'I'm never going on holiday again': The anxiety condition that turns travelling into a nightmare

Airports aren't the most relaxing of places, we can all probably agree. But for some people, the mere thought of checking in for a flight or getting through airport security triggers anxiety - often mild, but sometimes very severe.

"When I book a holiday, I think it's the best idea ever," says Woman & Home reader Julie, from Gloucester, who has suffered from anxiety in airports for years. "But as it gets closer to departure day, I wonder what on earth I was thinking - and the anxiety just builds and builds. I'm getting better, but it got so bad that at one point that I could have happily said 'I'm never going on holiday again'."

Airport anxiety is a recognised problem and can have devastating implications, says Rory James MacLaren-Jackson, a clinical hypnotherapist. "It is important to understand that ‘airport anxiety' is really just shorthand for what can be complex anxiety disorders, with particular elements and triggers unique to the individual," he says.

At his clinic Advanced Hypnosis London, Rory has treated many patients with travel-related anxieties - and he stresses the importance of addressing anxiety before it becomes too deep-rooted. "Low level anxiety has the potential to grow as a problem, especially if you are unlucky enough to have a negative experience at an airport in the future. It is often this combination of existing anxiety plus a bad experience that can really lead to an escalation of the problem."

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What are the symptoms of airport anxiety?

  • Racing or negative thoughts
  • Heart beating faster
  • Feeling hot and sweaty
  • Irritability
  • Dizzy or light headed
  • Dry mouth
  • Sick and nervous feeling in stomach
  • Muscles feeling tense
  • Breathing quicker and shallower
  • Restlessness
  • Needing the toilet more often

Hedi Pavelcova from Essex, whose filming and photography business Fountainfotos actually takes her around the world on assignment, has suffered from airport anxiety and fear of flying for 11 years. "I don't sleep the night before a flight, and in the morning I have an upset stomach, I'm very stressed and moody, and I have cold sweats."

Who suffers from airport anxiety?

It can strike anybody, at any time. "I have suffered with airport anxiety for most of my adult life - I don't know what triggered it," says Julie. "I feel trapped in airports. When you go through the gate, it's like going through a one-way door - there's no escape. Once we've taken off, I'm much calmer. I don't have a problem with flying itself: you're being waited on, you don't have to do any work or washing up - what's not to love?"

How common is airport anxiety?

Feeling severely anxious in airports is more common than most people realise. All the women that we spoke to for this article said it's easier to hide their anxious feelings, because that way they feel more in control. So be sympathetic if you're travelling with someone who you think might be anxious - and if you suffer yourself, consider speaking up so that your companions know you're feeling stressed.

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Is airport anxiety always linked to fear of flying?

No - it can stem from lots of different factors. "Some of my clients that have come to see me for fear of flying, have been surprised to learn that it isn't the flying itself, it's more to do with the lead up of getting onto the flight," says Heather Hall, a cognitive hypnotherapist who helps her clients combat stress, anxiety, fear, depression, addictions and weight loss through her Harley Street clinic.

Airport anxiety

What can trigger airport anxiety?

  • Fear of missing your flight
  • Feeling claustrophobic in crowded and busy places
  • So many things to remember - Have I packed everything I need?
  • Risk of terrorism - Will I be safe?
  • Fear of technology - Have I checked myself in correctly online? How do I do self check-in at the airport?
  • Security - Will the queue make me late? Will I be stopped and searched physically?

For Julie, claustrophobia and lack of control trigger her anxiety: "If I can't find a way out of a situation, I get panicky. I'm away from everything that's familiar."

"The presence of crowds can make people anxious, or the feeling of being ‘stuck' in a certain area or in a long queue can set off the anxiety response," says Rory. "A person may feel uncomfortable from the immediate environment, they start to feel the physical symptoms of anxiety, then they begin the unhelpful rumination of ‘what if' questions - what if I am ill, what if this is a panic attack, what if I have to leave the queue, what will people think? Once set off, this ‘fear of the fear' cycle can escalate very quickly into a full panic attack."

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How can I stop my airport anxiety?

Stay in a hotel - "The stress of getting to the airport can really add to your anxiety, so I like to stay at an airport hotel the night before. It reduces the stress, and allows you to get there in plenty of time." - Julie

Get to the airport early - "The airlines recommend 2 hours before your flight time, but I would suggest 3 hours if you suffer from anxiety, especially for long haul flights. This allows plenty of time for check-in and going through security, as queues can be unpredictable." - Heather

Know your symptoms - "In airports, I always get an upset stomach, so I make sure that I have some tablets with me. You know your body best." - Julie

Control your breathing - "If you can feel the anxiety rising, a great tool I teach my clients is 7:11 breathing. Breathing into your lower belly for a count of 7, and breathing out for 11. This can be done anywhere, so even if you are standing in a queue surrounded by strangers, you can use this technique and no one will know. It can relax your body in a matter of minutes." - Heather

Airport anxiety

Keep your body active - "Walking really helps me - all around the airport, up and down. In my mind, it's like burning up the adrenaline. My husband would just like to sit down with a cup of coffee, but I can't bear that." - Julie

Make a playlist - "Music is a good way to distract yourself: it cuts out the noise and helps you to cope with the stress and relax. I have several playlists from "Stress Buster" to "Killer Tunes" or my childhood favourites songs." - Hedi

Keep your mind occupied - "I can't concentrate on books or magazines at all - I'm just turning pages. But I find that playing mini travel games with my husband can really take my mind off things. It's just simple, but it really helps." - Julie

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Don't hide your feelings - "I encourage my clients to acknowledge their anxious feelings, but to actively not attribute any meaning to them. Instead, simply remind yourself that your body's ‘alert system' has been accidentally tripped, for example, by queuing for airport security and that, because this is a mistake, the feeling will soon pass. By understanding the mechanics of anxiety and not attaching meaning to any particular feeling this can go a long way to short-circuiting the potential cycle of anxiety and panic." - Rory

Make some positive associations - "If you can, go and sit at the Arrivals lounge watching people meet and greet their loved ones. Have a cup of hot chocolate while watching everyone greet their families and friends: it really makes a difference and helps to associate airports with nice feelings." - Hedi

Focus on the positive - "Remind yourself that although the rules and regulations at airports can be very overwhelming, they are actually put in place to keep you and everyone else safe. That's a good thing, isn't it?" - Heather

Cut down on caffeine - "Caffeine is a stimulant and actually produces the same responses we have when we sense danger. So if you are already stressed or feeling anxious, drinking something with caffeine in it is like adding fuel to a fire, making your body feel even more stressed or anxious." - Heather

Have some counselling - "Hypnotherapy is very effective way at eliminating anxiety in many different situations. By accessing your unconscious mind we can make those changes, enabling you to feel more relaxed, confident and have more self-belief, instead of feeling fear and worry. You will probably only need a few sessions." - Heather


All images from Alamy