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Anxious About Returning to Travel? Try These Tips from Psychologists | Frommer's Vectorium / Shutterstock

Anxious About Returning to Travel? Try These Tips from Psychologists

It's natural to be nervous about travel after living so long without it. Mental health experts offer ways to work through your feelings and be a globetrotter again.
Missed connections and lost luggage feel like minor concerns now. The past few years of the pandemic have stirred up much deeper fears for many travelers, like crowds, germs, and a looming sense that every activity comes with a risk.
If you’ve spent the past couple years cocooned at home, old habits die hard. At this point, if you’re simultaneously eager and anxious about returning to travel, you’re not alone. There are endless variations on what feels safe and what’s still scary. Maybe you’re perfectly fine visiting cultural sites, museums, and shops, but nervous about going maskless. Maybe your comfort level tops out with indoor dining or the thought of crushing into a busy airport security line.
But with reasonable precautions, that doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t enjoy travel again. 
Psychologists have some advice to make re-entry to travel a little easier for you and your family.
If you find yourself nervous around crowds…
Ease in with smaller steps.
Lots of people who didn’t think twice about crowds before the pandemic now find that even moderately busy town squares, subway cars, and restaurants make their palms sweat. This is normal: You’re out of practice.
Re-adjust by starting small, says psychologist Greta Hirsch, PhD, clinical director of The Ross Center for anxiety and mental health treatment. 
“If you’re not comfortable being around a lot of people, invite two people to have a meal at your home,” Hirsch says. “If you’re afraid of being around travel crowds like the Metro or airport, can you start by getting on the bus in your neighborhood? What are the smaller steps that you can take to build your confidence?”
If you’re anxious about getting sick…
Resist fortune-telling. 
Or at least be balanced about it.
Start by admitting that just because you can imagine things going wrong doesn’t mean you’re right: “Thoughts are just thoughts,” says Hirsch. “They’re not always predictive of the actual outcome.”
To get some perspective, Hirsch suggests listing all of your “what ifs” on paper and looking for trends. If you’re only anticipating negative outcomes (“What if I get sick?”), see if you can list some alternative possibilities (“What if it’s wonderful to see my mom?”) to balance them out.
You can also ground yourself in the latest facts. For U.S. travel, head to to find your destination’s Covid-19 numbers and vaccination rate. For global travel, get some statistical perspective by checking out the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Dashboard.
If you’re worried about how your child will do…
Pack comfort items.
Certain destinations, like crowded museums and booming public transit stations, can be overwhelming even on a child’s best day, and for kids who’ve gotten used to smaller groups during the pandemic, they can be even more so.
“Bring a bag filled with things that help your kid when they get overloaded,” says pediatric psychologist Melissa Santos, PhD, who heads Pediatric Psychology at Connecticut Children’s. “It could be play dough, a fidget cube, or essential oils—whatever works best.” 
Throw in a few familiar items from home, too. “Even something as simple as bringing the soap you have at home can help bring a sense of calm back to your child,” says Santos.
If your child or teen seems nervous about traveling…
Talk about it.
“Have the conversation as a family,” says Santos. “Ask, ‘What can we expect? What will we see and hear? What will we do when we get overwhelmed?’”
For teens, Santos suggests writing as well as talking.
“Journaling is a great way for teens to manage their anxiety and put their thoughts and feelings into perspective,” Santos says. “Putting worry down on paper gets it out of your brain, and lessens its control on you.”
Yes, this works for adults too.
If you’re struggling with a fear of germs in public places…
Limit yourself to reasonable precautions.
It’s obviously important to practice good hygiene like hand washing, especially in high-contact situations like travel. That’s true during a pandemic and at any other time. But after years of thinking about germs, it’s all too easy for a healthy awareness to turn into an obsession or a phobia.
If you have an intense fear of germs, keep an eye on how much you fixate on hygiene.
“If you do things that are extreme, like excessively washing your hands every 15 minutes, it reinforces the anxiety,” says Hirsch. “You’re sending a message to your brain: ‘This is really dangerous.’ You want to do what’s reasonable.”
If you’re panicking on the plane…
Stay in the moment.
So much of our anxiety is anticipatory. It’s often based on a fear of what could happen in the future. The biggest way to defuse it? Focus on the present. Recognize the many moments when everything is going just fine.
Hirsch recommends planning ahead to have some tricks up your sleeve.
“Let’s say you’re someone who has a fear of flying,” says Hirsch. “Airplanes have characteristic odors that people who are afraid to fly don’t like. So bring an orange. Peel it. Inhale the scent of the orange skin.” 
Other ideas? Look at a picture that you associate with a great day. Listen to soothing music. And so on, for all five senses. That will drag your runaway thoughts back to the present.
If you think it’s probably safe to travel, but anxiety is holding you back…
Just do it.
When a person is anxious about something, says Hirsch, the worst thing they can do is avoid it. That’s because avoidance actually increases anxiety.
Think of your brain divided into two teams, she says. There's the anxious part and the calm part. Every time you give into anxiety, you give those teams imbalanced attention.
“Your anxiety is tricking you into not doing something,” says Hirsch. “For one person, it’s ‘Don’t touch that doorknob.’ For another, it’s ‘Don’t get on that plane.’ Every time you give in and let the anxiety make that decision for you, it reinforces it. Whereas if you face the fear, you’re going to be stronger. You’ll be more independent and able to make decisions that are not based on anxiety.”

Facing your fears may be uncomfortable, but it can also lead to new possibilities—and open you up to experiencing the world again.