Health

How to Deal With Post-Vax Travel Anxiety

If your worries have you almost talking yourself out of the whole trip, here's how to deal.
July 2, 2021, 11:00am
girl in a mask taking a picture of the sunset
Photo by Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia via Getty Images

Now that most adults in the U.S. have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, a lot of us are either getting ready to travel or are already setting out on trips. After spending the pandemic holed up doing nothing but cooking, writing, and going for the occasional walk, I emerged from my Denver cave and went to Chicago and D.C., and I’m heading to Seattle and Phoenix next. I’m more than ready to make up for lost time by eating good food, having new experiences, and holding the people I love. 

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It should be a joyous time, right? And it is! I had so much fun in Chicago, and it was amazing to see my siblings in D.C. But traveling was also stressful in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Jumping straight from isolation to crowded train stations was disorienting. The trips even strained my relationships: The people I traveled with and visited had different expectations for how to spend time together and move through the world than I did, and we didn’t communicate about that well. I felt exhausted and anxious, and a bit ungrateful: Wasn’t this what I had been waiting for?

If you’re planning on traveling, you might be feeling some uncertainty about your trip after being in lockdown or social distancing for over a year.  Maybe fears and anxieties you had around traveling pre-pandemic have only gotten worse, or maybe you’re experiencing new worries about being around other people. Those traveling with friends or family might be dealing with readjusting to the relationship for days or weeks on end, as well as clashes about expectations and boundaries in a world that still hasn’t quite gone back to normal. 

Here are some tips about how to understand the anxiety you might be feeling and make travel less stressful. (In this piece, I'm focusing on emotional considerations rather than practical, safety-based, or public health–centric ones. Obviously, you'll need to stay up-to-date about whether it's safe to travel to the place you have in mind, what you'll need to do to mitigate risk for yourself and others, and how to be prepared to change your plans if a developing situation—like the emergence or rapid spread of a variant—means you should hold off on a given trip.) Let’s go!

Why am I feeling pre-trip anxiety even though I’ve been looking forward to traveling for such a long time?

In February 2021, I became obsessed with the idea of eating fresh oysters by Puget Sound. I didn’t think about anything else I wanted to do in Seattle… just oysters! Looking forward to this very small thing really helped me get through some of the hardest months of the pandemic. 

It’s good to have hope, and even better to have that hope come true. But it’s also important to remember how enmeshed some of us were in grief, and in dealing with potentially exacerbated mental health issues like depression, anxiety, burnout, or more pronounced symptoms of other chronic mental illnesses. (And maybe you’re still feeling these things more intensely than usual right now—I know I am.) The hope we had was a product of a really hard time, and it’s helpful to think about the context in which they were generated to begin with as we wonder why actually living through them feels a little funny.

We’re also just not used to traveling anymore, which might be contributing to pre-trip anxiety, too. I’m not even used to going to the grocery store anymore, let alone across state lines or international borders. “The longer you're away from something, it's almost like you forget what it was like. It makes it feel scarier,” said Jessi Gold, psychiatry professor and the director of wellness, engagement and outreach at Washington University School of Medicine. 

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On top of all this: You may be experiencing social anxiety, especially around people you don’t know or people you don’t see very much and have to cram in “quality time” with. Gold said these worries can internally sound like, “Am I safe around people? Are they judging me because I'm not cool? Do I belong around people? Am I a person people want to be around? Was that thing I just did weird? Do they even like me?” She mentioned that these questions all fundamentally come down to two main anxieties: “Do I even want to be around people? How do I readjust to others?” 

The answers are probably, “Yes, with a good plan in place,” and, “By extending grace and respect to yourself and other people,” both of which are entirely accessible to you in practice if you put in a little thought and care before and during your travels. Onward!

What might help me get used to the idea of traveling again?

Take baby steps! It definitely helped me to go on some light hiking trips around Colorado with one of my best friends before I started hopping all over the country. Hannah Bailey, a psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety, trauma and PTSD at Blue Light Wellbeing, said that practicing for a bigger trip by embarking on day trips can go a long way, particularly since many of us are still dealing with fear associated with traveling and crowds. 

