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This guide is more than jut tips for airport anxiety. It’s for those of us with PTSD and other trauma responses that can’t be calmed quickly and easily. Whether you’ve gone through airport security countless times or if this is your first, if you’re a trauma survivor, there’s a chance of being triggered.

Probably the most triggering thing for a trauma survivor is having people come into your personal space. In many settings…work, social settings, public places, establishing a physical boundary is accomplished pretty easily. However, when it comes to the TSA, you need to be prepared for many scenarios where that is not the case.

Heathrow Airport, London, managing airport anxiety
For some people, being in the airport feels like being in a glass cage

Granted, having your items and even your body scrutinized is not personal, and is natural part of the process of traveling on an airplane. In addition, you always have choices. You can choose to travel to places that don’t require boarding an airplane.  And I recommend doing that if it’s what you need to keep yourself safe. Perhaps in time you’ll be ready for airport security, perhaps not. Trust the process and always put your wants and needs first.

But what about times when there’s no way around it?  Life presents you with a situation that, regardless of triggers, you have to face your fears and do the Airport Security Thing. Well, for what it’s worth, you are definitely not alone. 

My Airport Airport Trauma Response

The first time I felt the brunt of a trauma trigger it brought me to my knees. Unfortunately, I had no warning that a trauma response was going to ambush me. I literally felt blindsided, which of course makes a trigger that much more traumatic.

dark moment in author's life with airport triggers

It was my first big trip to Grand Canyon National Park, and my anxiety spiked to such heights that, despite my 20+ years in recovery, the thought of calming myself with alcohol seemed like the only option. Thank God it wasn’t.

With therapy, journaling, and other self-healing methods, I got through it and so can you. Not only that, but it was on that trip, connecting with the canyon, that I decided to create this blog. It’s always darkest before dawn.

Your Airport Self-Healing Guide

Thankfully you can benefit from my painful ptsd experience. You are here for resources, and since you’re actively participating in your self healing, you’ll fare much better than I did.

Today I love the airport! I cherish the time to myself and totally look forward to going. I love the hustle and bustle, the excitement and anticipation of getting in the air, the diverse and vast opportunity to people-watch, the list goes on and on. This can be your reality, too.

Proactive Approach To Airport Anxiety

Arguably the number one step for mental health self care is  being proactive, whether it is for the airport, a campground, or a beach. Preparing in advance to control the things you can is the foundation for emotional balance. Triggers may still arise. However, remembering to use healthy coping strategies will minimize them. 

Here are ten scenarios and suggestions for trauma survivors can keep themselves safe, healthy, and peaceful when preparing to fly on an airplane.

Before The Airport

Baggage

Decide if you are checking a bag or just doing a carry-on. If just doing carry-on, use the TSA search item list ahead of time to avoid unpleasant surprises at the airport.  

I recommend traveling with only a carry-on. For one thing, you really never need as much as you think you do. Second of all, carrying light goes way beyond a suitcase, it’s embracing the minimalist lifestyle that will pay off in the end. Finally, checking a bag costs more money, takes more time, and creates a lot more stress.

Online Check In

Whatever you decide for baggage, your next step is to check in online. You’ll have the option of loading your boarding pass onto your phone through either an Apple wallet or the airline app. You can also print it beforehand for a hard copy, or print it at the airport.

check in ahead of time to avoid airport anxiety

Airport Map

Next, familiarize yourself with the airport map. A simple practice, but a powerful tool. When using a visual map, make sure you are looking at information for ‘departures’. Airports are designed for travelers to walk in a very defined path according to their travel intention. This reduces stressful navigation and confusion. Therefore, departures and arrivals are located in separate sections.

Example:

The first time I drove myself to the airport, my GPS sent me to the arrivals entrance. My goal was to alleviate stress by staying at a nearby hotel airport the night before my flight out. I planned to use their shuttle early morning the next day.

It seemed like such an easy way to keep things simple. So I drove to the airport the night before and parked my car in the economy lot. Then I called my hotel to pick me up. However, it was immediately apparent I was in the wrong place. Needless to say the hotel shuttle bus driver was furious. I felt really dumb. But if you don’t know, how can you know? Today I look back and laugh.

