Does the thought of packing for a trip fill you with anxiety? Do you put it off until the last possible second only to beat yourself up later for not being more prepared or organized?
If so, read on to uncover what’s really going on (hint – it’s probably not about the packing), and to learn my top tips to help you process past traumas, release stress and enjoy your travels more…
Even though I became aware of my anxiety and packing-procrastination several years ago, I buried my head and refused to explore what was really going on…until now!
After our most recent family trip over spring break however, I came to the conclusion – finally – that enough was enough!
Perhaps it was the torrential rains, high winds, tornado warnings, flash-floods, flight cancellations or being trapped in an airport for 20+ hours, but something tipped me over the edge.
I realized that no matter how prepared or organized I was in my packing, there are some things you just cannot plan for – or control.
As a complex trauma survivor, I experienced emotional, physical, verbal, and sexual abuse throughout childhood. Fueled by campsite-anonymity, my father’s drinking and abusive behavior escalated. Far from evoking feelings of relaxation, excitement or joy, childhood vacations filled me with anxiety and dread.
Perhaps you experienced something similar? Maybe you experienced the loss of a loved one or pet while on vacation? Or some other bad thing happened while you were away having fun – and on some level you’re still bracing for a repeat of that bad thing today?
The reality is that to help us better understand what can cause our present-day challenges in this area, we have to look at the origins of our vacation-anxiety…
For me as a kid growing up in England, our annual family vacation was a trip to a Cornish seaside village. Every summer, we’d pile into the back of our Cavalier saloon car with our wafer-thin suitcases stacked behind us and a giant tent strapped to the roof. My dad drove us the 10+ hours from Yorkshire (in the North) down to the South Coast, not a short trip by UK standards.
The highly unrealistic and fear-inducing expectation was that everything would run absolutely smoothly; with sunshine, fish and chips, ice cream and a cheery veneer glazed over gritted teeth and frozen smiles: “this is our hard-earned vacation so everything has to go perfectly”.
Did I mention the “cheery veneer”? Or the unwieldy cracks that appeared in it with each passing mile we drove?
Yes, there were the usual sibling squabbles. Who got to lay in the footwell (travel pre-seat belt laws did have its perks), “you’re leaning on me, you’re chewing too loud, I have to pee, are we there yet”, etc etc…
But there was a darker under-tone too; of stress and pressure-brewing and building in that car, that everyone felt but no one dared mention.
No one knew what the trigger might be, but you could be certain that anything short of plain-sailing spelled disaster.
Here are just a few of the impossible travel rules that governed my childhood:
As you can imagine, these rules were impossible to adhere to. And that is the crucial takeaway here:
No matter how hard I tried, dad’s explosive, spewing rage was inevitable. His volatility could not be predicted, prepared for or evaded.
As a kid, I was powerless to control or divert my dad’s rage and vacations were spent tip-toeing through the trip-wires of his mind.
As a grown up, it took the weather events of this last trip for me to break my old trauma-pattern and finally understand how desperately I’d been trying to organize and pack my way out of the vacation-fear and helplessness that I’d felt back then.
My procrastination, endless list-making and frenzied packing today had all been an emotional flashback to little girl me attempting to avoid his abuse. That was my story, let’s explore yours…
The above gives you a glimpse into what was causing my travel anxiety, which will hopefully bring forward some insights around what may be causing yours.
Let’s see if we can get some more clarity on this together, because once we understand that our present-day anxiety around packing and travel is likely being triggered by events from our past, we can begin to take steps to improve things going forwards…
Remember – in its simplest terms, ANXIETY is a worry that we’re feeling in the present moment about something we fear may happen in the future because of something we experienced in the past.
For example, is your anxiety being caused by:
The idea of upcoming travel itself?
A fear or lack of certainty about where you’re going or what to expect when you get there?
The decisions around what to pack for a specific event or location (such as a wedding or traveling to a place with different religious or cultural beliefs, rituals or clothing?)
The desire/need to plan and pack for all eventualities (such as travel with young children or someone with allergies?)
