Travel is generally enjoyable and sometimes life transforming, but it can be stressful. Lack of familiar support systems, disrupted daily routines, language barriers, culture shock, and unexpected situations can intensify stress levels rather than alleviate them. Travel also forces you to give up your sense of control: It challenges perceptions, can reveal personal limitations, and may alter your thinking, mood, behaviour, and reactions.
Stress is the body’s natural response to a threat or danger – whether it’s real or imagined. Travel stress is related to the situational pressures, anxieties, or challenges of travelling. Certain amounts of stress are a normal part of everyday life but problems or situations you encounter while travelling, whether big or small, can become more difficult to manage when you are in a new or unfamiliar environment.
Travel stress varies from person to person and can depend on your past experiences, tolerance of new circumstances, nervousness about things going wrong, and fears about the unexpected.
Signs of stress include:
Travel stress can trigger or exacerbate an existing mental health condition. Persistent feelings of stress can also lead to anxiety or depression. Even if you have no prior history of mental illness, mood changes, substance misuse, and extreme anxiety can potentially disrupt a trip. Recognizing the warning signs and knowing where to get help abroad are key to a safe trip.
Travel stress can be caused by a number of factors – many of which may be out of your control. From the initial stages of planning a trip or the hiccups you may encounter along the way, travel stress can take hold at any point. Anticipating where stress may arise and knowing how to diffuse stressful situations are key to minimizing travel stress and enjoying your trip.
Visualizing a trip is helpful for planning purposes, but having preconceived notions about how it should unfold can lead to unrealistic expectations. If your trip does not go as planned, it can be disappointing and stressful. Dealing with unexpected circumstances in a country where you don’t know the language, are not surrounded by familiar support systems or are unable to express your needs can be overwhelming. Travelling to validate your self-worth, seek happiness abroad, or avoid circumstances back home may also not turn out as expected and could be frustrating.
When personal goals are not met, self-blame, sadness, anxiety, and depression can occur or you may vent your frustration at others. Keep in mind that you are in control of your own outlook and expectations, and you may need to make adjustments based on your circumstances. The need to be in constant control or compete with others can lead to negative travel experiences.
How to manage your expectations:
Culture shock is a temporary psychological stress that occurs when you are overwhelmed by a new culture and do not know how to adapt or fit into the new environment. Factors that contribute to culture shock include not speaking the language, not understanding the local customs or understanding appropriate behaviour, disliking the food, accommodations, or lifestyle, and being a visible minority. Witnessing or experiencing situations starkly different to your own life (such as poverty, war, starvation, homelessness, as well as homophobia and racial, ethic, and gender discrimination) can also cause culture shock.
All travellers experience culture shock to varying degrees, but the intensity depends on one’s disposition and tolerance for new experiences. You may not experience culture shock immediately, but as excitement about the trip wanes, the reality of being in an environment where things are done differently can set in. Experiencing culture shock can lead to a sense of insecurity and inadequacy, homesickness, isolation, loneliness, sadness, confusion, anxiety, frustration or depression.
How to manage culture shock:
The inability to deal rationally and calmly with a challenging situation can progress to rage (such as air and road rage). It is typically expressed in outbursts of extreme anger or violence that are unprovoked or disproportionate to the provocation, either real or perceived. Travel-related rage is not common, but it has gained widespread media attention.
Incidents of rage tend to occur in unfamiliar and overstimulating environments like airports, airplanes, hotels, major transportation hubs, and popular tourist sites. For some travellers, overcrowding, delays, lack of information, lack of manners, and boorish behaviour, as well as arguments with transportation or service personnel can result in uncontrollable rage.
Signs of oncoming rage include raised voice, not listening to or ignoring another person, sweating, chest tightening, palpitations, twitching, verbal abuse, physical violence, and destruction of property. Be aware that in some countries disturbing the peace and suspicious or violent behaviour can result in criminal charges, fines, or imprisonment.
How to prevent rage:
Before you leave
During your trip
When you return
Check out other tipsheets in our Travel and Mental Health Series and the IAMAT eLibrary: