Thanksgiving is one of the busiest—and as a result, most stressful—travel times of the year. With everyone around you trying to get to their holiday destinations, that means some serious crowds, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and delays that zero people are psyched about.
“Travel in general can already be stressful for certain people, and the holidays have a mix of even more travelers, unpredictable weather, and dealing with relatives,” Simon Rego, Psy.D., chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, tells SELF. “Those things converge for people and can make them even more stressed than usual.”
We don't blame you if you're already anticipating feeling seriously stressed out trying to get from point A to point B, or even if you're already feeling overwhelmed and scattered right now. That's why we polled mental health pros for their best holiday travel tips, so that it doesn’t have to wipe you out emotionally and physically.
Here are a few things mental health experts recommend to help you keep your cool this week.
1. Make a list of what, exactly, about holiday travel stresses you out.
Sure, pretty much everyone will say that holiday travel is stress-inducing on some level. But the reason why it makes you feel frazzled can be pretty individual—and identifying your specific stressors is the first step in helping you combat them, Cheryl Carmin, Ph.D., director of clinical psychology training at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.
That’s why it’s a good idea to write down all of your anxious feelings and worries on paper before you travel, Jason S. Moser, Ph.D., director of the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab at Michigan State University, tells SELF. Perhaps you're most concerned about hustling through the airport with your crying newborn, for example; put this on paper and then think of a few solutions for this, like bringing their favorite toy to distract them or talking to your partner about your worry ahead of time so you can plan and support each other through a worst-case scenario.
“This is called expressive writing,” Moser says. “That effectively can ‘offload’ those thoughts and feelings on paper, make them more concrete, and facilitate rethinking and problem solving.” It can even help to toss the whole thing in the trash after you write it to mentally and physically throw away your fears, he adds. Once it's on paper and out of your head, you can give yourself permission to stop agonizing over it.
2. Make it near-impossible to forget the most important items on your packing list.
If you know you’re going to be up at night worrying that you’ll forget something, or if you'll completely freak and beat yourself up if you do end up forgetting that precious item, write it down, Rego says. Then, put that reminder somewhere visible (the front door, a bathroom mirror). “It’s a productive action,” he explains.
If you're still fretting about leaving, say, your niece's holiday present at home, you could even go as far as packing it way in advance in the luggage you know you'll be carrying so that it's there from the start. “If there is something that’s stressing you out and you can do something about it right now, do it. If you can’t, put it on a to-do list to do at another time,” Rego says. Here are more logistical travel tips to make the whole process a little less chaotic.
3. Try to travel during off-peak times, if you can swing it.
Crowds can be a large source of anxiety for some people. And while masses of people and long lines are pretty inevitable during the holidays, they'll be less overwhelming during less popular times or days. So to whatever extent you can, schedule your travel on days and times when the crowds are likely to be a little thinner, Rego says, like super early in the morning. Or, if your job permits, consider leaving a few days earlier and working remotely from your destination to avoid the mad rush that typically occurs the day before the actual holiday.
4. Download whatever will help distract you from the chaos.
Given that you may still find yourself in some serious body-to-body situations, make a Spotify list of soothing songs before you leave the house so you can tune people out, Carmin suggests. Or, if meditation is your thing (and you feel like you can do it effectively even when others are around), download meditations from an app like Calm or Headspace.
If you have access to Netflix, you can even download some TV shows, movies, or stand-up to distract you from whatever is happening at the airport. But remember: You'll likely need wifi to make these downloads, so take care of it before you leave the house. And, take it from us, you'll want to download way more than you think you'll need…just in case there are major delays.
5. If you’re not driving, have a pre-travel beer if you'd like.
If you're at the airport or train station and could really stand to chill a little, it’s OK to have a pre-flight glass of wine or beer to unwind, Carmin says. Of course, you know yourself better than anyone, so skip this one if alcohol isn't for you.
If you have a serious fear of flying and feel as if you’ll need something to help you get on and then stay calm on the plane, talk to your doctor in advance about whether an anti-anxiety medication for the flight might be suitable for you, Carmin says. That said, you definitely don't want to mix alcohol and medication together, so this is an either/or situation.
6. Talk to yourself in the third person.
This may sound a little strange, but it can help. Practice labeling what you’re feeling, but use your own name and other non-first person pronouns like "he" and "she," rather than first person pronouns like “I” and “me,” Moser explains.
“What you notice after a while is that you start to give yourself advice like you are talking to someone else,” he says. For example, maybe you hate turbulence and feel like the plane is going to fall out of the sky. Try saying out loud, Moser says, “But [your name] knows air travel is very safe and even safer than driving. [Your name] knows that this will pass.”
7. Lay a few ground rules for your car.
If you’re the designated holiday driver, you’re the one who needs to be the most relaxed during the journey—and that means you get to set the rules, Carmin says. For instance, consider having a quick reminder chat with your passengers to tell them that you’ll be using your navigation method of choice and don’t need backseat Siris, or that you need everyone to avoid arguing while you’re in the car.
Also, the driver gets to pick the music or podcast—that’s just the way it goes.
8. Be ready for delays and conflicts before you even leave.
Remind yourself that there's (sadly) a good chance your plane will be delayed. Or that you always feel uptight when you're around Uncle Al for an extended period of time. So if your flight is leaving two hours later than you'd hoped, or you're going to be stuck in the car with that relative that you have a tense relationship with, wrap your mind around these things in advance so they don't catch you off guard. (Plus, you'll be in an even better mood if these situations don't end up coming to fruition.)
Being aware of these things in advance, recognizing that they might be issues, and thinking about how you're going to handle them can help reduce some of your anxiety, Reid Wilson, Ph.D., director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center and adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, tells SELF.
9. Whatever your preferred method of self-care is, do it before you leave.
Go for a jog before you leave, or take a quick bath. “Don’t leave things out that help you manage your stress,” Carmin says. Many people will brush off their regular exercise or self-care before they travel to try to save time, but it can make the difference between you stressing on the highway or keeping your cool. Also, don’t forget to bring workout clothes and sneaks for once you arrive—you’re probably going to need it at some point, Carmin says.
10. Leave (way) earlier than you think you need to.
This one seems obvious, but running behind schedule is often a big part of the reason why people get so stressed out about holiday travel. “If you can do things like pack a little bit earlier, leave for the airport a little earlier, or get out earlier, that can help decrease the pressure that people will feel that make them stressed when they travel,” Rego says. If you’re traveling with other people, don’t be afraid to tell them to show up at a time even earlier than you're actually planning on leaving to give yourselves a cushion.
Worst case scenario? You have extra time to kill at the airport or train station, or you arrive at your destination earlier by car—far better scenarios than turning into a ball of stress because you're cutting it too close.