Photo: Killian Pham

“I’m so Resigned to Catastrophe That I Actually Begin to Calm Down” | Understanding the Truth About Travel Anxiety

Author Eleanor Morgan explores just how the two go hand in hand more often than we might like.

by Eleanor Morgan
May 2 2018, 9:15am

Photo: Killian Pham

There’s a smell about major airports. They’ve all got it. Epoxy flooring that’s been disinfected within the last few hours. Hand sanitiser, old coffee, chips and an indiscernible sweetness – like someone’s left a load of cheap chocolate in all the air vents. If you’ve been through any international airport you will know this smell. I have a weird Pavlovian reflex which means that just thinking about it is making my neck sweat.

In theory, I love travelling. As well as personal holidays, work has taken me all over the world. My memory is filled with colours, scents and sounds from trips to Texas, Scandinavia, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Kenyan countryside, New Zealand and more. The days of all-expenses-paid press trips for journalists are, for the most part, a thing of the past, and I feel stupidly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to see the world on someone else’s budget. What an absurd privilege.

Yet as I recall the colossal greenness of the Great Rift Valley in spring after the rains have fallen, the rusty peaks of the Sinai Mountains, the rows of rattlesnakes in Marfa, lying out in the road at 45 degree angles to cool off as the pink-blue sunset bled out (a sight I often revisit in my dreams) there is a slightly singed edge to the freeze-frames. This is because, as a person with a predisposition for anxiety (which rips through my body with a force I still, after 16-odd years, can’t wholly quantify) travelling can be an uncomfortable business.

“Getting on a plane somewhere will be preceded by at least a week of rising dread.”

Getting on a plane somewhere will be preceded by at least a week of rising dread. It’s an imprecise feeling, although in recent years the thoughts have become more specific, dancing around the eventuality of becoming gravely ill in transit, or abroad, and how I would possibly cope with that. The dread sits in my gut like a lump of leavening dough, proving away as the departure date draws ever closer until it squashes my diaphragm up into my lungs, and I can’t breathe.

At the airport, I start thinking about the plane and how much I can possibly trust the reliability of the physics, the thrust, the gigantic sky. The hand sanitiser and coffee smell turns my stomach. On the plane, after several visits to the air-side bathroom, I’m so resigned to catastrophe that I actually begin to calm down. Once airborne, the relinquishing of control and the mental image of all the air beneath us brings a perverse sense of freedom.

There is peace in knowing there’s nothing I can do stop the plane falling out the sky and killing me if it’s going to. This pattern is a neat example of the mechanics of anxiety: that is, anticipatory fear and a cacophony of “what if?” thoughts about a disastrous future that has not happened yet and often, when it does arrive, is not as bad as we thought.

Photo: Worapong Kaetwon via Unsplash

Travel dread is not just the preserve of those with what we’ll refer to for the sake of argument as anxiety disorders. Tonnes of us get it, even if we consider ourselves mentally robust most of the time. There are many layers to and versions of the experience. There is a ‘straightforward’ (as if it’s anything approaching) fear of flying, which we can understand in terms of specific phobia.

Boats, trains, buses and cars all come with their own buffet of potential dangers and annoyances that can put people on edge, too, from claustrophobia to travel sickness. (My lifelong tendency towards the latter has been assuaged in recent years by good drugs). But travel anxiety is not just about the mode of transport. It’s never ‘just’ about any one thing. Our minds are too elaborate for that.

Something deeper, more fundamental to our human essence, is at play when we leave the comfort of home for somewhere far away and new. To travel anywhere means to take ourselves willingly out of familiarity and succumb to forces out of our control. To deliberately (if not boldly) go, and explore the unknown. The thrill of discovery is part of the appeal of travel, but actually doing it can require some reckoning within the mind.

Wanderlust is often thrust into our consciousness from when we’re young as something we ought to have: We should want to travel the world and see as much of it as we can, meet as many different people as we can, and see landscapes fantastically different to the ones we grew up in. Some of us feel this desire cleanly and directly, harbouring a burning need to know what’s out there.

“It’s easy to be sniffy about people who go to the same resort in Spain every summer. But perhaps these guys have it down?”

