How I Handle My Travel Anxiety: 5 Pill-Free Tactics

04/27/2015 02:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015


I just got back from an amazing trip to Suzhou, China, where I visited the UNESCO-heritage 500-year-old gardens, wandered ancient streets, ate foods I had never even tasted before (the spring water-grasses are delicious and strangely addictive!), and watched silk being made before my eyes.

To say that experiences like this are how I find joy in life is an understatement. I love travel so much I have given up more lucrative jobs to be free to do it, because in my world, adventure is more important than security. My wanderlust is so strong that it manifests as a physical ache (like someone with their hand pushing on my back) and itchy feet.

But as much as I love traveling, it brings with it significant anxiety. And I'm not the only one: Plenty of regular people and been-around-the-world-dozen-times travel writers suffer from nerves while prepping for trips, flying, and sometimes even once we've reached our destinations (for me, once I've arrived in a new place, my anxiety tends to disappear, but not always). I'm a naturally anxious person--and I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, but due to addiction on both sides of my family, I have always been super-uncomfortable taking pills. I don't even like aspirin for a headache.

This is not to judge anyone who takes meds--I just can't (the idea of it makes me nervous, which defeats the purpose!). So if you are looking for other ways to deal with anxiety, here is what I have learned in the past 12 years since I was diagnosed--all of the below have kept me from having a panic attack in over a decade.

Here's how I eliminate anxiety so I can explore the world I love.

1. Meditation: I have been meditating mostly regularly (usually 5 days out of a week) for many, many years now. It helps to deal with anxiety generally, but it also helps in specific situations, which is not often mentioned when the benefits of meditation are touted. It's like practicing anything--the more you do it, the better you get at it. So my mostly regular daily meditation practice makes it easier for me to reduce nerves in specific situations.

I use meditation apps like other people pop Xanax for trips--they are a shortcut that works, and listening on your headphones has the added benefit of blocking possibly stressful sounds out. Now that you are allowed to keep phones and other devices on during takeoff, I use the Power of Mind free basic guided meditation routine (about 40 minutes long) to help me through pre-board, boarding and takeoff--when I find myself the most nervous. The Calm app is also good, and has the option of giving you just nature sounds--along with a couple basic guided meditations.

2. Healthy Snacks: I always keep Kind Bars (or nut mixes I make myself), local fresh fruit and/or dried fruit, and when I get to the place where my blood sugar is super-low, little things can provoke my anxiety more easily. Keeping full-ish really helps me stay calm. Chewing also gives my jaw something to do that's not clenching!

3. Stay Hydrated: For some reason, I get more anxious when I'm dehydrated than when I'm not. I have no idea if this is just me, but drinking plenty of water is good for you for other reasons so it can't hurt!

4. Medicinal Alcohol: It really does help me sleep or relax sometimes to have a glass of wine or a warm beverage with brandy or liquor in it. The key is that means only one drink. More, and you might end up passing out, but you'll wake up dehydrated and out-of-sorts. And more than one drink can also cause your sleep to be disturbed, which won't help anything at all.

Alcohol gets a bad rap because people tend to misuse it, but in my experience, small amounts really can be useful for reducing anxiety.

5. Get Rest: The connections between anxiety and lack of sleep are well-documented. When you travel, you can easily become exhausted, what with time changes and weird beds. Making your trip a day longer so you can catch up on sleep when you arrive to your destination can help, but naps work too--even just lying down for 20-25 minutes, even if you don't feel like you are sleeping, can relax your body--and subsequently your mind.