“If you’re worried about a trip away this year, try to fit in some smaller trips in your local area to get yourself more comfortable being around people,” Bailey said. “Some examples are local parks, tourist attractions—or even going on a train or bus.” By easing into things, you’re not giving yourself a total shock to the system by taking, say, a cross-country plane trip or Amtrak ride as your very first trek. 

Are there practical things can I do to make the actual “getting there and back” aspects of travel feel less fraught?

There are lots of logistical things you can do to make your main-event trip go more smoothly. 

If you’re traveling internationally, Karen Arrington, a travel consultant who has traveled to over 100 countries and leads Black women on trips around the world, said that one of the most important steps is registering your trip with the free U.S. State Department Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which makes the U.S. embassy at your destination aware of your trip and can help you keep in touch with loved ones in the case of an emergency. “This offers a layer of protection in the case of an unforeseen disaster,” Arrington said.

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Arrington also strongly suggested making copies of all traveling documents, like your passport, vaccination record, and itineraries. “Leave a copy with relatives and email a copy to yourself,” she said. I couldn’t agree with her more: I lost my passport while I was traveling, and it was an absolute lifesaver to have a scanned copy on my phone, plus a picture of my birth certificate. I was able to keep traveling because I was able to check into hotels and go to bars by using this as a form of ID. 

Arrington said that if you have long layovers and if you can swing it, it helps to make your trip as comfortable as possible by considering upgrades, like an airport or airport lounge day pass or annual membership. The day passes often aren’t as expensive as you might think they are, usually ranging from $30-60, which, on the lower end, is likely what you’d spend for a drink and a terrible salad at some airport restaurant, and usually includes unlimited free food and drinks, access to a shower, and other various creature comforts that don’t involve eating a burrito bowl off of your suitcase. 

While I’ve never tried an airport lounge day pass, it reminds me of my own little traveling ritual, where I get a nice meal and a drink in one of Denver Union Station’s fancy restaurants before boarding an 18+ hour train. Any kind of affordable self-care you can find can calm your nerves.

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As long as you’re vaccinated and wearing a mask when you’re asked or required to, you’ll probably be fine on modes of transportation in which you’re near other passengers. If you’re feeling anxious about whether others will go above and beyond those basics with safety precautions, you’ll have to find a way to accept that you can only control your own actions. Some people may wear their masks in the street and indoors, while others might not wear them at all in places that they’re not required to. Some people may frequently disinfect surfaces and their hands, while others don’t bother. If that seems prohibitively scary to you, you might not be ready for travel that involves close proximity to others, like trips that involve airplanes or public transportation, just yet. 

That being said: If you’re using services like Amtrak or flights, where the rules are to wear masks unless someone is eating or drinking, you can ask an employee to talk to the person/people who aren’t following those rules. If someone comes close to you without a mask on, you can politely request that they wear one. Always follow the rules where you’re going closely, and as long as you’re doing that as your baseline, Bailey said, “The ultimate guide is this: Be firm with your own concerns and boundaries, but equally be respectful of the fact that others may feel differently” about precautions that exceed that baseline.

How will I know if traveling with friends is a good idea, or if we’re not the right fit?

In situations without adequate communication or graciousness about one another’s differences, traveling with friends before the pandemic was already stressful enough. Traveling with them under those circumstances after the pandemic is a nightmare. 

I took my recent Chicago trip with a friend who had a habit of pulling forcefully away groups of people, whether they were masked or not, even though we were both wearing masks and vaccinated. Because I wasn’t quite as worried about getting close to others, she’d make exasperated comments about how I wasn’t taking safety seriously and how distrustful she was of people. 

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I understood her jumpiness, but felt that she was taking it out on me. The trip wasn’t fun, to say the least. It would have been helpful for me to know that my friend had that level of anxiety before we traveled, but I didn’t think to ask. I assumed that, because she agreed to the trip, that her comfort levels and mine were the same. 

If you’re traveling with others, make sure you talk through how you’re feeling about safety, in detail, before you book tickets. Bailey suggested asking questions and expressing your own boundaries beforehand, starting with these questions: “Do you want to hug them? Would you like them to keep a respectful distance from other groups whilst away? Will they be going to crowded beaches or attractions where you would feel uncomfortable? Do they wear masks?” 

Gold said expectation-setting conversations are critical to preserving friendships, and if your points of view don’t line up, don’t force things and travel together anyway. “If it's going to be a dealbreaker for your friendship, don’t go. You would rather not do a trip right now than not have a friend later,” she said.