But there are also many of us who, when it comes to travelling, feel a friction between what our ‘idealised’ self wants and what our ‘real’ self feels. Our idealised selves might be walking around Machu Picchu or swooning at the pink buildings in Jaipur, while our real selves feel sick even at the thought of getting to Heathrow.

It might be easy to be sniffy about those who go to the same resort in Spain every summer for a week to lie on a sun-lounger caked in Hawaiian Tropic, but more fool those that judge: Perhaps these guys have it down. They know what works for them and choose to stick with a different flavour of familiarity.

We’re called creatures of habit for a reason – the human brain loves familiarity. Pattern. It does not always love the unknown and is prone to over-compensating with the catastrophic future-thinking of anxiety.

In imagining worst-case scenarios, our brain is trying – in its primitive way – to keep us safe. Only, the spectrum of symptoms that can come with these thoughts (an upset stomach, headaches, dizziness, sweating, short temperedness; all sorts) makes it all seem far from safe. Let’s face it, trying not to shit yourself in an airport does not feel like an evolutionary function.

To soothe ourselves, we ritualise our behaviour. This could be anything from making a highly-planned, bulletproof schedule to getting to the airport or train station very early. My friend Nell is always at least an hour early for a train. If her flight was leaving an airport at 7 pm she’d be there at midday.

Photo: Francesco Patrinostro via Unsplash

When the reality that we’re going to leave what makes us feel tethered, safe and comfortable in the world sets in, we probably start to mourn it a little. If you ask an anxious traveller how they feel before their journey starts, they may describe a sense of unease that feels a bit like homesickness, a bit like grief, a bit like nostalgia.

Sometimes, incredulity at what we’re doing creeps in. When Nell was about to move to New Zealand for a while, she told me she spent a lot of time pacing her flat asking herself, “Why am I leaving? I like it here”. Another friend, Hayley, is about to fly to America for work and has spent the entire week doing nothing but watching Sex and the City to distract from her growing unease. Anxiety, like god, apparently moves in mysterious ways.

In fact, how anxiety manifests for different people is a wildly complex, fluid combination of life experience, memory, genetics, personality and more. There are as many kinds of travel anxiety, it seems, as there are people who suffer from it – and it’s far more common than you might think. A recent post on the topic on social media had over a hundred replies, plenty from people who are keen to stipulate that they’re pretty mentally stable but find that travel whips them into a private frenzy.

“I get sad before I travel. Holidays, moving, whatever. I’ve no idea why,” wrote one. “Didn’t have a holiday for two years because of it! Get very anxious in the preceding weeks and often spend any time I’m away just waiting to get home,” said another. “I throw up on the way to the airport every time, without fail,” came a third, highly biologically specific response.

“I throw up on the way to the airport every time, without fail.”

And that was just the start of it. “I worry about cleanliness and things getting contaminated”; “I hyperventilate and re-pack my suitcase over and over” and “I get paranoid that I’m going to get hit with a bug so the day before I basically eat bread and the simplest foods and will have to take ginger tablets and Pepto Bismol at the airport,” were all real responses to my query.

It wasn’t just worries about the health implications of travelling either. “The routine change fills me with dread,” was one response, while someone else said: “When I go on holiday I rent cottages or do self-catering and pretty much create a version of home.” These last two speak to that primitive desire we have as human beings to stay ‘safe’ – and how we often seek safety in ritual.

All of which leads me to believe that being anxious about travelling is a perfectly understandable part of being human. Some will argue and say, “Come on! It’s exciting!” Or pretend the whole business is a breeze. But I’m suspicious of that response. Because even if fear only registers like the soft bleep of a flight attendant call once in a while, breaking from what’s familiar asks a lot from our sensitive brains.

Travelling can fill our hearts with joy and heads with wonder but if it also makes us anxious, we’d do well to accept that these things can and do co-exist. Being human is messy and imprecise. We are not letting anyone down if we admit that, for all the rich experience the world has to offer, exploring it can occasionally make us feel awful.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a flight to avoid booking.

Eleanor Morgan is a freelance writer and the author of Anxiety for Beginners: A Personal Investigation.