Chronic worry about travel can send you into a tailspin of anxious thoughts, making an already stressful process even more difficult. It can start with an uneasy thought or feeling ("I’m going to miss my flight" or "I feel unsafe"), which triggers your body’s stress response. You may feel butterflies in your stomach, your heart beating faster, or your muscles tensing. Your initial physical reaction, in turn, gives rise to more anxious thoughts, which can set off even more physical reactions.
This whole process is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, which is divided into two branches. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS)—also known as the fight, flight, or freeze system—prepares the body to respond to a stressful situation. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—also known as the rest and digest system—on the other hand, slows it all down and is key to calming and restoring the body. The two function as a team, and it’s the interplay between the two that supports your overall health. When you're struggling with travel anxiety, the PNS is probably having a hard time kicking in, and the SNS is running the show.
The key to managing travel anxiety is to learn how to activate your PNS at will. Here are a few tips to fire up your relaxation response by working with your body and your mind:
Tip 1: Allow anxious thoughts to come and go.
Learning to identify less with thoughts and feelings by noting them as they come and go can reduce the intensity of feelings of anxiety by up to 50 percent. To practice "noting," settle into a relaxed focus on your breath as you follow the sensation of each inhale and exhale. When you notice that your mind has wandered to worries about travel, just label it "thinking" and then gently bring your attention back to your breath going in and out. With noting, you’re not trying to stop having anxious thoughts. It’s more like stepping onto the bank of a river and simply watching the river of thoughts flow by, as opposed to diving in and trying to reverse the flow.
Tip 2: Visualize a peaceful place.
Take a mental vacation to a place that helps you feel calm and safe. Imagining in detail what you experience with your senses can help relieve feelings like fear and worry and improve your mood. For example, imagine you are in a peaceful rain forest and see the rays of sunlight through the canopy of trees. Hear the sounds of birds, smell the tropical flowers, and feel the warm air.
Tip 3: Mellow out with a soothing playlist.
Make a playlist of your favorite calming music a few days before your trip if you know your travel anxiety is likely to kick in. Listening to quiet classical music, for example, can lower your heart rate and reduce your blood pressure and stress hormones.
Tip 4: Release tension in your body.
When you’re focused on your fears and worries about travel, it’s easy to lose sight of the tension you’re holding in your body. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) helps you recognize and release areas of tension, allowing your relaxation response to gain momentum. To practice PMR, tense and relax different muscles in your body in sequence. Start with one arm, raising it slightly. Clench your fist and flex your arm muscles, hold for a few seconds, and then release, allowing them to drop and completely relax. Continue with the same process through the rest of your body: both arms and hands; legs and feet; the stomach, shoulders, neck; and end with the face.
Tip 5: Breathe into your belly.
Most adults take shallow breaths into their chest, but we’re born naturally breathing deeply into our belly, which helps decrease the body's stress response. When you are traveling, notice how you are breathing. If it’s shallow and into your chest, your body’s natural ability to calm and restore itself is limited.
Breathing deeply is relatively simple. Just breathe in through your nose as you push your stomach out, pause, and then breathe out through your mouth as you pull your stomach in, maintaining a relaxed and slow pace that feels natural to you. Try this for about 5 to 10 minutes to start, and see if you can increase from there.
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