Having a Panic Attack on a Plane

By Dominic Giannini, Online Sub-Editor

CW: mental health, anxiety

The tightening chest leaves you gasping. The pit in your stomach leaves you dry-retching. The intense and uncompromising fear  can’t be quelled. For anyone who suffers anxiety, or has ever had a panic attack, these symptoms are all too real. Far from pleasant, a spontaneous onset of panic can take you from excited to overwhelmed in a matter of seconds.

But what should you do if this happens whilst travelling alone in an airport or on a plane?

I want to share my recent experience to call into the void, to let other sufferers know that they are not alone. Anxiety isn’t convenient and panic attacks can happen, even on planes.

A few days ago, I began my travels to South America. I was excited and nervous, but before reaching the departure date, I felt a sudden loss of control. Any sufferer knows this feeling. For those of you who don’t, imagine being suddenly thrown into a mindframe where death and disaster becomes impeding. In a matter of seconds, thanks to a tight chest, nausea and trembling, I had convinced myself that I may have a rare case of yellow fever (despite being vaccinated  only days earlier). At the medical practice, I was told of the very rare, yet theoretically possible,  risk of infection. But this was enough to fill my panicking brain with the certainty that my whole trip would be in vain.

Even now, as I write this article on the aircraft, I can feel the deep throb in my chest that convinces me disaster is inevitable.

But what can you do?

Being trapped in a flying cylinder isn’t exactly paradise for anxious people, but there are a number of steps you can take if you’re having a panic attack alone on a plane or in a terminal.

Just like when your elderly grandmother is over for brunch, the bathroom is your best friend. Find a quiet stall or better yet, a disabled bathroom, and take the time to sit and control your breathing. A quiet, calm space is vital to inhibiting the sensory overload that comes with a panic attack.

This is also a great place to wash your face and collect your thoughts before returning to the outside world. Don’t underestimate how much a bit of cold water on your face can help to reduce your heart rate and hyperventilation.

Water or soft drink can also be a great way to reduce the pain in your stomach. Take small sips and don’t overdo it. If you can, find an opening to get some air, or if you’re on a plane, those little air conditioning jets can work wonders.

Music works. And, as I learnt the hard way, coffee just before a flight doesn’t.

Relaxants such as Travel Calm ginger tablets can help to reduce the severity of some symptoms if you know you’re an anxious flyer.

But most importantly, and the whole reason I’m writing this article, is to not be ashamed of what’s happening.

Anxiety is unfortunately one of life’s certainties, and for some, it’s really hard to deal with. But that invisible hand squeezing your throat or heart or stomach … it lets go.

Panic attacks happen, but it’s really important not to shy away from talking about them, even if it’s uncomfortable. Unfortunately, many people isolate themselves and try to confront these obstacles alone (especially younger men).

It’s always okay to ask for assistance, no matter how dumb you think you sound. Chances are, it’ll help, and your conversations can help to break the cycle of panic and fear that some of us are all too familiar with.

Let’s keep calling into the void.

If this piece caused you distress,  contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636. If it is an emergency, call 000.

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