How I Cope With My Melodramatic and Sometimes Debilitating Travel Anxiety

I love to travel, except for when I hate it.

Feb 3, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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So I have mild generalized anxiety issues. They rarely impact my life at this stage, but at one point they were intrusive enough that they drove me to see a real grown-up therapist for the first time in my adult life. 

Mostly what I learned is that therapy is boring and I am really skilled at developing my own curious-but-functional coping strategies. I saw that shrink for a year precisely (like, to the day) and then I abruptly broke up with her. At the time, I didn’t realize you’re supposed to wean yourself away or “wrap things up,” so I just shrugged and politely shook my head when she asked me three times if I was sure I didn’t want to do just a couple more sessions to close out our time together. “Nope,” I said. “I’m done as of today.”

These days, the only thing that reliably sends me into panic mode is impending travel (which is one reason why I so connected with Sara Benincasa's amazing agoraphobia post earlier this week). Travel panic is incredibly annoying, because I travel a fair amount. I took 16 flights, half of them across the country, in 2011, and this kind of frequency means at any given time you will find me in some degree of travel-based panic because I probably have a trip coming up soon.

What am I panicking about? I have no idea. That’s why it’s anxiety. I don’t mind being away from home; I find air travel annoying but not scary; I like going on adventures. I think part of it is my all-consuming fear that I will FORGET SOMETHING -- this plays into my perfectionism -- and even on a normal non-traveling day, when I realize I have forgotten something I tend to get a little.... agitated.

This fast-approaching Saturday, at an absurdly early hour of the morning, I will be headed to the airport to catch a flight to Jamaica, where I will be spending the next week volunteering in a pop-up free medical clinic, an annual event my father has helped organize for several years now. This will be the first year I’ve gone. So I’m a little nervous.

(It’s actually a church thing, which means I will be going to church, although that doesn’t stress me too much as I’ve managed to go many years without attending church -- the last period in which I did so with regularity was high school, because I went to Catholic school, and because THEY MADE US -- so I figure it should be a novel experience again? Here’s hoping.)

I AM a bit anxious about international travel, because it’s been roughly 17 years since I did any of that. This plays into the Fear of Forgetting Something as it’s hardly as if I’ll be able to pop out to a Wal-Mart if I forget underpants. Or whatever.

Anyway. Out of necessity I have developed lots of methods for managing my travel anxiety. They are all self-indulgence masquerading as self-care, but I am okay with being self-indulgent if it prevents me from having a meltdown in the security line at Logan because I am not sure which line I should go to or is there even a right line should I just pick any line NO NOT THE LINE WITH THE CANCERFYING SCANNERS NOOOOO.

I’ve made a list of some of my most-treasured travel-anxiety-averters, because apparently I make lists on Fridays now.

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1. Bach's Rescue Remedy

Flower essences are crap. You know how they’re made? They’re made by putting flowers in water, and then shining sunlight through the water, and then preparing that “infused” water in an alcohol solution (the alcohol is a preservative, not to endrunken you). You are then instructed to put a few drops of said solution into a glass of water (or, in a pinch, under your tongue) and sip it in an unhurried manner until it’s gone.

The alleged healing potential of the solution depends on the types of flowers used. Edward Bach, the guy who came up with the idea, is also the one who decided what flower heals what. Bach did this by intuiting the flowers’ effects; if Bach felt sad, he’d wave a hand over various flowers until he found a flower that made him feel less sad. That flower would therefore have de-sadding properties! I am so not making this up.

Bach actually thought the naturally-forming dew on the petals of his close personal flower friends was the real magical curative tonic, but collecting dew is a pain unless you’re a damn fairy or something, so the infusion method was devised.

Yeah. A dude made up some stuff about flowers, and sold it as a cure. Serious, serious snake oil stuff, this. 

And yet, RESCUE REMEDY WORKS. I don’t know why it works; it may well be a superpowerful placebo effect. I can’t explain it, but it really does calm me down, and I won’t travel without it. This magical tonic is available in a liquid, a lotion (? OH WHY NOT) and little pastilles, though I think the liquid "works" best.

DEAR GOD WHAT AM I SAYING.

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2. Passionflower extract

This, at least, has science behind it. Okay, well, not a LOT of science, but some.