Where To Go

To know where to go, the first place you start is by the airline you are flying. Think of it like a flow chart, starting with the airline. Then your airline tells you what terminal to go to. Once you go to your terminal, you will eventually follow that to your gate.

Airline > Terminal > TSA> Gate 

author demonstrates finding terminal by airline at PHL
Flying to Dublin on Aer Lingus, Terminal A

Arriving At Airport

 Not Checking a Bag

When you arrive at your terminal, ask airport staff for the nearest security screening station. Make sure they verify the correct gate according to your boarding pass so they send you to the correct screening station. When I traveled to London out of EWR, I had the frustrating experience of being sent through TSA twice. This was because when I entered an area of security check-in, the attendant missed the fact that it was not designated for my gate. It only happened once, but it can happen. So ask before entering make sure you are at the correct security check-in for your gate.

example of author using proper security check point in EWR
In my beeline for the nearest bathroom, I accidentally entered the wrong check point



Checking a Bag

After entering your terminal, enter your information at your airline kiosk. Print your tag at the kiosk, and complete the process with an airline staff member. 


Airport Security Checkpoint

What Is It?

Soon as you sorted your bags, your first stop is TSA. The airport security checkpoint is a crucial part of airport operations to ensure your safety and prevents dangerous items from being brought onto aircraft. 

Make sure you drink or dump your water bottle and other liquids. Most foods are usually fine.

Side Note: Because I prefer to travel with all my own foods, my bags get second screened during TSA all the time. I don’t mind this, because having my foods the ways I like them is very important to my physical and mental health. For example, I like my own coffee and creamer, and my snacks. Therefore, I allow for a few extra minutes for this process.

Initially, I used to feel frustrated that the staff members would not return my belongings packed neatly and compact the way I arranged them. To maintain my peace of mind, I no longer hold the expectation that it will be the way I like it. Also, when this happens, I don’t judge myself or others. This is one example of my self love and self-care. Keeping things orderly and the way I like them is important to my mental health because it makes me feel safe.

Nonetheless, this process can be very triggering for a variety of reasons. If it’s your first time, familiarize yourself with the process. Fear of the unknown always makes everything worse. Millions of people go through airports without incident every day. Remind yourself that this process is for your protection and safety. It helps to keep anxiety or feeling like a victim at bay. 

What You Do

As travelers approach the checkpoint, they are typically required to present their boarding pass and identification to security personnel.

waiting in long airport lines produces anxiety

Self Healing Strategy

The first step is always to acknowledge the trigger. You do this by leaning into it, which means accepting, not resisting the discomfort. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works to begin processing the emotions in healthy ways.

So, focus on grounding yourself. Pay attention to your breath and become aware of any emotions or bodily sensations you’re experiencing. 

Second, explore what is provoking your reaction, and approach your thoughts with a sense of curiosity. 

Third, try to pinpoint the trigger. It’s alright if it’s not immediately clear. 

Fourth, approach this process with compassion. Allow yourself to feel safe by using self-soothing techniques, and permit yourself to fully experience your emotions. 

Dog Screenings

What Is It?

Be aware that some airports screen using dogs which can be very intimidating. However, the dogs and their handlers are highly skilled professionals. They do this every day all day long. So their routine is like a choreographed event.

What You Do

Find out if the airport uses service dogs for security screenings. If so, you always have choices. You can find a different airport to fly out of, or you can utilize some techniques to prepare you for this situation. 

Self Healing Strategy

The first step is always to acknowledge the trigger. You do this by leaning into it, which means accepting, not resisting the discomfort. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works to begin processing the emotions in a healthy way.

Pay attention to what your internal dialogue is telling you, and whether you need to recite an affirmation like, ‘I am safe’. Often, once you’ve comforted yourself, there can be a noticeable improvement in your mood. At times, the change is subtle; other times, it can be quite significant. 

