From the isolation of quarantines to losing loved ones, COVID-19 has taken a measurable toll on the world’s mental health.  One recent study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine revealed a hard-to-ignore link between higher rates of anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and lockdown.

This psychological vulnerability in part explains why in spite of the dangers, many of us are contemplating traveling this holiday season. We’re weighing the rewards of being with family in-person and thinking through health risks and the stress of navigating through unprecedented restrictions like health declarations, passenger locator forms, and post-arrival quarantines.

If the agony of being separated from loved ones again just feels too hard to bear, read on for some advice.

Why COVID-19 Makes Travel Anxiety Worse

Typical travel anxiety tends to anticipate what may happen in the worst-case scenario (think getting in a car crash, missing your flight, or losing your passport). While those incidents have little to no basis in fact or real data, COVID-19 is an actual danger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), the more you travel, the more you risk becoming exposed to the virus.

“Often when we’re talking about anxiety management, we’re talking about managing false alarms,” says Lily Brown, PhD, director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. “The problem is some of the anxiety about COVID isn’t irrational. We can’t be as confident that some things are objectively safe from a COVID perspective. We’re living in this grey area.”

If you’re trying to decide if traveling is worth the risk of exposing yourself and/or loved ones to the virus, Brown says it’s important to think through the logistics. The risk of traveling might be worth it to see your terminally-ill grandparent, for example. “Choose your behavior based on what you care about as well as your values,” she says.

Factors such as the COVID-19 infection rate where you live and in the community you’d be traveling to should be considered, along with the size of the gathering and whether or not it can take place outside. “If there is a safe way to connect with family and friends, then it might make sense for you to pursue.”

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7 Ways to Tackle COVID-19 Travel Anxiety

To keep anxiety about COVID-19 in check, it’s important to distinguish between real risks and overblown catastrophizing. Here’s how to prepare for a stress-free trip:

  • Do your research. As with all anxieties, anxiety about COVID-19 is often fueled by uncertainty. How safe is it to fly on an airplane? Can I get sick if I stay in a hotel? What sort of masks are most likely to prevent infection? To ease your fear of the unknown, seek out reliable, scientific sources that can help you make decisions regarding travel, like the CDC, the World Health Organization, and your local health department.
  • Take precautions. After you get the right information, do what you can to mitigate the risks you’ll be taking. That way, you’ll feel safer, more confident, and more prepared (more on that below).
  • Just don’t go overboard. Preparing too much can actually have a negative effect on anxiety. “It’s all about toeing the line of what’s productive behavior versus what’s only being done to regulate anxiety,” says Brown. “It’s important to be mindful of excessive behaviors. There’s no reason why you need to wash your hands for 10 minutes after you touch a surface, for example.” Instead, be mindful of those expert recommendations.
  • Be kind to yourself. One unique aspect of COVID-19? A lot of people are struggling with the same issues all at once. “Most people are going to feel anxious about travel this holiday season,” says Brown. So rather than asking yourself “how do I stop feeling anxious?,” acknowledge that your emotions aren’t unusual and that there’s no need for judgment.
  • Know your triggers. Before you travel, take a moment to think about what you’re dreading most. “Is it getting on the train? Sitting in the plane seat? Usually anxiety is anticipatory,” says Audrey Ervin, PhD, academic director of the graduate program in counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. Once you’ve identified what’s making you sweat, prepare some techniques that will make the hardest part of the journey more bearable.
  • Ignore social media. This time of year, the internet, and social media in particular, is full of travel shaming. Once you’ve made the decision to travel, it’s best to steer clear. “I would advise against jumping on the internet and searching for horror stories just to scare yourself to death,” says Ervin. “Be very intentional in choosing information that is science-based. Unvalidated information only fuels unnecessary anxiety.”
  • Trust yourself—and let go. Once you’ve made an informed decision, it’s time to stop the internal agonizing. “Trust yourself to know that you weighed out the pros and cons,” says Ervin. “You made a choice, it’s your choice, and you can be okay with that.” That also means working to relinquish what you can’t control. While you can wear a mask, flying on a plane means you’re going to be in a small space with other people.

[Click to Read: Signs of Panic and How to Cope]

It’s the Day Before We Take Off And I’m Starting to Panic. Should I Cancel?

While you might be tempted to nix your trip altogether, it’s more helpful in the long-run to forge ahead with your plans, regardless of how many knots your stomach is tied in. (Unless you’re having a full-blown panic attack, that is. Pay attention to symptoms like rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, hot flashes, lightheadedness, chills, nausea, abdominal pain, chest pain, headache, and numbness or tingling).