Sometimes, traveling anxiety can lead to arguments, which is one of the most stressful things that can happen on a trip. As with any conflict, space is critical. And it’s important to establish space before things get out of hand. “Have a few hours or half a day planned where you are not all together, and you can spend some time alone taking a breather, quietly reading a book or going for a walk. Make it clear to the group that this is important to you before you go,” Bailey said. If things get to a pressure point, Bailey stressed that issues should not be discussed if you’re feeling anxious, frustrated or angry, and definitely not when everyone (or anyone!) has been drinking. 

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If things do get heated: “Explain to others that you’re simply feeling a little stressed or overwhelmed, and you just need some ‘time out’ to feel calmer and more settled,” Bailey said. “Chances are, others in the group may feel exactly the same!” And when everyone is calm and ready to talk through things, either in the moment or later on, “[Your friends] will probably feel relieved that you brought it up and dealt with it,” Bailey said.

It’s way better than the alternative, said Gold, who recommended being careful not to ignore tension and conflict. “As much as we want to believe that we can ignore things, it doesn't really tend to work out that way,” she said. “One thing that bothers you will turn into another thing, and it may not ever end.” 

Sometimes, whether or not that’s the case, a given conflict isn’t resolvable—at least not right then—and you may find yourself alone or needing to leave. “I think it's important to have people you can talk to and people you can call for support. If you need to leave early, usually you can, although it's not cheap,” Gold said.

The things I considered fun before the pandemic don’t seem so fun anymore. How can I adapt to that while staying open to new experiences? 

Before the pandemic, some of us enjoyed activities on the livelier side, like going clubbing or to concerts, aka, visiting places where people tend to be in close proximity to each other, sweaty and packed in tight. I have friends who loved these things before and are completely put off by them now! I, on the other hand, used to enjoy lower-key things: A good vacation meant a used bookstore, a nice hotel, good restaurants, and interesting museums. Now, after having a bit of an existential crisis, I decided that I want to have more invigorating experiences when I travel: I want to boat, hunt, hike, go to concerts and bars, and try anything and everything else I can think of. Whether or not you feel like speeding up or slowing down, Bailey recommended not overbooking yourself so you don’t get overwhelmed or end up feeling guilty for not doing everything. “Don’t force yourself to try lots of new experiences in one go. Pick one or two throughout your trip, and see how you get on before booking any others. That way, you can feel proud of your achievements, rather than overwhelmed by the experience,” she said.

In general, how can I handle my anxiety as it arises when I’m traveling? 

I’ve struggled with anxiety and panic disorder for a long time, so I know the drill: You’re out having a lovely time, and then something strange sets in, and then you’re in the middle of feeling really upset, seemingly out of nowhere. Having anxiety—even when it’s not a full-blown attack—during a trip can be isolating and distressing. It might make you feel like you’re missing out on the things you wanted to do, or ruining everyone else’s fun.  But there are some things you can do in the moment that can relieve anxiety, so you can feel better and continue enjoying your trip. 

Grounding techniques, Gold said, can “bring you back into the present moment and get you out of [a] physical response” to anxiety. She pointed out that grounding techniques can be universal—like the 5-4-3-2-1 coping mechanism, where you acknowledge different things that you can sense, like five things you can see and four things you can touch, and so on—or highly individual. If you have a favorite musical artist, for example, you could try mentally listing all your favorite songs by them. 

Cut yourself a break, too: It’s not unusual to feel anxious right now, especially while away from home and having new experiences. The pandemic is stressful, and just because vaccines are letting us get parts of our lives back doesn’t mean that stress automatically goes away. We’re all bound to have questions and anxieties. 

But it also doesn’t mean that we can’t find ways to safely and healthily adjust. If you’re feeling guilty about traveling after such a horrible year filled with loss, remember to make healthy choices and understand that you’re not sentenced to isolation forever. It’s OK to take part in activities that can help alleviate that grief, anxiety, depression, and loneliness that you may have felt during quarantine. So, more than anything, remember why you’re there. Experience new things, enjoy your time with your friends, and learn more about yourself. Even stressful trips will have their moments. And if all else fails? Eat some oysters and take a nap—you’ll be home soon enough.

Follow Nylah Burton on Twitter.