Next, consciously re-frame the situation to one that is non-threatening.

dog screenings can produce anxiety at the airport but re-framing helps

Seeing something interesting like working dogs can be an entertaining situation rather than a triggering one. Use your imagination to distract yourself. Observe the dogs and pretend you can hear what they’re thinking. Make up dialogue for them. Use whatever playful imaginings that make you feel happy.

Waiting In Line

What Is It?

This one may seem obvious, but for a trauma survivor like me who experienced abuse in the form of being forced to stay in one place, waiting can trigger a desperate state of feeling trapped.

feeling trapped can be a trigger for some

Depending on the airport, you will have anywhere from a 5 to 90 minute wait. Some airports have apps that give real time reports of wait time. This is good to keep you informed, but usually you need to go through a line designated by your gate, so you probably won’t switch to another line if you decide it’s too long.

What You Do

When you reach the front, place your carry-on items and all of your electronics in an individual bin for X-ray screening. Most times you’ll be asked to remove your shoes, and jackets / sweatshirts. Also, all liquids, aerosols, and gels in your carry-on luggage must adhere to quantity restrictions of 3.4 oz and be put in a quart size baggie.

This is known as the the 3-1-1 liquids rule:

  • 3.4 ounces or less per container.
  • 1 quart size, clear, plastic, zip top bag (all liquids must fit in bag)
  • 1 bag per passenger.

If you’re not sure what to do or worried about doing it right, pay attention and watch what the people before you in line are doing. Chances are you will learn by watching. Then when it’s your turn, it will be less threatening.

Self Healing Strategy

The first step is always to acknowledge the trigger. You do this by leaning into it, which means accepting, not resisting the discomfort. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works to begin processing the emotions in a healthy way.

To help with waiting in a long line at the airport, start by taking deep, slow breaths – inhale through your nose, count to four, then exhale through your mouth. This calms your mind. Then, gently observe your surroundings. Notice the colors, shapes, and movements without judging them, keeping your mind present.

Feel your body, pay attention to your feet on the ground or your hands by your side, which helps you stay grounded. Practice gratitude by thinking of things you’re grateful for, like the opportunity to travel. You can also use the time to think about the fun or important things you’ll do once you reach your destination, which shifts your mind to excitement from frustration. Remember, the line will move eventually, and this is just a small part of your journey, turning a frustrating wait into a moment of peace and self-care pays off.

Body Scan

What Is It?

At the airport security checkpoint, the process begins with passengers walking through a full-body scanner. This scanner, which rotates around the individual, is checking for any items in your pockets or on the person. 

What You Do

You’ll be instructed to stand on marked spots, raise your hands above your head, and remain still for about two seconds.

After your scan, you’ll be instructed to walk through. Then wait for your belongings to arrive on the conveyor belt and through the x-ray machine. If the X-ray screening identifies any item as potentially concerning, it may be taken aside for further manual inspection by security personnel.

For amusement, watch the x-ray screen and see if you can guess what the item is.

Last, retrieve your things and put your shoes back on.

Self Healing Strategy

The first step is always to acknowledge the trigger. You do this by leaning into it, which means accepting, not resisting the discomfort. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works to begin processing the emotions in a healthy way.

Next, begin an internal dialogue with yourself. This may sound like, “This is hard. You want these feelings to go away. That’s OK. I’m just gonna be here for a moment. I see you, I know you’re there and I care. I will come back again later.” This practice is reinforcing that you are your own best friend, and that no matter what, you will be there for yourself.

be your own best friend to combat airport anxiety

Normally, you would now be free to proceed to your departure gate. However, there are three possible scenarios which, if experienced, may create a trauma trigger in survivors.

Bag Inspections

What Is It?

If the X-ray screening identifies any item as potentially concerning, it may be taken aside for further manual inspection by security personnel. That’s when your bags need to be opened for a closer look. TSA members will put on latex gloves and sometimes do tests on items that they need to examine. 

