes hodophobia?
Like most mental disorders, hodophobia may develop in a variety of ways. Anxiety disorders of all kinds can start in childhood or early adolescence. This suggests the possibility of a genetic link or the influence of parents.
According to the developmental theorist Erik Erikson, infancy is a time for developing trust in the world. If we have a primary caregiver we can count on to accurately intuit our needs and meet them well enough most of the time when we’re babies, we extrapolate our experience to the wider world. We develop an attitude that says, “I can trust. I am going to be taken care of. Everything will be okay.”
As we grow into toddlers, our interpersonal work becomes the development of autonomy. If our caregiver allows us to start making the minor decisions appropriate for a little tyke, we develop faith in ourselves. We learn we can find our own path.
The trust in the world we developed as infants evolves into a trust in the self. We learn that we’re separate people who can make our own decisions and act on them. When this is our childhood experience, as adults we can decide to go to Europe or South America and just get up and go. We’re not crippled by anxiety and self-doubt.
However, if Mommy snatched our hand back every time we let go of hers something else entirely happens. You know what that is.
Children need enough freedom to develop a sense of their competence. If they’re overly-controlled or criticized, this won’t happen.
Hodophobia can develop in adulthood
In spite of a stereotype to the contrary, counselors don’t always think your problems started in your childhood. We know you may have inherited genes for robust mental health. Your mom and dad may have been perfect parents. But even if your childhood got you off to a good start, hodophobia can still develop in your adulthood. It may be the result of a travel-related trauma.
Although they’re much rarer than hodophobes imagine them to be, traumatic travel experiences do happen. And when they do, they leave their mark. Almost half the commuters who responded to a survey after the London train they were on was bombed said they’d developed a phobia of public transportation afterward.[iv] Can you blame them?
And the trauma doesn’t even have to be your own for it to affect you. The media feeds us a constant stream of frightening travel tales. And every time we watch the stories of disasters that happened to someone else, we’re being vicariously traumatized, just by watching.
Stress is also a factor in hodophobia
According to the diathesis-stress model for explaining mental illness, problems like hodophobia develop as a result of two processes. First, there’s the diathesis, or vulnerability to the disorder, and secondly, there’s the occurrence of stress.
There are lots of reasons you could be more vulnerable to travel fears than the next guy. You might be stressed out from overwork, or from losing your spouse, or from a recent diagnosis of illness.
From the perspective of the diathesis-stress model, life is like a game of Jenga.[v] Every time you pull a support out of the structure, it’s more at risk of falling. At some point, it can’t bear its own weight anymore, and the whole thing comes crashing to the ground.
Trauma (even observed trauma) makes you more vulnerable to stress even when it doesn’t push you over the edge. The riders of the bombed train who did not develop phobic reactions likely grew more vulnerable to future problems because of their experience. The world changes us.
Environmental factors that contribute to hodophobia
And maybe it’s not the easiest world to live in, at the moment. Maybe our personal issues, like our inborn disposition or the way we were raised, actually have little to do with how fearful we feel. Maybe it’s our society that’s neurotic, not us.
We’re driven by social norms that emphasize the value of status and wealth over leisure and fun. The work week keeps getting longer and longer, and our homes and their mortgage payments keep getting larger and larger.
Around half of us don’t even take all the vacation time we’ve got coming to us. Too afraid to play, we stay at our desks and keep our eyes on the screen, our noses to the grindstone, our shoulders to the wheel. We keep our ears to the ground, anticipating rumors of mergers, buyouts, layoffs, closures.
Maybe that kind of life is inherently anxiety-provoking. We’re afraid to leave the office to take a trip. We’re afraid someone who’s willing to forego the vacation will be earning points with our boss that we need. Or think we do.[vi]
The common thread
Those are a few of the most credible ideas about how your anxiety developed. You may have identified more than one probable source for your hodophobia, and if you did, that’s great. If you’re like most of us, you’ve got lots of reasons for feeling afraid when you think about hitting the road.
You probably have a genetic tendency toward anxiety. You may have been raised by fearful parents, the same people who gifted you with those over-active genes in the first place. Since they’re anxious themselves, they taught you the world is a dangerous place because that’s what they believed. And it goes without saying you’ve had the bejesus scared out of you by the news media. They certainly try hard enough.
Your fears are not unfounded. By that I only mean they have a basis in your DNA, your life experiences, and your culture. They’re a natural reaction to strange situations, grounded in our evolutionary past. You fear travel because of these things, and not because it’s inherently dangerous.
Knowing how your fears started gives you a leg-up for letting them go. If they’re from your childhood, you can stop applying them so indiscriminately to adult life.
If they predated your birth, there’s good news there too. You can stop blaming yourself. You can stop blaming other people. You were born that way. That doesn’t mean you have to stay that way, though.
If your fears developed in adulthood, that’s the best news yet. If you’ve reached the tipping point with travel fears because of accumulated stress, you can make your life more easeful. You can pull yourself back from the brink.
If you learned to be scared because you lived through a trauma and its associated feelings, you can learn something new. You can learn not to be afraid.
For now, it’s enough to acknowledge that having travel fears doesn’t mean you’re deficient in some way. You’re not afraid because you’re bad, stupid, or lazy.
You are the person your past, your inborn temperament, the culture you were born into, and the luck of the draw helped to create. That’s not to say you can’t become a more fearless version of yourself. That’s what this blog is all about. But let your work begin with a gentle self-acceptance. You’re not in control of your genes or how you were raised, or the world you inhabit.
If you read all the way to the end of this article, congratulations! I hope you’ve learned a lot about your fears and have some good ideas about their causes. Deciding what you’re going to do about them is your next step.
[i] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
[iv] Clinically significant avoidance of public transport following the London bombings: Travel phobia or subthreshold posttraumatic stress disorder? (2009 Dec; 23(8): 1170–1176. You can access this article through this link.
[v] Your probably know what that is, but just in case you don’t, here’s a pretty good description.
[vi] The phenomenon of unused vacation days has become quite a story. A 2015 survey found that 55% of Americans left at least some of their vacation time on the table, even when paid days off could not be bankrolled for future use. In effect, workers donated 222 million days back to their employers. You can read more here.