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How to Deal With Pandemic-Induced Travel Anxiety

Vacationing in the time of COVID means striking the perfect balance between safety and enjoyment.

Triple checking that you have enough face masks and hand sanitizer, as well as the possibility of encountering careless people at your destination, are just a couple of the things that contribute to mid-pandemic travel anxiety. What many of us have come to find while trying to enjoy a relaxing getaway these days is that pandemic-induced stress often takes away from the overall vacation experience.

Americans are well-acquainted with anxiety, as 2020 data from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America shows that it affects some 40 million adults. While travel anxiety pre-pandemic caused travelers to worry about delayed flights and getting lost in a new destination, travel anxiety during this pandemic is primarily characterized by the very real fear of getting yourself or others sick with COVID.

“It’s normal now to feel some level of anxiety about traveling during COVID and that’s a natural response to a lot of the things that are going on, especially when we hear about friends and loved ones who may have gotten sick from it. Or in the worst-case scenario, we hear about the folks who’ve died from it,” says Dr. Vinay Saranga, a North Carolina-based psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry.

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These days, the decision to travel is an internal struggle between your fears of COVID and the desire to escape the confines of your own home to recharge your mental health.

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Unpredictability and uncertainty fuel anxiety, and now with the added worry of potentially getting sick and becoming a carrier, Saranga suggests COVID can exacerbate feelings of anxiety in those who already struggle with it, as well as in travelers who’ve never experienced it before. Saranga indicates this is in part due to increased exposure to situations and people outside of your circle when you travel.

Boston-based founder of My Wanderlusty Life, Ashley Smith, has experienced travel anxiety since 2016, which manifests itself in panic attacks, knots in her stomach, and overwhelmingly nauseous feelings before and during her travels. As a full-time travel blogger, Smith is normally an avid explorer, taking off on weekend domestic trips at least once a month, and traveling internationally to Europe or South America up to five times a year, each of these trips sometimes lasting over a month. But since the pandemic, she’s only traveled a handful of times since last March, including trips to Tennessee and Florida.

These days, the decision to travel is an internal struggle between your fears of COVID and the desire to escape the confines of your own home to recharge your mental health.

To minimize her risk of exposure to other people and to the virus, Smith prepares for a vacation by reading about COVID protocols at her destination and about the local attitude towards the pandemic. She also packs extra cloth and disposable masks and mini bottles of sanitizer so they’re accessible at any time. “You can help reduce your anxiety by preparing as much as possible for whatever may come your way,” says Saranga. “Also, think about how you’ll navigate various situations ahead of time like mealtimes, walking through crowds, and using public restrooms.”

Saranga notes that it’s also possible to over-prepare for your travels by packing entire suitcases full of masks, limitless bottles of hand sanitizer, and feeling the need to excessively wash your hands after touching a single surface, for example. “Sometimes over-preparing can bring on some sleep issues leading up to your travel date.” He adds many travelers will also overindulge in social media before a trip, and it’s important to limit your exposure and stick to guidance from the CDC instead.

To keep her anxiety at bay when things are out of her control, Smith focuses on what’s in her control. “If there are people around me not following safety measures, I can simply leave. If an area I’m in gets too crowded, I can leave. I can wear two masks, sanitize extra often, and stay away from people as much as possible.”

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Saranga notes distraction is also helpful in keeping your anxiety in check. “If you can keep your mind occupied on other things, it has less time to worry. When you’re sitting on an airplane and feel your anxiety levels start to rise, get busy by doing a word search, looking out the window and daydreaming, reading a book, or listening to music.” Aside from grounding yourself in your senses, Saranga also suggests the visual imagery technique, where you close your eyes and visualize being in your happy place to help decrease some of that anxiety.

Smith notes another source of anxiety during this pandemic comes from travel shaming and receiving judgment from strangers on social media. “People may see your travel as frivolous, but only you can value it in terms of benefit to your mental health during these trying times. Traveling during the pandemic requires a tougher skin than usual,” says Smith. She also uses her platform to educate fellow travelers on how to explore safely and responsibly during this time.

To reduce your anxiety in the time leading up to your trip, Saranga suggests getting enough rest and sticking to your normal home routine as much as you can. He also suggests downloading guided meditation apps like Headspace and Calm and practicing a few of those techniques ahead of boarding your flight.