Example:

On my trip to the Grand Tetons, I was hybrid camping and packed many extra food items. I had sugar, coffee, and powdered creamer pulled for closer inspection. The containers were opened, slightly spilled, placed back in positions different than how I packed them. That didn’t feel good.

stay calm when baggage is opened for inspection  at airport security
Your bag, and everything in it, is precious. Having it rummaged through feels terrible

What You Do

This is a routine situation so the calmer you remain, the faster it will go.  Try not to debate with the officers during the process. Just watch and observe.

When I was flying to Montana, I witnessed TSA members become extremely reactive when a traveler reached for their belongings across the counter during inspection. Don’t do that. It will make the situation escalate and be more stressful for you. 

Put your hands in your pockets if you think it will help you not react. Remember being proactive,  not reactive, is always in your best interest.

use strategies to help stay calm when airport anxiety kicks in

Self Healing Strategies

The first step is always to acknowledge the trigger. You do this by leaning into it, which means accepting, not resisting the discomfort. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works to begin processing the emotions in a healthy way.

It’s very normal to feel like your boundaries are being violated when a stranger is rearranging your personal belongings. It may even elicit anger. However, reacting from mental stress or pressure will fail you, because as soon as tension begins, the mind stops working creatively. Forcing things mentally stops your creative power, and thinking of options proactively becomes impossible.

All mental working must be relaxed, gentle, and patient during a trigger. To interrupt a reaction, get out of your head and activate your five senses. Tap your foot. Hum a song to yourself. Count items you can see randomly. If you immediately use a strategy when triggers start, in time it will become an automatic response.

Pat Downs

What Is It?

At airport security, a pat-down is when a security person checks you with their hands over your clothes to make sure you’re not carrying anything not allowed. This usually happens if something beeps during the first check or if you don’t want to go through the scanning machine.

Certain types of clothing, fabrics, or folds in clothing can create the appearance of an anomaly in the crotch area on the scanner’s image.

The worst case scenario for being triggered during security, in my opinion, is being pulled aside for a full body pat down. I have experienced this when flying to Utah, and it is not pleasant. However, there is strict protocol including a script that TSA must follow. Take some comfort in knowing your boundaries are protected by law.

What You Do

Stand in front of the officer and listen to their instructions. They will explain everything they are about to do. You do have the right to request a private screening if you choose, and to have a witness present. 

What are your options if you refuse? 

If you refuse a pat-down at airport security, your options are limited. Security procedures, including pat-downs, are mandatory for passenger safety. Refusing a pat down means you will not be allowed to board your flight.

Self Healing Strategies

The first step is always to acknowledge the trigger. You do this by leaning into it, which means accepting, not resisting the discomfort. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works to begin processing the emotions in a healthy way. Use a mantra or affirmations in a repeated fashion. They help settle your thoughts, build resilience, and foster a sense of inner peace. Here’s a list of affirmations designed to support your journey through healing from trauma:

the wonderful world of animism

I am safe now. My past does not define my present.

I acknowledge my feelings and know that they do not control me.

I am worthy of healing and happiness.

With each breath, I release the hold trauma has on me.

I am stronger than my triggers and I have the power to overcome them.

I choose to heal and welcome peace and calm into my life.

My courage is stronger than my fear.

I am gently moving towards a future where I am free from the pain of the past.

I deserve to heal and to live a life filled with joy and peace.

Each day, I grow stronger and more resilient.

I am surrounded by love and support, both seen and unseen.

I give myself permission to heal at my own pace.

I am capable of navigating my healing journey with grace.

My heart is open to healing and new beginnings.

I trust in my ability to heal and thrive.

It’s important to let every part of yourself be acknowledged, grieved, and resolved. This can be achieved by expressing and truly feeling your emotions. Remember, it’s the suppression of these feelings that can lead to dysfunction.

Randomly Selected For a Secondary Screening

What Is It?

Being randomly selected for a secondary screening at the airport means you’ve been chosen for an extra check. This isn’t because of anything specific you’ve done; it’s just an additional step for safety. In this extra check, they might look through your bags more closely, do a pat-down, or use a wand to scan for anything not allowed. It’s just to make sure everything is safe before you board your flight.

