Getting to travel again is obviously among people’s top priorities after nearly a year and a half of staring at the same four walls amid stay-at-home orders, border closures, travel restrictions and the constant threat of contracting COVID-19. We’ve all been dreaming of the day we can freely set off on our next vacation and spend some time decompressing from the stresses of our daily grind.
Still, it’s easy to forget that, even at the best of times, the travel process itself can be stressful. Making advanced plans and reservations, coordinating schedules, putting together ideal itineraries and then successfully navigating the transportation journey—whether it’s making flight connections, catching trains or buses or traversing a series of roadways—does not always run smoothly.
Add in the pressures of avoiding a deadly virus everywhere you go and staying on top of ever-changing COVID-19 travel restrictions and entry requirements—which are bound to be different en route, at your destination and when returning home—and it’s enough to cause plenty of people to abandon the effort altogether.
To gain an understanding of which aspects of pandemic-era travel are most worrying the public, the U.K.’s Corona Test Centre collected data on the top global internet searches relating to COVID-19. The company also worked with psychologists to compile some helpful tips and advice to help travelers alleviate their pandemic-induced anxieties and enjoy a safe and stress-free travel experience.
The top ten most concerning aspects of pandemic-era travel, according to internet search volumes, were found to be COVID-19 symptoms, PCR testing, social distancing, hygiene, antigen testing, antibody testing, waiting for COVID tests, negative thoughts, fear of flying and home test kits.
COVID-19 Symptoms: The prospect of developing COVID-19 symptoms seems to be the most stress-inducing element of travel for the general public, presumably along with what it might mean if one were to develop symptoms just before or during a trip. Last-minute cancelation or in-destination quarantine are not consequences anyone wants to face.
PCR Testing: Common requirements for traveling internationally in 2021 include pre-travel PCR testing that must be performed within 72 hours of departure and post-arrival testing once you’ve landed at your destination; plus, another PCR or antigen test that must be taken in-destination within 72 hours of flying home to the U.S. Locating testing centers, especially abroad, and getting tests drawn and results delivered within the appropriate timeframes can definitely cause some anxiety. It’s recommended to research certified labs, and schedule tests in advance wherever possible in order to avoid encountering issues or delays during your trip.
Social Distancing: Social distancing by keeping at least six feet apart from people outside of your party has been an imperative since the start of the pandemic. But, it can be more difficult or infeasible during parts of the travel journey, as when seated aboard a plane. Protect yourself and others by continuing to wear an approved and well-fitting face mask, as the FAA and airlines dictate.
Hygiene: Frequent handwashing and the use of hand sanitizer continues to be key to preventing viral transmission while in public places. Practice routine handwashing, and always carry your own hand sanitizer and an extra mask with you as part of your personal arsenal.
Antigen Testing: Rapid antigen tests, while not quite as accurate as molecular-based COVID test types, deliver results in just 30 minutes. They work by detecting fragments of proteins found on or within the virus particles (virions), according to the FDA. Some countries, including the U.S., accept antigen tests to fulfill entry requirements.
Fear of Flying: Fear of flying is a pretty common concern among prospective travelers, pandemic or not. Especially after a long stretch without getting on a plane, flying might seem daunting. Meditation and breathing exercises are recommended for grounding yourself and easing any stress your body may be feeling.
Meditation and mindfulness practices are excellent tools for managing the stress and anxieties that can accompany travel, and they're skills that can continue to be developed over time. Lee Chambers, MBPsS, Environmental Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant, commented: “Using mindfulness or meditation to increase your wellbeing is something that should certainly be considered. Its effect on the amygdala has been researched, and by practicing we become more able to disengage from ruminating negative thoughts, and connect to the present. It can decrease cortisol levels, and decrease inflammation markers, which leaves us feeling more relaxed and able to deal with the rigors of the current turbulent climate.”
Experts also recommend engaging in some form of physical exercise, even if it's just taking a short walk, to help calm the nerves. Positive Psychology Practitioner Ruth Cooper-Dickson explained: “Any form of exercise and being active is beneficial for the hippocampus—which is the part of the brain that acts like a brake on the stress response. Exercise is great for activating GABBA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid)—this is an amino acid whose purpose is to calm the brain and act as a fire extinguisher to enable brain cells to suppress their activities. GABBA activation provides quick and effective stress relief.”
Andy Phillips, Head of Training and Content at Escape Fitness, recommends distracting yourself from anxieties by watching a favorite movie or comforting show. But, be sure to download these to your device ahead of time to avoid any connection issues, which could trigger more feelings of stress and frustration. “Watching films and television shows on your phone can act as supplemental forms of therapy to help us feel better. Cinematherapy, the use of films to manage mental health issues, can improve thoughts and feelings. There are films that can evoke positive emotions and can nurture interpersonal skills,” he said.
Other suggestions for soothing an anxious or stressed mind include listening to comforting music, which can call up pleasant emotions and help act as a circuit breaker for the brain. “Music requires following patterns, drawing from memory and engaging with multi-sensory feedback. It draws on many different high-level brain functions at the same time, which strengthens connections between different regions of the brain,” said Dr. Allan.
She also recommends focusing on a puzzle or task to take your mind off of stress and apprehension. Dr. Allan explained: “Engaging with tasks that require a combination of attention, recall and problem solving is a great way to keep cognitive function healthy.” Focusing on something that requires your full attention can pull your mind away from tendencies to ruminate about worries or frustrations.
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