Travel Jitters: Navigating Anxiety Before, During, and after Your Trip
Anxiety happens, but it doesn’t have to stop you from experiencing travel to the fullest. With the right approach and tools, you can make the most of your trip.
By Barbara Kamholz, PhD, ABPP (she/her)
Director of Behavioral Health at EF Education First
Embarking on a trip abroad can stir up a whirlwind of emotions. From the excitement of new places to the anxiety of the unknown, these feelings are a normal part of the travel experience.
The goal of this guide is to provide you with insights and strategies to navigate the landscape of emotions before, during, and after your adventure—whether you're grappling with pre-travel jitters, looking for ways to navigate the unexpected, or managing the post-trip blues.
Before your trip
Does this sound like you?
“I’m feeling so overwhelmed by the amount I have to prepare for this trip that I think I might cancel…I can’t do this!”
“I feel so anxious the day of my departure. I’m panicking! What if something goes wrong?”
Take a beat.
Even when they’re unpleasant, emotions give us important information. You’re anxious about a big trip? That makes perfect sense—anxiety tells us that something is important to us and we don’t know how it’ll turn out. If you tend to get anxious about things (and who doesn’t have some anxiety?) or have had a “meh” travel experience in the past, your fears may be bigger, and that’s okay.
Here are four things you can do to address these feelings:
1. Remind yourself that anxiety is just information and humans experience it for a reason.
Anxiety and panic may feel bad, but they’re not dangerous. These reactions mobilize humans for action when we’re under threat. They are part of the fight-or-flight system that was designed to get us in gear to respond to serious danger (threat). Unfortunately, our bodies sometimes interpret something unknown as something dangerous. So that same fight-or-flight system can be triggered by uncertainty (say, a big trip with a bunch of people we don’t know!), even though it’s not actually a threat at all.
2. Check in with someone you trust.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and panicked by something that seemed like a great idea just a few months ago (like traveling abroad), check in with someone you trust. Do they agree that there’s a big problem? That you won’t meet anyone cool or that the trip will be awful? Or do they see ways to manage the situation, and think you had it right the first time—that this is something you want to do, even if you’re having some anxiety or second guessing it now?
Think about what you can do to set yourself up for the best experience possible. That means packing for a smooth experience (remember weather- and activity-appropriate clothes) and bringing any supplies or support you need. If you use an app to help manage your mental health, make sure it will work on your smartphone overseas. If you see a therapist, talk with them about useful strategies for travel and emergency planning. If you take medications, be sure to pack them in your carry-on luggage and talk to your doctor about how to maintain the right dosage schedule during time zone and altitude changes. You can also talk to your friends or family at home about how to best touch base if you need support while you’re away.
Below are some apps geared towards behavioral well-being. Check them out and download them prior to your tour, even if you don’t think you’ll use them. (Think of them like an extra pair of socks, just in case!)
4. Check your expectations.
Expect a great experience, and also expect the unexpected. Some things will be better than you ever imagined, while other things may be different than what you envisioned. The point of your trip is to have fun, learn and grow. It’s all part of the experience. Approaching situations with flexibility will help you make the most of your trip.
Even if it’s a drag, some anxiety is a normal part of life. It’s good to challenge yourself and get outside your comfort zone, and if you never feel anxiety, you’re probably not doing that very much. Acknowledge the anxiety and move forward with the plans you’ve made. It’ll be worth it!
During your trip
Does this sound like you?
“I have so much travel anxiety and can’t seem to calm down or enjoy myself because I’m scared I’m going to be late to the next meet up with my group!”
“Being part of a group all the time stresses me out because I don’t know if I’ll fit in with them. I’m more on the shy side but don’t want to travel alone.”
You’ve probably been thinking about overseas travel for weeks or months, and you likely had some fears along the way. So, first off—congratulations! You’ve already faced a bunch of fears and are on the trip!
Now some hard news…You may have thought that once you got on the plane, all your concerns would melt away. But now you’re facing a lot of new situations—like rooming with people you just met, navigating group dynamics, and exploring unfamiliar places—and you may feel more anxious than you expected.
Being anxious about new places, schedules, and people means that it’s important to you and you’re not sure how it’s going to turn out. If you’re an introvert, being around people all the time may be especially taxing (even if you want to be there).
Bottom line: Most people are going to experience some anxiety on a big trip.
Here are four things you can do to address anxiety during your trip:
1. (Again!) Remind yourself that anxiety is just information and can be useful.
Anxiety and worry may feel bad, but they’re not dangerous. Some anxiety is useful for helping us focus and address important tasks, and some worry can help us solve problems. But anxiety and worry can get in our way when we keep spinning on something, when we’re convinced we’re the only people who feel like this, or when we’re anxious ABOUT BEING ANXIOUS.
