Air Travel: 13 Reasons it’s Anxiety-Inducing

I recently (two days ago) traveled across the country. I’m still recovering. Air travel is awful for my anxiety. I’m sure this isn’t universal for people with anxiety. However, I bet a lot of these ring true for people. It bothers me so much that I’m getting majorly panicky just writing this post.

Chronologically, here are 13 reasons why air travel sucks for people with anxiety:

  1. Preparing.

    1. The place you’re going has a million different possible kinds of weather, and you need to pack clothing for everything. And footwear. And protective gear (sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, ski jacket, toque, etc.). And there’s inevitably a special event you’re going to while you’re there that requires a particular outfit. And you have to account for the gifts you’ll get while you’re there. Because if you get to the airport and your weight is over, you have to get rid of stuff, and that would cause a full-blown panic attack. You pack as many pieces of versatile clothing as possible, stuff your two carry-on bags as full as possible (and yes, each of them are as full and large as the dimensions and weight allotments allow), and weigh everything 3 times just to be sure. Oh, and you wear your heaviest clothing for the plane ride – two birds with one stone, am I right? No worrying about being cold, and you can take more stuff with you, because they aren’t going to weigh you.
    2. Then there are the lists. You make three or four different packing lists and lose them all. Then you call two, maybe three different people and ask them to run through a list of all the things they think you might need to pack, to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. And you double- and triple-check your bags to make sure you have everything, and inevitably, STILL forget something (this time for me it was my Fitbit charger).
  2. Getting to the airport.

    1. For me, this involves pulling my very heavy suitcase and carry-on bags for about 15 minutes at top speed (if you know me, you’ll know this is a huff-and-puff-level speed walk) through downtown Vancouver to the Skytrain station, somehow managing to get my compass card out of my wallet without anyone stealing anything from me, tap it on the fare gate, get it back into my wallet, and huff down the stairs to the platform carrying all my bags (because there is no down escalator, and the elevator is so slow it would cause me to miss the next train and delay me by 7 minutes – those minutes are precious!!). I then proceed to sweat from the exertion of the walk and stairs pretty much all the way to the airport (24 minutes), at which point I start to shiver. Then I have to load up all my things again, somehow get my compass card out of my wallet again and tap out, somehow get it back into my wallet, and begin the trek down the tramway, escalator, and to the check-in area.
    2. Because of all the possible things that could go wrong in this process, I spend a long time fretting over when I should leave my apartment. The train ride is 24 minutes, but I could just miss one when I get to the station, which could mean anywhere from a 6 to 13 minute wait, depending on the time of day. Foot traffic could also be bad downtown, depending on the season (in the summer there are sooooooo many pedestrians downtown) which adds to my travel time AND my anxiety (ever tried to dodge a group of tourists gawking at everything they see and walking SLOWLY five abreast on the sidewalk while carrying a 50 lb suitcase, 22 lb backpack, 22 lb secondary carry-on, purse and DSLR camera? PANIC!). There’s also the possibility of something going wrong with the Skytrain, and add to that the possibility of suitcase roller malfunction (it’s happened) and the fact that my elevator could suck (it sucks all the time) and easily add 5 minutes to my travel time, and I’m losing my mind with worry.
  3. Airport arrival times.

    This is technically an add-on to #2. Air Canada now suggests arriving anywhere from 60-90 minutes early for domestic flights. THIS IS NOT HELPFUL. If I get there with 60 minutes to go, is that enough?! SOMETIMES. But not always. Especially at YVR, the flightiest airport ever as far as busy-ness goes. It’s either busy as heck or you can hear crickets chirping in there. 90 minutes it is, sigh. In all likelihood, I’ll get there and hear crickets, but AT LEAST I WON’T BE LATE. All of these time considerations together have me leaving my apartment at least 2:30 before my domestic flight is scheduled to leave.

