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For the most part, I do a good job of managing stress and anxiety in my daily life. Whenever I have a big trip planned and need to catch a flight, bus, or train, however, my calm facade collapses. I get nervous thinking about all that could go wrong—being caught in a security line, or stuck in a huge traffic jam. Inevitably I’m one of the first people to the terminal, sometimes a couple of hours ahead of schedule. Even after I’ve arrived, the logistics of the return trip are always in the back of my head, making it hard to relax.
Worse, my travel anxiety has occasionally put a strain on my relationship. My boyfriend has no qualms about showing up minutes before the gate closes, and gets cranky when we’re stuck hanging out all afternoon in an airport Chili’s. How can I chill about the plane or train leaving without me?
If you’d been a visitor to the English cathedral city of Lincoln on a grey December day six years ago, you might have encountered an odd sight—a hot and stressed young man darting through the town, dodging and diving past traffic and bemused pedestrians, a suit case flailing in his wake. It wasn’t a Russian spy. No, that madman was me, experiencing what sounds like your worst nightmare.
Having overnighted in the burbs, I was due to deliver a guest lecture at the main university and I’d arrived downtown in plenty of time. Feeling pleased with myself for my punctuality, I glanced at the map I’d had the foresight to print out earlier and compared my current location to where I’d circled the university entrance—just around the corner. Plenty of time, I thought, to pop into Starbucks and enjoy a leisurely sandwich and coffee before I headed over to the university.
But that’s when everything that could possibly go wrong started to go wrong: First, it took forever to reach the front of the line (these provincial baristas operated in slow motion compared with their London colleagues who I was more used to); then I thought I’d better visit the single restroom where I found another line three-deep. (I decided to wait, figuring I still had plenty of time); but the worst was yet to come as it didn’t take long after leaving the cafe to realize I’d somehow circled completely the wrong place on the map. The main university campus was on the other side of town!
I began marching in what instinct told me was the correct direction. With a suitcase in one hand, and now doing an odd half-walk, half-run type canter, it took me ages to fumble the university’s zip code into my iPhone single-handed. Finally, I did it, tapping the screen to orientate the map to my perspective. That’s when the stomach churning panic hit me, as I realized I had been marching in the wrong direction. That’s when I began sprinting the other way like a madman.
All of which is to say that I can totally relate to your dread about things going wrong, even when— or especially when—you’ve planned your trip diligently! One way for you to address your travel-related anxiety is obviously to become a veritable planning mastermind. I learned a lot of lessons that day in Lincoln and I could share advice with you about how to better prepare for trips and the importance of contingency plans (such as making to-do lists; always using zip codes when performing map searches; taking out insurance; always carrying change for cabs; planning on things taking about 50 percent longer than you think they will). But I’m guessing you probably do a lot of these things and others already. Still, it’s worth remembering that focusing on the things you can control, and undertaking plenty of preparation, are two of the surest ways to reduce anxiety.
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Tips on contingency planning, however, are probably a red-herring. Your primary issue is a fear of what you can’t control, of what might go wrong. And the antidote, though it won’t be easy to swallow, is learning, if you can, to embrace uncertainty and not to catastrophize.
Let me tell you something else about my Lincoln nightmare: Once I finally arrived late at the university, the world did not end. The professor who’d invited me was charming and sympathetic to my predicament. She gave me some time to collect myself and freshen up. Sure, I’m not proud of what happened and I felt like a jerk. But I gave the lecture, albeit starting 20 minutes late, and it went down well. In fact, I was invited back for the next several years—always arriving extremely early.
So rather than putting even more effort and attention into how to maintain control and avoiding things going wrong, perhaps you need practice confronting uncertainty and thinking in less dramatic ways. There’s a whole spectrum of possible outcomes between “things not quite going to plan” and “absolute f*cking nightmare”; try not to assume you’ll always end up at the far end of the scale. In fact, when I think back to the gut-wrenching panic I felt in Lincoln, I can see now that it was completely out of proportion to the severity of the situation. (In fact, I should probably not refer to the events as a nightmare.) Let’s face it: The only thing that got hurt that day was my pride.
Taking you at your word that you don’t have more wide-ranging or serious anxiety problems—and if you do, please consider seeing a mental health professional—then when you’re in a suitably calm and relaxed mood, you might benefit from confronting your fears about what might go wrong with your travel plans. Try imagining various possible outcomes and how you might deal with them. Practice calming yourself down and working out solutions. So what if you’re late, or miss a plane or an appointment? These things happen—they’re part of life. You’ll deal with it.
You could even graduate to taking some unplanned, happy-go-lucky trips—the kind where you haven’t scheduled everything in painstaking detail, just to give yourself a chance to see how capable you are of adjusting to unexpected situations.
Maybe you’ll struggle, but if so, then the practice won’t do you any harm. You could start with something quite easy, like catching a bus or train spontaneously without checking times. As you grow in confidence—assuming you can afford the consequences—you could even deliberately miss a train or plane and see what happens. Living through the experience that you fear might help to rob it of its power. (In this way, you’ll be practising a form of what psychologists call “exposure therapy.”) Try taking your boyfriend with you for support—he’ll probably love it. It sounds like he’s had to fit into doing things your style many times, and this could be a chance at doing things his way.
Don’t get me wrong: Your concern for punctuality and preparedness is admirable, and it’s a sign of a conscientious and dutiful personality. But taken too far, it can become a form of unhealthy perfectionism. Modern life can trick us into thinking we have more control than we do. As much as diligence is a virtue, so too is having the ability to roll with it when things go awry.
Finally, if you’re worried about the strain your travel anxieties are placing on your relationship, take heart from research that suggests similarity in personality between partners is no recipe for greater happiness. Chat with your boyfriend and find out if he’s bothered. Maybe he isn't. Looking from the outside, it seems like you and your boyfriend complement each other beautifully—he might well appreciate your cautious approach, and I’m sure you are benefiting from the influence of his more care-free attitude. Once you feel ready, try letting him plan your next trip and see what happens. I hope you can enjoy the ride.
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Dr. Christian Jarrett ( @Psych_Writer ) is a psychologist and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. His next book, about personality change, will be published in 2019 by Simon and Schuster.