The Anxious Traveler

Anxious traveler

Vacation Anxiety

My family recently took an overseas vacation and it got me thinking about the effects of travel on anxiety. Travel is stressful. Many things are beyond our control, and this can trigger anxiety and stress.

Humans And Life Are Messy

The reality is that we can’t control much of anything in our lives except ourselves. We have even less control over situations when traveling with others to an unfamiliar place. Here are a few things that can take control of our vacations in a hurry:

  • Each person has a unique travel agenda
  • Hunger
  • Being tired and cranky
  • Getting lost
  • Stuff is closed
  • Getting caught in the rain and no rain gear because the Weather Channel said there was only a 10 percent chance of precipitation (this happened to us)

During our trip, when it seemed like all of the above messy issues were in play, I began to feel a looming anxiety. My anxiety usually starts in my chest. I feel tightness and then an increased sense of danger or fear. It is uncomfortable, and my first response is to try to figure out how to make it go away. I started thinking of things I could say to make everyone laugh, and to ease the tension. I wanted to try to accommodate everyone’s needs, in order to make them all happy.

How Our Body Reacts to Anxiety

When we’re in a situation that makes us anxious, our brain then goes into protection mode and gets us ready to fight, flee or freeze. The bodily functions that work to keep us safe, and have been around since forever, start cranking. Our heart races, skin gets flushed, breath quickens and muscles tense. Once the process starts it’s harder to get back to an emotional and physical balance.

If you want to know more about the physical affects of anxiety you can read more about it here

And here is an infographic on the body’s response to anxiety.

Using Mindfulness When Life Gets Uncomfortable

Practicing mindfulness can help us to take a step back and check in with ourselves when the anxiety begins. Mindfulness allows us to notice those physical symptoms and gives us a chance to interrupt the cycle.

If we can learn to calm ourselves before the anxiety kicks into high gear, we can maintain emotional balance even in stressful situations.

Allowing your thoughts to come and go like waves on the ocean, mindfulness calms the anxious mind

Allowing your thoughts to come and go like waves on the ocean, mindfulness calms the anxious mind

7 Steps to Help Recognize Anxiety Before It Takes Over

  1. Take note of situations that make you anxious
  2. Ask yourself, “What is the first sign of my anxiety being triggered?” Often it is a physical response.
  3. Pay attention to your physical symptoms, especially if you know the situation would trigger anxiety.
  4. When the physical symptoms appear, STOP whatever you are doing.
  5. Take a slow deep breath. Take another… and another.
  6. Ask yourself in a kind, non-judgmental way, “What’s going on for me, right now?”
  7. Acknowledge the situations that are beyond your control.

So, while we were walking down a beautiful street, filled with shops, people and sights I had never seen before—which I was totally missing because I was so caught up in how to make everyone happy—I noticed I was anxious and took a slow, deep breath and asked myself what was going on for me.

In that moment, I realized that although my family was cranky, hungry, and everyone’s needs were not being met, it was not up to me to make each person happy. Not only was it not up to me, but also it was an impossible task!

Learning to Accept the Things We Can’t Control

As I said, our anxiety is triggered by situations where we feel powerless. In reality, we don’t have the power to control most of the stuff in our lives, and that means we have the potential be anxious a lot. The key to managing the anxiety is to be able to acknowledge that we have no control, and that this is OK.

If we can acknowledge that life and humans are messy and imperfect, and understand that we can’t control a lot of what happens, then we can allow events to unfold naturally and this can reduce our anxiety. By letting go of the need to “fix-it” or control it we can be there fully and appreciate what is happening in the moment.

For the rest of the journey I worked to let go of the need to take charge of everyone else’s experiences. To recognize the value of being together as a family, in a beautiful country, and to take note of the good and the stressful times together allowed me to enjoy each moment as it came along, and made for an incredibly memorable experience.

I will be leading mindfulness groups for women beginning in October. If you're interested in signing up, or learning more please drop me a line.

This blog post was featured in the Health & Fitness section of the Severna Park Voice.

Elizabeth Cush, MA, LCPC, is an Annapolis therapist helping people manage their stress and anxiety. Progression Counseling, offices in Annapolis. 410-340-8469