Why ‘Re-Entry Travel Anxiety’ Is Super Normal Right Now…Plus 5 Rules to Venture Out Again, from Psychologists
Don't let unexpected nerves keep you from getting away this summer. Experts explain why this post-pandemic travel anxiety is normal—and how to work through it.
It’s early summer, and dare we say?: the world is reopening.
A new report from the research firm Deloitte suggests Americans are ready to get back to our getaways, with summer travel estimates set to outpace pre-pandemic levels. But many travel lovers are facing a new task on their pre-travel to-do list: overcoming an unexpected sense of dread as their departure date nears. Even as a travel addict myself, I’ve fallen into this unfamiliar hesitation—realizing what was once an excitement to explore is now layered with a strange sense of unease.
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Travel anxiety in a post-pandemic world
It turns out I’m not alone. Experts say travel anxiety rates are on the upswing—and while looming health, safety, and planning concerns are partly to blame, what we’re experiencing goes beyond that. “‘Re-entry anxiety’ refers to the fear that can accompany letting go of the safeguards that protected us during the COVID-19 pandemic and our re-entry into a world that has been changed by the virus,” explains Katarena Arger, AMFT, a psychotherapist in Dana Point, CA. Arger explains that after two years of pandemic stress and social isolation, we’ve all eagerly awaited a return to the activities we used to enjoy. But jumping back into the old swing of things isn’t so simple. “The pandemic was a culture shock,” Anger says, and the human brain isn’t wired to snap back to how we were before such a traumatic situation.
That’s why “for some, the possibility of resuming travel isn’t creating joy or excitement like it once did,” she says—and feeling like there’s a mental block holding you back can be frustrating. Researchers in a 2021 study published in the Iran Journal of Public Health found that our fundamental attitude toward travel shifted during the pandemic experience. When your objective is as basic as staying safe, the last thing you want to do is explore outside your most familiar environment.
More recently, Arger says, “We might rationally understand that the danger has diminished, but the fearful parts of our brain will react based on the past several years’ worth of learning to cope with the pandemic.” So, while that doesn’t mean your wanderlust is dead, it may take some time to reignite.
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What is re-entry travel anxiety?
Re-entry travel anxiety can range from concern to more intense feelings of panic, Arger explains. Certain individuals may be more likely to struggle getting back to things they love, too. That might include people with a history of mental illness. It can also include those under particularly high stress during the pandemic, like front-line workers, parents, people of color, and young adults displaced from work or school.
But Arger offers some reassurance. In most cases, re-entry anxiety isn’t a full-blown anxiety disorder. “It is really more of an adjustment disorder,” she explains. An adjustment disorder is a normal response to extremely stressful life events, and research shows the associated anxiety tends to ease up naturally with time. (That said, if anxiety is interfering with daily life or persists for more than six months, speak with your doctor or consider whether it’s a sign you’d benefit from therapy.)
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How to deal with travel anxiety
Arger says the stress of the pandemic primed our brains to look out for danger. “It makes sense that heightened anxiety will pop up in places it previously did not.” But if we’re prepared and aware, there are ways to change how we relate to our anxiety. That can make for a smoother, more enjoyable travel experience.
Accept your anxiety
“Don’t be too hard on yourself if you aren’t ready to jump back into things,” Arger says. But also keep in mind that avoiding unpleasant feelings isn’t a permanent solution—the longer you wait, the worse anxieties can become. “In other words, avoid avoidance and don’t keep postponing travel plans,” she advises. “Identify what specifically worries you about returning to pre-pandemic traveling” to help process these challenging emotions.
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Arger says the best way to get more comfortable with post-pandemic life is to just start living it. “This is called ‘exposure therapy,’ and it’s an effective way of treating anxiety. You slowly confront your sources of fear with a little more exposure each time.”
But understand your own comfort levels. If you haven’t traveled since before the pandemic, don’t feel like you have to rip off the bandage and take a trip overseas. Consider finally making that trip to the public forest that’s not too far, or just a night out of town to catch up with old friends.
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“People should feel permission to not conform to what others are doing, and [instead] transition in a way that works for them,” Arger says. “Take some time to think about your own comfort levels and what you’re ready to re-engage in.”
Create a self-care travel tool kit
We know how important self-care is in our day-to-day lives—so make sure you’re adding the tools you often turn to, to your packing list. This could include a playlist of guided meditations, journaling, or aromatherapy. Whatever you include, Arger advises that you practice using these tools before traveling. That will help build a ready-to-use habit when you’re feeling anxious on the go.
Listen to your body
Everyone responds a bit differently to anxiety, so consider your body’s individual warning signs. Kristi Beroldi, a licensed professional counselor and assistant clinic director in Reston, VA, suggests a few “thought-stopping” exercises that work to calm your body when anxiety starts to mount:
- Carry instant cool packs to hold in your hands or place against your face.
- Try progressive muscle relaxation—intentionally tensing and relaxing your muscles to focus on the physical body, instead of your racing thoughts.
- Focus on paced, deep breathing to slow your heart, which can de-escalate anxiety.
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