What You Do

Remind yourself, you’ve done nothing wrong, and you are safe, again it will go very quickly. When I was flying out of Barbados, I was selected and ended up boarding the plane apart from the other passengers. It felt slightly disorienting, but airport staff makes it easier.

airport in Barbados when author randomly selected for secondary screening
‎⁨Grantley Adams International Airport⁩, ⁨Christ Church⁩, ⁨Barbados⁩

Self Healing Strategy

This is an unexpected situation, which by definition can cause stress for a trauma survivor. Especially when in an already heightened emotional state. That’s why it’s more important than ever to speak gently to yourself. Then ground yourself so you can make sure you understand what is being said to you.  

Showing up for yourself in loving gentle ways  leads to experiencing a deep sense of tranquility and care. Through self-love and acceptance, you discover your own strength to do hard things.

In this process,  you may find you’ve honored and healed past hurts. This might produce a sense of comforting warmth in your heart. You are no longer at the mercy of trauma response fears. You have learned to cultivate a feeling of security within yourself.

FAQ for Airport Security for Trauma Survivors

Yes, you can bring medication, including liquid medication, through security. It’s not necessary to declare medications, but it can be helpful to do so, especially if they’re in liquid form and exceed the usual liquid limits. Keeping medications in their original, labeled containers can also streamline the process.

If you feel overwhelmed, communicate with a TSA officer about needing a moment to collect yourself. There are also quiet rooms in some airports designed for passengers to take a break from the hustle and bustle. Don’t hesitate to ask for one.

Quiet room for individuals to calm and decrease trauma triggers

Are there any accommodations for individuals with anxiety or mental health concerns?

Yes, many airports offer assistance for travelers with mental health concerns. You can contact the airport or your airline in advance to inquire about any available services, such as early boarding or assistance through security. The TSA Cares helpline (1-855-787-2227) can also provide support for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions.

PHL airport can be busy but quiet time is possible
It may not be easy to get a moment of quiet in an airport, but it is possible

How early should I arrive at the airport to ensure I have enough time to get through security without rushing?

It’s generally recommended to arrive at least 2 hours before domestic flights and 3 hours before international flights. If anxiety is a concern, allowing extra time can create a buffer that reduces stress about making it to your gate on time.

fun passport for international travel when airport anxiety is resolved
Arrive 3 hours early for international flights

FAQ’s

Can I wear headphones through airport security to help stay calm?

Yes, but you may be asked to remove them when going through the metal detector or body scanner. Preparing a calming playlist or meditation track on your device can help you relax while waiting in line, just be ready to remove your headphones as you approach the screening equipment.

What should I do if I’m selected for additional screening?

Stay calm and follow the instructions given by TSA officers. Remember that additional screening is a standard procedure and not indicative of wrongdoing. If you have concerns or need accommodations during the screening, communicate clearly and calmly with the officers. 

Can I bring a comfort object, like a stuffed animal or blanket, through security?

Absolutely. Comfort objects are allowed through security. Just be prepared to place them on the conveyor belt to go through the X-ray machine. Explaining to the TSA officer that it’s a comfort object can also be helpful.

What is the best airline website to book flights?

I recommend using Booking.com for flights because it’s simple and straightforward, and offers excellent fares.

author's teddy bear to stay calm in airport
I never travel without my teddy bear

You Made It

Now you have gone through every aspect of TSA, breathe a sigh of relief and head to your gate.

As a reward to yourself, use the time in the airport as “Me Time” to indulge unlimited screen time to delight and entertain you while you wait. Or feel free to jot it all down as a reminder to how awesome you are! It’s all about you, no housework, no errands, just you and your self care. Bask in the joy of empowerment.

beautiful photograph of airplane at PHL
With self-care and practice, flying with forever be smooth sailing

Final Thoughts

I have had everything go wrong in an airport and came away unfazed. I’ve also had nothing go wrong and felt terrified. Navigating triggers in the airport is just like navigating them everywhere else. The first time can be the hardest. But being ready and having a safety plan will make it much easier.

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