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Eight tips from a pro.

December 10, 2015

We’ve all been there. Two straight hours of traffic, with a howling toddler in the back seat. The freakishly long security line. The packed train. Holiday travel can be anxiety-inducing—even for the most Zen or experienced travelers.

Enter Dr. Todd Farchione, clinical psychologist and the director of the intensive treatment program for panic disorders and specific phobias at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. He’s here to offer his tips for how to try to keep calm and, uh, carry-on. 

1. Build in extra time.

If flying scares you, or security lines cause stress to mount, definitely give yourself a ton of time to get to the airport, says Farchione. A primary thing he sees is people “not leaving themselves enough time to manage the things you have to deal with in order to fly.” So bank on a couple extra hours: “Give yourself time to sit down, relax, have a coffee.” Otherwise, he cautions, you might be “the people running across the terminal with three kids in tow and five carry-ons to catch their flight.” There’s no need to add to an already stressful situation because you didn’t build in extra time.

2. Set reasonable expectations.

“Steel yourself for what is to come,” suggests Farchione. “Prepare yourself by setting expectations reasonably. If you’re driving a long distance, during a time when everyone else is also leaving, it’ll take you an extra hour or so to get to your destination.” It may sound obvious, but for those of us who fret obsessively when we see red lines of heavy traffic on mapping apps, it’s a helpful tip. By thinking of traffic and organic delays as part of what he calls “the package deal,” it becomes easier to accept.

3. Try to stay positive, or at least neutral.

“A lot of times,” says Farchione, “by pulling from a mindfulness and acceptance-based approach, can you go into the situation in a way where you’re not judging it so negatively?” If you’re in a long security line, but you have plenty of time, he asks, “What’s the big deal?” If you’ve followed his first tip about building in spare time, you’re all set: “You can either play on your phone in line or at the gate while waiting on the plane—if you’re in the security line, what difference does it make?” He suggests that you tell yourself “This is a long line” without adding the additional piece of “and I can’t tolerate this.”

4. Breathe. Here’s how.

Diaphragmatic breathing entails slow, controlled breaths into the diaphragm. Farchione suggests the following process for breathing: Think the word “one.” Then inhale through your nose slowly, counting to 10 as you do so. Think the word “relax.” Count to 10 again as you breathe out through your mouth. Try this in traffic, in security lines, and whenever necessary. 

5. “Factcheck” your anxiety.

“A lot of what drives people’s anxiety,” says Farchione, “is thoughts like, ‘I’m not gonna make my flight. And I’m gonna miss the next one. I’ll never get to my destination.’” He suggests that you factcheck—or try to counter with actual facts—the thought, even as it’s happening. If that was true, it should produce anxiety. But often it’s not true. “If there’s a security line that’s two hours long, the airline is going to do everything they can to get to your destination” by booking you on the next flight, he suggests. It’s unlikely you’ll actually never get there.

6. Act your way into feeling calm.

“To be calm you have to act calm,” he points out. You can trick your body into calming down somewhat by checking your body language and adjusting it. Are your shoulders up by your ears? Relax your muscles a little bit. “Acting calm will help you feel more calm: If we’re sitting there being short with our spouse or our kids—‘You’re driving me crazy!’—it’s contributing to the anxiety.” By keeping a calm tone, slowing yourself down, and taking a relaxed stance, he says, “we will reduce the anxiety we feel.” Additionally, you don’t exist in a vacuum, and your stress can affect those around you, creating a feedback loop. Acting calm can help.

7. Accept the situation.

“It’s important to accept the situation,” notes Farchione, whether it’s the fact that there will be traffic on the road, or that there’s been a flight delay, or that there are cranky people around you. Often you can “choose a different way to respond,” he notes. “You can go up the security line and say, ‘Why did this take so long?’ or you can say ‘Happy holidays!’”

8. If flying makes you anxious, distract yourself during the flight.

Although turbulence anxiety “can be a little complicated,” Farchione says a lot of nervous flyers tend to misinterpret cues, and are “threat-focused, looking for little things or movements, any type of variation on what you’d expect it to be.” His wife hates flying, and grips the seat, lifts her legs off the ground, puts her head between her legs, and sometimes cries. “She gets very frightened,” he says. He’s worked with her to put her feet on the ground, let go of the armrests, and look at the TV or her phone. By doing this, he’s trying to promote “not acting like the situation is dangerous.” If a bumpy flight was going to end in a crash, he points out, you wouldn’t watch TV. It’s a way to trick the mind, he says: “Watching TV is counter to the idea that ‘I’m gonna die.’ It’s linked to the difference between the emotional part of the brain and the intelligent part of the brain.” You’re using the higher parts of the brain to challenge the emotional part of the brain that is focusing on, he says, “’Sky is falling, sky is falling. Freaking out!’” (More tips for nervous flyers, this way.)

By setting reasonable expectations for the trip, building in extra time, breathing, and trying to maintain a sense of positivity, you may just enjoy your holiday trip, after all.

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