Once you’ve been able to uncover what’s causing your anxiety, it’s important to get curious about how this anxiety is showing up for you. Are you:
Now that you have a little more clarity about what aspects of the packing process or travel are causing you anxiety, you can begin to look at the root beneath.
Take a moment to reflect on your own childhood travel experiences and ask yourself if there are any moments, memories or events in your life (childhood or possibly more recent past) that could be linked to your current-day anxiety around packing and travel?
Without questioning or judging what comes up, take a couple of minutes to jot down anything that comes to mind.
Become aware of how thinking about each event or memory affects you physically.
Does your heart race? Do you feel constriction in your chest? Do you feel foggy or spacey or unable to focus? If so, you can name these kinds of sensations and fold them in to your tapping.
One by one, go through your list of events (created in step 3) and gently and gradually tap to release the anxiety around them. As you do this, perhaps choosing one event or memory per day, you will find that the stress, anxiety and overwhelm you feel about packing and traveling will begin to lessen.
Without a doubt, traveling as a trauma survivor does present a unique set of challenges, that are most often rooted in the experiences that have shaped us.
But, unlike back then, we are no longer helpless to empower ourselves or to change how we feel today. It is possible to work through these challenges and past traumas so that we can enjoy the experience of exploring new places and creating new memories.
Develop a packing and travel essentials checklist or spreadsheet that you can save and adapt to use as needed time and time again.
For example, I have separate online checklists for ski trips, soccer tournaments, summer getaways and dance competitions. I print these out for every member of the family as needed and it saves so much time trying to figure out what to pack each time. Not to mention how much of the stress it eliminates because you only have to create the list once then tweak it for specific circumstances or events as required.
Remember, that there is no right or wrong way to pack – only the way that feels best and most soothing for your body and nervous system.
When we can create structure and order in ways like those listed above, we naturally lessen potential triggers and reduce our anxiety – which makes the whole experience of packing and traveling that much more manageable and perhaps even enjoyable!
When safety and survival is driving our packing experience, it’s so important to remind ourselves that we are safe now.
This can be really challenging to remember, and it’s something I’m still working on – but please know, it’s ok to forget things! Contrary to what I believed as a kid trying to stay safe, it is ok to be “imperfect”. There are usually places to buy any missing items. Remind yourself often: “I am SAFE now even if I am not perfectly packed or prepared for EVERY eventuality.”
Yes – it may not have been safe back then, but I am safe in the here and now today.
If you’re traveling to a place with a different religious customs or attire – it may be good idea to research if you need to cover your head or shoulders for example.
For family getaways, I always find it calming and regulating to look up photos of the hotel and explore the amenities and surroundings. I like to know:
It might sound silly, but bringing in as much certainty as possible to our travel experience today is extremely healing and can go a long way to acknowledging, repairing and releasing the fear and anxiety we may have experienced in the past.
Planning and packing, especially for a longer trip, with multiple people or children, can feel very arduous. This is why it’s so important to pace yourself and take as many breaks as you need. You might want to take breaks to:
Yes, taking breaks may make the process a little longer, but how much better will it be to bring in things that feel safe, grounding and rewarding or even joyful? Talk about re-wiring our past trauma-patterns!
It’s really important to let a friend, travel companion, or trusted loved one know that you find packing and travel anxiety-inducing. Sharing your fears can help alleviate your anxiety.
If someone knows what you’re feeling, they can help by taking on some of the organizational tasks.
Delegating packing tasks and feeling like part of a team can help reduce feelings of stress, overwhelm, isolation and helplessness.
If someone knows what you find challenging, they are more able to check in with you and offer reassurance that you’re ok in the here and now.
And, between you, you can schedule some lighter days into your itinerary for rest and self care; making the whole travel experience that much more pleasurable.
I know it will probably take a little time for you to explore and practice these strategies, and figure out which ones are most helpful for you.
