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Travel Trepidations – Part 2

My last blog introduced you to travel phobias. Now we’ll look deeper into these phobias, and the treatments that could help.

Last time we talked about the “What if’’s” that happen in a feared situation. But where do these scary ideas originate? Often with phobias, fear is learned directly from experience. But travel phobias may also be perpetuated through vicarious learning. A person may not have had an awful flight experience necessarily, or a bad cruise experience, yet somehow a fear develops. You may have noticed that we are bombarded in the media with stories of plane crashes and cruise ship disasters. Though these incidences truly are infrequent, they receive constant media attention. People die in automobile accidents daily, but those events don’t make the news, seem less salient, and make driving a car feel much less deadly. A phobia may develop from this sensationalism that surrounds these tragic yet infrequent travel situations.

If travel fears have you and your family planning a “Staycation” this summer, don’t worry! There is evidenced-based treatment for this type of problem. It is called exposure therapy and it sort of mirrors the old idea of “facing your fears.” When you are afraid of something, it feels good to escape or avoid it, so you will likely continue avoiding it in the future because we like to do what feels good. But the more we avoid, the more difficult it is to get back into doing that particular thing.

For example, let’s say I saw this really terrible airplane crash caused by operator negligence on the news shortly before a scheduled vacation. It has me so upset that I just decide to drive instead. Next summer rolls around and, since I drove the last trip and it wasn’t so bad, I decide I’ll just drive again. The avoidance turns that molehill into a mountain, and the only way down from that mountain is to face the fear.

There are 2 main ways that therapists implement exposure therapy:

  • In vivo exposure means confronting in person. For example, if you fear driving over a bridge, it would mean REALLY driving over a bridge.

  • Imaginal exposure takes place in your imagination. The therapist guides the client through imagery that involves the feared stimuli right in the therapy room.

Though it sounds scary, exposure therapy is really effective, and your therapist won’t start exposure with you until you are ready. Although you will feel anxious during treatment, you will be in a safe environment with your therapist on your team. Best of all, when the time comes and you’re ready to plan a trip, you’ll feel prepared and confident to face your fears in person.

People with travel phobias might never “love” going on an airplane or driving over a bridge, and that’s OK. It’s not about learning to love the thing that you are afraid of. Instead, it’s about learning to tolerate the distress of the travelling so you can get back to enjoying your summer vacation!

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