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My strategies for coping with airport anxiety

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I have no idea when I will next be in an airport. But I know I’ll have anxiety. Because I always have anxiety in airports, especially when travelling alone. Ranging from mild unease to full-blown panic attacks, my discomfort in airports has been a huge drag for years. You know how stressful airports can be on a good day. Imagine coping with airport anxiety too: sudden unexplained stomach nausea, dizziness, racing heart palpitations, and an overwhelming sensation of dread! Travel is the best thing for my mental health, but to get there I have deal with this stressful condition.

I know that anxiety and panic in airports affects many travellers. And given new health and safety procedures and general worry about travel, I suspect many more people may soon experience it for the first time.

I want to share some of my personal strategies for coping with airport anxiety.

Anxiety is not the same for everyone, and neither are the solutions. My fear has nothing to do with flying itself, for example. Or missing my flight, which is a very common worry. I’m not claustrophobic in crowds. Or a germaphobe. No, it’s the in-between state of not being home, and yet not being where you are going. It’s an eerie sensation that something bad will happen in the world, or to my people, and I’ll be “trapped” in a legal no-man’s land place where I don’t have full control of leaving. Or something like that.

I honestly don’t know why I panic. The fact that it’s illogical and irrational is infuriating, actually. Getting angry doesn’t help. But some things do.

There are calming apps and meditation tricks that also work in airports. But here are six more specific ways I’ve found for coping with my airport anxiety.

Fly Direct

Woman at Marrakesh Menara airport
Au revoir, Aéroport Marrakech Ménara.

The best way to avoid being anxious in airports is to reduce the amount of airports you’re in.

As a young person on a tighter budget I often chose connecting flights to save money. I’ve learned it’s not worth the savings, which can sometimes be less than $100, to me to trigger anxiety twice (or more!) for a trip. (Also it’s a false economy if I spend almost all the savings on overpriced airport food and trinkets to kill the time waiting for the next flight.) As a bonus, you don’t have to worry about whether your checked luggage will make the connection.

I’ve even chosen my destinations based on this one factor alone. My recent trip to Vienna, Austria was made possible when Air Canada added a direct flight from Toronto.

I recognize it’s not always possible to fly direct, especially for long-haul international flights or when using points. In that case, considering driving or taking a train part way instead. Given the choice of flying Toronto to Marrakesh, which needs a long connection with overnight stay in Europe, or getting there with a combination of ground travel and one direct flight from Montreal to Casablanca I know which makes me less anxious.

Choose Familiar Airports

Departure board at airport
I’ll take the first flight that gets me out of the airport! Photo by Matthew Smith via Unsplash

If you have to connect, and have options, try to choose a transfer airport that you are already familiar with from past travels. Recognizing the layout removes some stress, and you can tell yourself that you’ve been here before and got through it once, so you can do it again.

On the flipside, avoid airports you know you hate! I’ve decided I’m not flying through Frankfurt anymore. It’s just too huge, and I had a complete meltdown on the floor there once when stranded due to weather – I couldn’t figure out which shuttle bus to get on, or how to find the two-hour queue to get my hotel voucher. It was just too much. Large airports in general freak me out. Because it seems no matter what I always get assigned the departure gate the furthest away in the terminal to navigate, which triggers my anxiety.

Yeah, it’s a major hub for European travel, but I’ve found ways around it.

Other good choices for connecting airports are the ones in your own country, or at least where you can speak or read the local language comfortably.

Tell the airport staff if you’re having a hard time

What’s the expression? Look for the helpers. So much of air travel now has moved to on-line check-in, kiosks to print your own luggage tags, contactless boarding, and apps, you can now get on a plane almost without interacting with any airport staff. I don’t recommend this.

A few years back, I got flagged for additional security screening at Charles de Gaulle. Probably because I had to really run hard to make check-in. (Merci, Paris subway strikes!) Between my racing heart rate and my general panic I must have looked a fright. Since then, I’m not shy to tell the staff when I’m having a hard time, so they understand and aren’t so suspicious. And so they can help!

I’ve been giving priority boarding from the check-in gate agents. Another once came to look for me at the waiting lounge to make sure I was doing alright. A flight attendant offered me her own lunch when I got switched to new flight where there was no vegetarian meal option for me and I clearly just needed a fucking sandwich after running on nerves for hours. It’s made a huge difference.

Even when I’m feeling fine, I go out of my way to make some contact with the staff as I traverse through the airport. Smart travellers know to be friendly to flight attendants when you board a plane, but when you never known when you might need help, I find it helps to be friendly in general.

Buy yourself something nice

Airport shopping
Photo by Kiwihug via Unsplash

I have one major airport ritual: buying a Wired magazine. It’s not something I do anywhere else, just when I fly. I find that reading about science and technology helps me feel comfortable flying through the air in a metal box. But also because it’s a treat that I associate only with airports. Once I’ve passed through security, it gives me a mission to focus on.

Maybe your treat is an expensive Channel lipstick at duty-free, or a favourite snack or specialty drink you know they have at the airport. If you’re strapped for extra spending money, find a different ritual: a specific photo you try to take every time, looking for the most ridiculous pair of sunglasses to try on, the strangest thing in a vending machine.


Talk to your doctor. As a lifelong straight-edge, I’m a hard no on recreational drug use. And I consider prescription drugs a last resort. But since I started getting anxiety in airports all the time, I don’t fly without lorazepam. I don’t always need it, but when I need it, I need it. Anxiety is real and if you have ever felt it, and are worried about travel, discuss this with a medical professional and see if there’s a drug solution that will help.  

Phone a Friend

woman talking on phone to cope with anxiety
Hello from the other si-de! Photo by Fezbot2000 via Unsplash

My travel packing check list always includes the phone number of a friend or two I can call if panic strikes. Someone who will be up in whatever time zone I’m in, or who doesn’t mind being woken by a person in distress.

We make arrangements in advance, of course. Not unlike letting a girlfriend know when you’re headed out on a first date, it’s a kind of security I hope I don’t need. But when I’m having a bad spell, being able to talk to someone I know is one of the fastest ways to bring down my anxiety by bringing me closer to home.

I hope these ideas were helpful and that whenever you need to fly again, I wish you all safe and anxiety-free flights!

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