Here are some quick reads on helpful vs. unhelpful worry:
2. Take steps to address the thing you’re worried about and see what happens.
Worried about oversleeping? Set an alarm on your phone to wake you. Also, talk to your roommates and ask them to nudge you if you don’t wake up from your alarm.
Nervous you’ll mess up the schedule? Write it down as a list or in your phone calendar. That way, you’ll have it with you and you can easily edit it when inevitable itinerary changes happen.
If you take steps to objectively address your worry and it doesn’t go away (or at least decrease), it’s probably not realistic. Shift to the other tips in this list to help.
3. Remind yourself that the people around you are most likely also experiencing some anxiety.
A smart person once said, “Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.” Even if someone else looks like they have no anxiety, difficulties, or challenges, they may well be grappling with their own internal struggles. (And if they aren’t right now, they have experienced difficult feelings at some other time!)
We may feel special, but humans are actually very similar. We all want to be safe and to belong, and we all feel some anxiety when there’s uncertainty about those things. This is because: Darwin. Over generations of human evolution, living in groups and being connected to others was important for survival. And some amount of anxiety when we were outside the routine or the pack was useful to keep us close. Of course, there are variations across individuals. But the lone human living thousands of years ago who wasn’t ever anxious about belonging in the group, starving, or being eaten by predators, generally didn’t live very long!
4. Challenge your thoughts.
Our brains are busy. Every day they produce over 6,000 thoughts (and some estimates go as high as 70,000). So, it’s understandable that not all of our thoughts are accurate, and some of them may be way off base. These off-base, inaccurate thoughts are called “distortions”. When we feel particularly anxious (or depressed), our thoughts are more likely to be distorted, so it’s useful at these times to notice your thoughts and challenge them.
Two kinds of thought errors are often associated with strong anxiety: all-or-nothing thinking and catastrophizing.
For more information on thought errors, take a look at these resources:
It’s normal to have some anxiety during a big trip. But part of what makes travel exciting and valuable is getting outside your comfort zone. Remind yourself that you’re not alone, practice some strategies to manage your anxiety, and see where the road takes you!
After your trip
Does this sound like you?
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier than when I was on tour 2 weeks ago. Now that I’m back in my old routine I’m bummed/feel let down.”
“I really felt like my best self on tour and I’m nervous I won’t be able to tap into that part of myself at home.”
Post-vacation letdown is real. When you’ve just spent a week or two only really thinking about yourself, and doing what you want, it’s even more real.
Here are six ways to ensure a smooth re-entry and hold on to some of the special things you discovered:
You’re probably exhausted from an exciting travel experience. Plus, you’re jet lagged. Just like you may have felt overwhelmed and tired when you first arrived abroad, it’s normal to feel that way now. Give yourself some time. Sleep, rest, hydrate, and let your body readjust to your home time zone.
2. Stay connected to new friends.
Saying goodbye to new travel friends is hard. Make a point to stay in touch through social media, texting, WhatsApp, etc. No, it won’t be the same. But it’ll be fun, and you can start thinking about when and where you want to meet up again!
3. Reconnect with old friends and activities you enjoy.
You may find that part of the letdown of returning home is that the people and things that used to be exciting don’t feel as great anymore. It’s hard for the familiarity of home to compare to the novelty of traveling abroad. You may also find that you have legitimately outgrown some people or things. That makes sense—hopefully you’ve had a great experience, and great experiences change us. But, if you feel like you’ve outgrown everyone and everything, you may be getting ahead of yourself. Try to reach out to some of the people you were closest to before you left and give it a chance.
4. Let the new you into your home life.
You probably discovered new things about yourself, and new things you like, while traveling. That’s great! Now let that into your everyday life. Maybe you’re more extroverted than you realized. Harness that to expand your social life at home. Maybe you like solitary time more than you ever noticed. Insert moments of quiet and alone time into your life. Check out local restaurants that feature new foods you’ve discovered or learn how to cook them yourself. Just because your trip is over, doesn’t mean all that you discovered disappears.
5. Use what you learned while traveling, and what you’re feeling now, to understand what matters to you.
Maybe you were fascinated by the politics of the places you visited. Maybe you were drawn to helping fellow travelers. Maybe you had a harder time than you expected, and you want to learn the skills to be more independent or confident. Whatever it was, pay attention to it, and let it influence your priorities and choices moving forward.
6. Consider talking to a trusted adult or therapist.
If you’re feeling depressed weeks after you’ve returned, and these tips aren’t working, talk to someone. A trusted adult or therapist can help you understand why the challenges of returning home have lingered and provide personalized guidance on how to address it.
Traveling is exciting! And everyday life can be, well, not. It’s normal to feel down, bored, or concerned that what you experienced will somehow vanish. Give yourself a chance to acclimate and take an active role in keeping the joy and lessons from travel close to you. The wonderful thing about a big trip is that it will stay with you always.
Travel with EF Ultimate Break