  4. Check-in.

    There are now five steps to check-in, each of which require talking to a person who assumes you know nothing. Talking to people I don’t know is hard enough, but when they’re trying to help me? UGH. I know they mean well and are just trying to do their jobs, but I would honestly just prefer to be left alone, you feel me? I know what I’m doing. This is also where the boarding pass saga begins. I try to always keep mine in the same place so this doesn’t happen, but I’m always losing it and CONSTANTLY worrying about remembering where it is and trying to get it out and into said spot quickly so as not to hold anyone up.

    1. The kiosk.
      If you’re like me, you did this online exactly 24 hours before flight time, so as to have the best chance to get a seat that doesn’t suck. If you’re like me this time, you were getting a bride ready for her wedding 24 hours before flight time and couldn’t check in until the morning of and accordingly got the worst seat ever, which just added to the anxiety. More on that later. If you didn’t do it online, it’s an extra step at one of the self-check-in kiosky thingies. Here you frantically try to get your e-mail to return your booking reference number, because your printer died when you checked in at home (of course) and you couldn’t print your boarding passes to scan them, all the while hoping no one comes over to see if you need any help (No I’m fine thank you very much). When you finally find it by scrolling through your thousands of e-mails (when searches of “Air Canada,” “August 8,” and “Saint John” didn’t work – damn you Mail app..), you punch it in, …and get an error. Hello, check-in line, hello, longer check-in time, and hello, panic.
    2. The bag tags.
      If you’re fortunate enough not to get an error at the kiosk, you proceed to attaching your own bag tags. Beware, the edges are sharp. One time I got a serious paper cut and had to spend time running around the touristy shops trying to find a person that could give me a Band-Aid. Cue more panic. By now you’re probably thinking, gosh, this girl has seen it all. Well, I’ve seen a lot in my 20+ years of traveling back and forth across the country and the Atlantic, but it gets better!
    3. The fork.
      Then you get to go to the split in the line up, where you have to talk to someone else. I usually try to walk straight through looking like I know exactly what I’m doing (which I do), and go straight to bag drop, so that I don’t have to interact with the person who checks to make sure you have your bag tag on properly before allowing you to go to bag drop, or forcing you to go back to the kiosk, or sending you on to the special check-in desk.
    4. The wrench.
      Vancouver (perhaps other places, also, now) has added another spot, I think to add to the speed of things, where they can take you from the middle of the line-up to drop your bag instead of waiting in line for bag drop. Generally, unexpected things popping up tend to make people with anxiety uncomfortable. So this time yet another Air Canada employee accosted me to get me to drop my bag. Why are you talking to me?! I was unprepared! He asked me if I was alone, and when I said yes, I got to skip the line. Yay. But I was unprepared for this added step, panic.
    5. Bag drop desk.
      If you’re not taken aside early, you talk to the person at the booth and they take your boarding pass, scan your bag, and send you on to bag drop. Normally I remember to keep my boarding pass out so I don’t have to search for it when I get to the front of the line, but if not, panic.
    6. The weigh-in.
      At bag drop, you have to weigh your bag. This is the part where I put it on the moving scale and watch the number carefully. I take note if it matches my scale at home for future reference, so I can compensate either way in the future if it doesn’t. And if it’s overweight, I prepare to full-on panic, because all the previous steps are null and void and I need to figure out what to do. Especially if I’m alone which I normally am, because I can’t offload any of my extra things. I think sometimes the people at the scale take pity on me if it’s over and just give me a stern warning. It makes my stomach churn, but at least I’m not having a panic attack.
  5. Security.