This is because avoidance tends to amplify anxiety. “It makes it so future trips might actually become more challenging,” says Brown. “It takes a hit on your self-esteem so that instead of choosing not to travel, you start to feel like you can’t travel. You can get stuck in a vicious cycle.”

Ask yourself if you want to back out because of emotions or because of new, relevant information (COVID-19 and quarantine guidelines are constantly shifting, afterall). If it’s the former, stick to your original decision and trust yourself that you made it on the best information available.

How to Travel During COVID-19

Traveling during COVID-19 comes with a host of guidelines and restrictions. Have a stress-free journey—and avoid any unnecessary anxiety—by following these tips.

Step 1: Check local rules ahead of time. Quarantine mandates, mask requirements, and other guidelines vary state by state and sometimes even city by city. Know what’s expected at your destination (and when you return home) by looking up information on the CDC’s Travel Planner. Digital travel agency Kayak also provides a useful search tool.

Step 2: Get your paperwork in order. During step one, you’ll discover that a few states, such as Hawaii and New York, require you to fill our Traveler Health Forms to help with local contract tracing. If you’re flying, you can expect to fill out a form for your airline while checking in, too. Most airlines will ask you to guarantee that in the last 21 days you have not tested positive for COVID-19, experienced COVID-19 related symptoms, or knowingly had contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID-19. Airlines will also ask that you not travel if you have a fever greater than 100.4 °F.

Step 3: Offer proof (if needed). Airlines and most destinations operate on the honor system. However, a few—Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia—require a negative PCR test for entry. More states, including New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont, allow travelers to use negative PCR tests to shorten their mandatory quarantine period.

Step 4: Bring the right gear. Masks are required for travel these days, whether you’re waiting by the gate, in a security line, sitting on a plane or train, or in a hotel elevator. Neglect to wear one and you risk getting booted. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to follow the CDC’s other travel guidelines: avoid close contact by staying at least six feet apart (about two arms’ length) from anyone who is not from your household, wash your hands often or using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

What If I Get Anxious about COVID-19 in Transit?

You’ve made it to your seat and put your phone in flight mode, when suddenly you feel it—that familiar gnawing feeling deep in your gut and tightness in your chest. Here’s how to stay calm once you’ve already hit the road.

  • Just breathe. Breathing fast—and even hyperventilating—can be a natural consequence of feeling stressed. “Slowing down your breathing tells your brain to reverse anxiety,” says Brown. “One strategy I teach people is called the four by four. You breath in to a slow count of four, hold your breath to a count of four, exhale to four, hold your breath again for a count of four, and repeat that four times. It’s quick and the sort of thing you can do without people noticing.”
  • Distract yourself. Bring along calming activities that will keep your mind off the woman coughing three rows ahead of you. That might mean making a special playlist of your favorite, upbeat songs, playing sudoku, or reading the mystery novel you’ve been dying to dig into.
  • Stay grounded. Try cognitive techniques to keep yourself in the moment and to stop you from worrying about the dirty gas pump you touched. For example, Ervin recommends connecting with your senses and mentally listing off five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. You can also play devil’s advocate with your own anxiety and remind yourself of all the rational reasons you decided to travel in the first place.
  • Zone out. Meditation apps like Headspace and Calm can help you stay mindful and relaxed while on-the-go. Just make sure you practice ahead of time to get the most out of them, says Ervin.
  • Get some rest. We all handle anxiety better when we feel well. Start your trip off on the right foot by getting a good night’s sleep the night before and eating a healthy breakfast.

Is There Something I Can Take for Travel Anxiety?

If your anxiety is especially hard to handle, you might consider consulting your doctor about a prescribed anxiety medication or over-the-counter product.

  • Benzodiazepines (sometimes called “benzos”) are tranquilizers that are frequently prescribed for short-term, immediate relief of anxiety and panic disorders. Common examples include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and clonazepam (Klonopin).
  • CBD oil, a non-psychoactive compound found in the Cannabis sativa plant, has become a popular, unregulated supplement for easing anxiety.
  • Kava, a plant-based relaxant, may be an effective alternative treatment. It’s typically sold as a loose powder, tea bag, liquid extract, or capsule.

While these products can be helpful for individual trips, it’s important to recognize that—for the most part—these are temporary solutions.

“The challenge with some short-term medications is that, while they can get you through this flight or this drive, it may inadvertently increase anxiety in the future,” says Brown.

[Click to Read: The Essential Guide to Cannabis, CBD, Marijuana, and Hemp]

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Last Updated: Dec 3, 2020