People may feel anxious about traveling for various reasons. For example, the stress of planning a journey, traveling in enclosed planes or trains, or visiting new, unfamiliar places can lead to anxiety symptoms.
Although travel anxiety is not an officially diagnosed mental health issue, it can be severe enough to interfere with the lives of some individuals. They may be unable to see family and friends, go on vacation, or travel for work.
Some people may experience travel anxiety because of negative past travel experiences or because they have an anxiety disorder. Travel anxiety may relate to specific activities, such as driving or flying. It can also involve a general fear of crowds, being unable to leave a space, or the unknown.
People who have had negative experiences while traveling may become concerned these could recur. However, experts report that most driving anxiety is unrelated to previous accidents.
Other circumstances that may trigger travel anxiety include:
driving through storms, snow, or other bad weather
experiencing a panic attack
getting lost while driving or looking for connecting buses
experiencing road rage
If someone has an anxiety disorder, they could experience symptoms while traveling. For example, previous 2017 research suggests people with generalized anxiety disorder may have difficulty concentrating while driving or making other decisions during travel. As a result, they may feel less than confident.
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, many people who fear flying or being on other forms of transport are living with claustrophobia. They may become extremely anxious if stuck in traffic or locked onto a plane or train. In people with a phobia of flying, more than 90% of the fear is that they will become overwhelmed with anxiety during the flight.
Additionally, the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heartbeat and sweating, can cause someone to think they might lose control while driving or worry about what people surrounding them may think. This, in turn, can worsen anxiety and fear of traveling.
A person with travel anxiety may experience symptoms throughout the travel process or at specific points during it. For example, booking travel tickets for an upcoming journey may trigger anxiety in some people, while others may be calm until the journey begins and then begin to feel anxious.
Symptoms a person may experience include:
sleeping problems leading up to the travel date
being unable to control feelings of worry and concern about traveling
feeling restless or on edge while in airports or train stations
being irritable and short-tempered
having panic attacks, which may cause a racing heart, sweating, and feelings of being out of control
feelings of being self-conscious and that people are judging them
Treatment and management
Some people may only have mild symptoms of travel anxiety that do not significantly impact their lives, or it may be a one-off experience. However, this kind of anxiety can be more severe and debilitating for others, making it hard to leave home or even make short journeys.
Various techniques can help manage and treat different levels of travel anxiety. These include therapy, lifestyle changes, planning, and medication.
Psychotherapy is also called talk therapy. People can ask a doctor about cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, or mindfulness techniques. Additionally, research suggests that exposure therapy is the treatment of choice for specific phobias. Otherwise known as desensitization therapy, this involves exposing someone to their phobia in a safe and controlled environment to help them overcome fear and anxiety.
People can also make lifestyle changes to help them cope with travel anxiety. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America suggests the following strategies to cope with generalized feelings of anxiety:
living a full, active life
eating a healthy, balanced diet
talking with a trusted person about anxious feelings
keeping a journal of anxiety triggers
avoiding caffeine or low blood sugar, which can trigger anxiety in some people
People may experience travel anxiety because of the unknown. For example, they may wonder what would happen if they ran out of money, got lost, or became ill. Having a plan in place for worst-case scenarios may help ease these fears. Although it is impossible to plan for every eventuality, having a general plan can make people feel more in control and less anxious about traveling.
People may be able to ease their anxiety by:
making copies of important documents such as passports and driver’s licenses and keeping them in a separate place from the originals
taking a credit card for emergencies
researching the area and carrying a small paper map or guidebook
purchasing health insurance and knowing where to find local hospitals and doctors
telling friends and family about travel plans
packing snacks and water to avoid getting hungry or dehydrated
taking enough medication to last for the trip
If the above measures are not enough to ease travel anxiety, some medications can help. If an individual has long-term anxiety problems, their doctor may suggest a type of antidepressant called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. A 2017 study found these medications are most effective for long-term anxiety treatment.
A doctor may also suggest a benzodiazepine such as lorazepam to provide short-term, immediate relief from panic attacks. People may find that they feel less anxious purely by carrying this medication with them.
When to contact a doctor
Although it is normal to feel anxious when faced with unfamiliar situations such as traveling, an individual should speak with a doctor if they find that anxiety is restricting their life. Doctors may recommend lifestyle changes, planning, therapy, or medication to help ease symptoms.
Generally, anxiety is not a dangerous condition, but a doctor can rule out any other health problems that could be causing the symptoms. They can also advise a person on appropriate treatments to prevent anxiety from worsening.
Sources: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/travel-anxiety; Anxiety disorders. (2022). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders; Bandelow, B., et al. (2017), Treatment of anxiety disorders https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573566/; How can I overcome my fear of flying? (n.d.) https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/ask-and-learn/ask-expert/how-can-i-overcome-my-fear-of-flying; Overcoming the fear of driving. (2017),
https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/overcome-fear-driving; Panic disorder, (n.d.), https://adaa.org/sites/default/files/panic_adaa.pdf.