    1. The first scan.
      Next you need your boarding pass again to give to the person at the start of the security line.
    2. The swab.
      Then there’s a person who directs you to which lineup you need to stand in (in Vancouver, there are about 8). They also randomly select you for testing. I was selected this time for a hand and bag swab (this is before you even hit the x-ray conveyor belts). I’ve been randomly selected for this before, and tested positive for explosive residue (I know, right?!), so naturally, panic. Thankfully this time it’s fine, but I’ve had to open all my bags, and when the person is finished I’m rushing to pack up because they’re already telling me where to go and keep repeating themselves as I try to pack up as quickly as possible, as if them saying over and over which lane I should go into will make me move faster and not give me a panic attack.
    3. The line.
      Now that I’m actually in the security lineup, I have to try to think about how many buckets I need, because the people behind you in line inevitably want to get through as fast as possible and try to take buckets behind you before you’re even done loading yours. Panic. And then if you haven’t taken enough, you have to reach back across them and get more. Panic. And then the people ahead of me have gone too fast, and I’m still taking my laptop out of my bag and chugging my water because I forgot it was in there while the person is reaching for my boarding pass. Ma’am, boarding pass? Ma’am, boarding pass? PANIC. YES IT’S COMING. Then she frowns at me because the Montreal-Saint John pass is on top, and says, “Wrong pass.” Panic. I’m like, LADY IT’S BELOW THE ONE YOU’RE LOOKING AT JUST FIND IT YOURSELF I’M STILL TRYING TO GET MY BELT OFF. PANIC.
    4. The gate.
      Then there’s the heart-stopping walk through the scanner gate. You beep, and get scanned with the beepy thingy or patted down. Or, you don’t beep and there’s the possibility that they’ll randomly select you for the full-body scanner anyway, which I’ve had happen multiple times. Oh, and there’s the possibility that they’ll think there’s something strange in your bag, and they’ll take EVERYTHING OUT and expect you to put it back there in 3.5 seconds while they push other people’s bags and buckets toward you. PANIC. Oh, and it was just for the pointy-looking tail of the porcelain salamander you bought on your honeymoon in Mexico. Good grief. When I bought it I didn’t imagine it as a weapon, but NOW I DO BECAUSE GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE.
    5. Repacking.
      When I’ve finally put my shoes, belt, sweater and jacket on (remember, heavy layers!) and I’ve sweat another bucket of water trying to get out of people’s ways as quickly as possible, I’m finally free to head to my gate.
  6. The gate.

    1. The wait.
      Oh, I’m at the gate an hour early? Great. There’s no available seating? Great. At least my giant carry-on bags double as headrests. It’s going to take me the whole hour to stop sweating again, by which point I’ll once again be freezing cold.
    2. The twist.
      (30 minutes pass) “It’s 30 minutes to boarding. Why aren’t we boarding yet? This is a big plane… Oh no, we’re going to be late. I’m going to miss my connection. It’s the last flight to SJ tonight. Oh god, I’m going to have to sleep on the floor in Montreal oh god oh god PANIC. I wonder if something is wrong with the plane. Air Canada never tells you if anything is wrong unless it’s too late oh god oh god. Wait…. Toronto?!?! I’m not going to TORONTO! They changed the gate!!! No announcement?!?!” ANGER. PANIC.
  7. Gate change.

    Once I’ve picked up my four bags and managed to make the trek all the way across the airport to the new, UNANNOUNCED gate, I find another spot on the floor (now there’s REALLY nowhere to sit, because I’m technically late now), and resume all the panic steps of #6, because they’re still not boarding the flight.

  8. Boarding.

    1. Documents.
      Now I need my boarding pass out AND my ID. And heaven forbid I forget my ID until I get to the front of the line, because it always gets stuck in the photo pocket of my wallet and takes ages to get out. Panic.
    2. The zones.
      I also get super anxious in the line because now they have boarding zones. Naturally, I’m always in the last one. So I stand around waiting for them to call zone 4 or 5, holding all of my heavy bags, because putting them down isn’t an option – I’d then have to do the process of picking them back up when they call my zone and I’d end up last in line. I also have to worry more about something getting stolen when they’re sitting on the floor.
    3. Actual boarding.
      And the whole time I’m waiting in line I’m worrying about boarding, because I don’t want to have to climb over someone when I get on the plane. Because for some reason, window seats are in the zone AFTER aisles, RIDDLE ME THAT. Another forced interaction with a person I’m inconveniencing by making them stand up. Or, on one occasion, a person who is literally going to not move at all and force me to CLIMB OVER THEM to get to my seat. There’s a reason I often get aisle seats now, especially on long flights. I hate making people move for me, and I inevitably have to get up to pee at least once on the 5-hour flight to Montreal, so, alas, I take the less-comfortable aisle seat so I don’t have to ask someone to let me go to the bathroom. It’s even worse if they’re sleeping. I can’t wake up a sleeping person! That’s terrifying!
  9. The flight.