But the truth is that by understanding the connection and correlation between your trauma response, packing anxiety and procrastination, and by implementing these simple steps and tips, you can begin to make the whole process of packing and traveling a lot less arduous, a lot more manageable and perhaps even fun!
With a little effort and patience, you will start to see travel through a different lens. And I know if I can do it, so can you! 😊
I love hearing from you, so if you’ve experienced anxiety around travel or packing, please leave a comment letting me know which tip you found most helpful.
Thank you so much for the new ideas.
You’re so welcome Sue – I’m glad you found them useful 🙂
Love your thoughts and tips. I am highly sensitive, extremely introverted and flying to Italy with several family members for my oldest daughter’s castle wedding in a few weeks 🥳. This weekend was a shorter trip to celebrate my oldest son’s college graduation. I am 60 and have 11 children. 🙏. I really liked the reminder of being specific about where the anxiety/dread is coming from. I thing I need to do that. Not feeling safe, seen or connected came up for me. But overwhelming exhaustion( I am recovering from adrenal burnout) and being HSP and introverted compound everything . Funny, (not really) I thought forever it’s just me. Bad me/weak me. Thank you for your extremely validating post. 🙏
Grateful and feeling more safe, seen and connected.
Hi Suzanne, I’m so glad this post has helped you realize that it’s not just you. There’s nothing bad or wrong about you at all! I see you and understand the burnout and overwhelm. See if breaking everything into the smallest possible pieces might feel helpful for you. You’ve got this and I’m here for you, cheering you on! 🥰
Insightful as always.
I’m so glad you find my posts helpful. ☺️
Omg! Thank you for this! I have only traveled twice since the pandemic and both of those were for two nights only. Then last weekend I traveled to a conference for my brand new job. The broken record was going on and on and on in my head. I’m a terrible packer! I hate packing, I’m so bad at packing, blah blah. I started packing a week in advance, my dozens of lists, and so much anxiety! Everyone that I tell about my packing triggers, minimizes it and laughs at me. They try to give me logical steps to pack more efficiently but I know deep in my heart this wound is from childhood trauma. On the way home from my conference I received your newsletter and I feel so relieved! I am not alone! Thank you!!
Hi Paulette, You’re most definitely not alone. I’m so sorry to hear about the anxiety you’ve been experiencing. Perhaps see if you can use the steps I outlined to explore where specifically in childhood this wound comes from. I’m here for you if you need support. Sending much love your way. ☺️
Thank you so much for this article Karen! I often experience procrastination when I have to pack for a trip, will often stay up all night getting it down and then have to rush to either make it to the airport or avoid rush hour if I’m driving. I really like your idea of making permanent packing lists for different activities and only doing it once and then modifying it. I usually will start a list and sometimes revise it after the trip, but then I lose it and need to recreate from memory when I go on the next trip. After reading your article, I believe that my aversion is some how tied to my father’s dislike of leaving the home. (My father was the “safe” parent so I do tend to adapt a lot of his issues). My mother was the perfectionist and I knew I was in for a miserable time especially if the drive was long. I also knew she wouldn’t be pleased with any of the arrangements on the other end, and it was going to be endless complaints, so why go at all? Better to stay home and avoid the aggravation. I feel that these thoughts are subconsciously wired in my brain, so that even as an adult planning a trip I want to go on, I somehow experience dread just with the thought of leaving.
Thanks for all of your help!
This made so much sense to me Karen.
I was abused while on vacation when I was eight yrs old. I’ve experienced a lifetime of anxiety and depression as a result. I’ve also experienced a lot of ‘natural disasters’ on holidays in other countries … earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes etc.
So I get a lot of panic attacks in airports and especially on aeroplanes.
I have had professional help for my phobias and anxiety, which has helped, but just reading your email brought it home to me, of the underlying survivor trauma that is eternally present.
I’m currently living abroad and not very happy ‘living out of a suitcase.” Just affirming to myself that “I am safe” has helped to soothe my nerves. It gives me strength to hear from you, knowing what you have overcome in your own life.
Thank you for reaching out to us, it means so much.