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How To Deal With Travel Anxiety

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Richard Lucas had flown hundreds of times, beginning when he was just a year old. Being on a plane never bothered him — until, one day, it did. Just before a planned trip, Lucas suffered a severe anxiety attack. He called the airline and postponed the flight to the morning. In the morning, he postponed it again. In the end, he didn’t go — and the fare was nonrefundable. “I just lost it all,” he says, “because my anxiety prevented me from going.”

Yet Lucas refused to let his anxiety diagnosis stop him from traveling all over the world. “I can’t do it the way I used to. But I can do it,” he says. We spoke with him about his best strategies and tips for dealing with travel anxiety.

One important note: traveling with anxiety isn’t the same thing as flight anxiety, or fear of flying, although they may overlap. We have some tips for dealing with flight anxiety here.

Don’t hesitate to ask for accommodations.

Lucas requests priority security screening and priority boarding, every time he flies. Early boarding helps him stay calm, he explains, because standing in line in the jet bridge is intensely stressful for him. It’s a simple request: He just asks for priority boarding at check-in, and “80 percent of the time,” he says, the airline is happy to grant his request.

You can also do small things to make travel situations more bearable. Lucas listens to music through headphones when he’s waiting in long security lines. If flying makes you anxious, try downloading a guided meditation to help refocus your thoughts.

Advocate for yourself and others.

Recently, Lucas was checking into a flight from San Francisco to Washington D.C. When he requested priority boarding, the airline’s customer service agent looked him up and down. “Well, what’s wrong with you?” she said.

“I have anxiety disorder,” Lucas replied. The airline agent said, “That doesn’t count.”

He could have blown up, or walked away. Instead, he calmly said, “I’m just going to stand here for 30 seconds and let you think about what you just said to me.” It worked. The agent apologized.

Another time, a woman on Lucas’s plane was suffering an anxiety attack and he heard flight attendants making fun of her at the back of the plane. “Ah, just take her some more vodka,” one said dismissively. Dismayed by their lack of empathy, Lucas later wrote to the airline’s CEO to report what he had seen. He has advocated for people with anxiety in the media, too; one first-person piece he wrote was featured on CNN’s homepage.

Focus on what reassures you.

Lucas’s anxiety manifests with chest pain, and so one small reassurance, for him, is knowing there’s an automatic external defibrillator on board the airplane. When he boards, he makes a point of noticing where the AED is. He tells himself that if something does happen to his heart, he’s as close to an AED as he’ll ever be. “Just little things like that can help,” he says.

Don’t hesitate to use anti-anxiety medication.

Many people who experience travel anxiety hold off on taking prescribed medication, Lucas has observed. Maybe they’re embarrassed, or maybe they want to prove to themselves that they don’t really need it. Either way, this is the wrong approach. If your medication helps you overcome anxiety, go ahead and take it, he says. Don’t wait until you feel symptoms coming on. And be sure to keep in your carry-on, where it can be easily reached, along with your prescription — “just to eliminate any potential anxiety about not having it,” Lucas says.

Keep picturing your end goal.

When you’re enduring a long, stressful trip It’s easy to feel trapped by your circumstances. Remember that the situation is temporary. Try, instead, to focus on your ultimate goal, Lucas says: “Always envision the end, which is the airplane landing, or the end of the security line.”
And after that, keep picturing your destination. What are you most looking forward to: Dipping your toes in the Mediterranean? Sampling a pastry on the Champs-Elysees? Or just hugging an old friend? You’ll get there. Just hang on.

Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.

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