How to handle the anxiety around covid testing for travel

“Testing anxiety is completely understandable,” says Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of VisitorsCoverage, a travel insurance marketplace. “The key is to plan.”

Although no one can guarantee the outcome of your test, there are ways to ensure you’ll get your results faster. And there are several coping strategies that can help you deal with pre-trip coronavirus testing worries.

When it comes to coronavirus test anxiety, I have firsthand experience. At the start of the omicron surge, I found myself in Doha, Qatar. I had enjoyed several relaxing days touring the Souq Waqif, riding the new Metro and exploring the dunes. Before leaving, I took the PCR test required by my next stop, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and waited for the results.

The test results didn’t show up. I paced my hotel room at the Al Najada. I couldn’t sleep. I stopped eating. It turned out that Hamad General Hospital, where the PCR tests were handled, was experiencing understandable processing delays. (Spoiler: I missed my flight while I waited for my results, but I made it to Abu Dhabi the next day.)

There are better ways to handle this kind of anxiety. Colleen Cira, a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma, recommends eliminating as much guesswork as possible on the front end. Book a rapid PCR test, for example, even if it costs extra.

“Find out exactly how long it will take to get results back — and get it in writing,” Cira says. “Often, the people answering the phones may not be entirely clear or are so busy they struggle to listen well. Take the time to do your research so that you can feel confident that you are booking the right test at the right place, which helps ensure that you will have what you need when you need it.”

Rapid PCR tests can be expensive, but they’re worth it. When I flew from San Francisco to the Azorean island of São Miguel in November, I took three PCR tests: two free ones offered by a public clinic in Los Angeles, and the other a rapid PCR test that cost about $120. Only the rapid PCR test provided results on time.

Timing can also be a factor in other ways. Tracy Schatz, owner of Elite Travel Journeys, counsels her clients to avoid traveling on Mondays, because weekends can cause delays. “A friend’s daughter who was traveling for a semester abroad recently ran into this dilemma when her result from a Friday test was not back in time for her Monday departure,” she recalls. Fortunately, they found a facility that would do a rapid PCR test, and she made her flight.

A comprehensive travel insurance policy can also increase your peace of mind, says Jennifer Rubinstein, a travel adviser with Embark Beyond, a luxury travel agency. “Especially these days, circumstances can change in an instant, forcing travelers to change their travel plans. While some hotels have been flexible about changing dates, this is not always the case.” Additionally, travel insurance companies such as Allianz have 24/7 help desks that can find you a testing center when you’re away from home.

So what could make you even more nervous than a last-minute coronavirus test? Failing it. If you haven’t left home, it’s a major inconvenience, but you can always postpone, isolate and travel later.

If you’re at your destination, you could be in a world of hurt. This is when planning ahead will really pay off. Before you go, check with a knowledgeable travel adviser who can help you find a hotel with a coronavirus testing center or isolation options. If you’re taking a multi-destination trip, ask your travel adviser to pull up this information for each potential isolation location. Knowing your choices before you leave can ease some of your fears.

Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders, says a positive test result can hit travelers particularly hard. “It’s feelings of anxiety, anger and disappointment,” she says. “But if you test positive, at least you know, which means you can begin to take steps forward to plan and regroup.”

If you’ve taken all these steps — insured your trip, taken a rapid PCR test and developed a contingency plan — you can remove some of the worry. But not all of it.

Jean Holthaus, a therapist who treats anxiety disorders, says feeling nervous is normal, even in the absence of a pandemic. That’s because travel comes with inherent risks.

“Our bodies are designed to feel anxiety in response to external threats which could harm us,” she says. “This means you are experiencing normal anxiety when you think about the increased risks currently associated with traveling or the possibility your travel plans will be disrupted.”

If you’ve done everything you can to minimize the risk of traveling, you have to accept what you can’t control.

“Acknowledging your anxiety is important and will help you relax and engage in strategies to manage it,” Holthaus says.

That may be the hardest part of managing coronavirus testing anxiety: accepting that the outcome may not be up to you. I’m still working on that part.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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