    1. Flight.
      First of all, takeoff is horribly alarming. That drop when the plane levels off is next-level anxiety inducing. Turbulence is even worse. If you’ve seen Donnie Darko, the airplane crash scene is what I picture literally every time there’s turbulence. If you haven’t seen it, picture being in the middle of a terrifying plane crash, dark, thunderous clouds and all.
    2. Bathroom – aisle seat.
      If I’m lucky enough to be sitting in an aisle on the long flight, I can pee whenever I want. However, I have to be aware that the person beside me is probably also going to want to pee, so I shouldn’t sleep for too long if I don’t want to force them to have to wake me up to go.
    3. Bathroom – no aisle seat.
      If I’m not in an aisle, like this last time (I was in the middle on a 2-4-2, just the worst), I have to hold it for as long as possible. I try to wait for an opportune moment to ask to go. The best time is when the person beside you goes to the bathroom, because you can just get up and go with them. The person sitting beside me this time had a baby, probably max 3 months. She was hoping he would sleep as much as possible. So, once I needed to use the washroom, I had to wait until a time when he was awake.  I couldn’t possibly ask to go when he was sleeping and risk having him wake up when his mom stood up to let me out. Just. The. Worst.
  10. Getting off the plane.

    If the plane is on time, thank the lord. If not, the already anxiety-inducing de-planing is made even more stressful by the fact that you’re watching the seconds tick by on your watch. Each one that passes adds to the chances that they’re going to shut the door to your connection in your face, literally. (Again, it’s happened. The woman who did it to me was smiling.)

    1. Standing.
      In general, as soon as the seatbelt sign is off, EVERY SINGLE PERSON ON THE PLANE is standing, ready to de-plane. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? I’m still putting my shoes on. The g-force of the descent prevents this from being comfortable while moving. Then I’ve got to shuffle through every part of my seat pocket and underneath the seat in front of me five thousand times before I’m sure I didn’t forget anything. Then I can stand up.
    2. Etiquette.
      The regular etiquette of de-planing is one row at a time, which people inevitably try to get around. This makes me both angry and anxious. Then, when it’s my turn I have to worry about holding people up while I pull down my extra carry-on and camera from the overhead bin and try not to hit anyone with it.
  11. The connection.

    Next I find the gate screen as quickly as possible and huff-and-puff to my next gate. Repeat steps 6-10.

  1. Baggage collection.

    1. The wait.
      When I’m finally off the plane, I have the heart-stopping wait at the baggage collection area. Usually my bag is the very last off (thanks to being so early to the airport – first on, last off). I wait and wait as everyone collects their things. Nothing. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been left without bags. There’s a reason my handbag looks like an apothecary. My suitcase has been lost so many times that if it’s important, like prescription medication, it’s in my carry-on. No, security person who can x-ray into my purse, I’m not a drug-dealer, just prepared, don’t give me that look.
    2. The report.
      Then I’m off to the counter to explain that my suitcase is black and big just like everyone else’s, and left to worry until it arrives.
    3. The drop-off.
      Usually the next day at the crack of dawn, while I’m bleary-eyed and still wearing my bathrobe, I have to run down the stairs to greet the taxi driver. Panic.
  2. Decompress.

    Get home. Have a hot drink. Revel in the fact that I didn’t die of anxiety for the 31-millionth time.

I have to do this again in just over a week? God help me.


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A Vancouverite that grew up in the Maritimes, I'm a married, millennial, rugby-playing, PNW-exploring high school teacher who loves reading, art, and nature. And I have generalized anxiety disorder.

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