The actual flower in question is one of the creepiest plants ever; it looks like a Star Trek alien. The leaves, flowers and fruit have all been used as herbal medicine for hundreds of years, and are said to have antispasmodic and sedative properties, making passionflower a popular treatment of old for both insomnia and “women’s complaints.” 

One study that looked specifically at patients awaiting surgery found that passionflower also helped to lessen pre-operative anxiety. Another small short-term trial compared the effects of passionflower on generalized anxiety with oxazepam, a benzodiazepine, found that passionflower worked just as well as the prescription medication, and with fewer side effects. The researchers recommended a larger study, but given that plants are less interesting to drug companies than unique synthetic chemicals they can fully control and charge a fortune for, whether such research is likely to happen remains a question. 

The sum total being that passionflower extract probably works for mild to moderate anxiety, if you get a version that is standardized and reliable (don’t bargain-shop for herbal remedies, kids).

Also: The “passion” in passionflower/passionfruit? Has nothing to do with sexytimes; it’s a reference to perceived Christian symbolism in the flower’s appearnce -- the Wikipedia entry lists all the gory details. Interesting, but kind of a bonerkiller if you ask me.

3. Dramamine/Ginger/Accupressure Wristbands

(Because I was having Picture Problems, I decided to use the above video to show you this stuff instead.)

I don’t know if I’m mentioned my debilitating propensity for motion sickness before. I am a person who has vomited on a plane. I am a person who has vomited into a barf bag on a plane, and then in my distress carried said sealed bag off the plane and halfway through the terminal before it occurred to me that I did not have to KEEP my motion-sickness-induced vomit, but could throw it away, 

(Lest you think I sat holding a barf bag for a whole flight, in that instance I actually threw up after the plane had landed and was taxiing to the gate. My motion sickness is serious business.)

I’m not sure if my motion sickness makes me anxious or if my anxiety invokes my motion sickness, and it really doesn’t matter. It’s something I have to plan for. I take Dramamine every time I travel, by plane, train or as a passenger in a car. I keep crystallized ginger nearby because there is nothing better for stopping nausea in its tracks. 

And just to hedge my bet, I wear these ridiculous accupressure wristbands which I suspect are actually meant for pregnant ladies. Sea Band makes a stretchy fabric version, but I like Psi Bands' plastic incarnation. They all work the same, with a little button that rests on the Nei-kuan accupressure point, which ostensibly keeps a body from feeling vomitous.

I started with the wristbands relatively recently, after having a couple flights in which the Dramamine failed to provide adequate protection, and surprisingly, they seem to work -- well enough even that on a recent flight on which I forgot my Dramamine, I managed not to throw up. 

Again, could be a placebo effect! I do not care!

4. Use a Car Service

I originally became acquainted with the car service when I had to get from Brooklyn to JFK in a hurry following an event, to catch a flight back to Boston. Because I am cheap, prior to this I usually insisted on taking the train to and from the airport, but one car service experience was enough to change my mind forever. 

It’s not even so much the convience factor, or the privacy factor: it’s the PREDICTABILITY. Booking a car means that car will appear, as if by magic, at the appointed time, and there is no terrifying delay caused by waiting for a taxi you called 20 minutes ago to finally show up. That alone is worth the price of admission so far as I'm concerned. Also, car service cars tend to be marginally nicer than your average cab. Sometimes there's free bottled water! IT'S LIKE I'M A RICH PERSON. 

5. EAT SOMETHING

This is the biggest deal for me. When I am anxious (or depressed or stressed or otherwise in a non-optimal sort of mood) the first thing I forget is that I need to eat, which makes me feel exhausted and cranky in addition to being anxious, but because I’m not thinking about my basic physical needs it often doesn’t occur to me for hours that if I just had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’d probably feel a bit better, and by then the damage is done.

Like most of the above, eating something is also about taking care of myself, and recognizing that I am not superhuman and no matter how badly I would like to be able to shrug off this anxiety issue and just soldier on as if nothing is wrong, doing so makes things worse, not better, and the wiser course is to accept that I need food and time to get to the airport and to make lists of things to tick off in order to be semi-functional and that is TOTALLY OK.

If all else fails? I have a prescription for Ativan, one I rarely use but which gives me enormous psychological comfort just knowing it’s there. That is easily the thing of greatest long-term use I ever got out of therapy. But it feels a little like cheating when all I really need to do is self-indulge with herbal crap and magical thinking in order to survive a trip.

Hey, whatever gets me out the door. That’s the hardest part.