How to Avoid Inflight Panic Attacks

by David Lanzas

If  you’re a fearful or anxious flyer, one of your concerns when boarding a plane might having a crippling panic attack. This worry might ruin your  
flight, or it becomes severe enough could even lead you to cancel it.

What is a panic attack? The sudden activation of your nervous system in response to danger, whether real or perceived. Anxiety levels can become so high that, once the attack has reached a certain level, it’s unstoppable until it reaches its peak. When your body relaxes again, you feel exhausted. 

When these symptoms, which are unpleasant but not dangerous, are also interpreted as a sign that something is wrong in the body and that your life may be in danger, they are called panic attacks. 

Some examples of the symptoms of an anxiety/panic attack are the fear of losing control, tachycardia and palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, tightness in the throat, and chills.  

If feeling all this on the ground already creates intense fear, the loss of control associated with taking a plane can increase if you’re afraid to fly. That’s why it’s so important to have a basic understanding of how to recognise these symptoms, as well as how to deal with them in flight. 

What often triggers a mid-flight anxiety attack are things that may give you a sense that something might not be right. For example, seat-belt signs come on when you don’t expect them to; the pilot announces possible turbulence; or something as subtle as a change in the behaviour of the flight crew. 

When your mind perceives that you’re not safe, hypervigilance increases in order to feel safer. Paradoxically, this makes you more sensitive to feeling potentially threatened. And it can be avoided with what we call the “five senses strategy, a very simple dynamic which works on the premise of shifting attention – that is, by consciously directing attention elsewhere with an exercise that keeps you out of the loop long enough to prevent anxiety from building up. Here’s how to do it:   

  • Find five things you can see of the same colour – for example, five blue things inside the plane.
  • Four things you can listen to (if possible, pleasant sounds). For example, the sound of the air conditioning coming out; a flight attendant’s shoes walking down the aisle; a fellow passenger’s voice, etc.
  • Three things that you can touch and describe how they feel. For example, the roughness of a leather bag; the fabric of the seat, etc.
  • Two things you can smell. For example, your cologne; the smell of the inflight meals, etc.
  • One thing you can taste. For example, the taste of the mouthwash or toothpaste you used before boarding that you can still perceive if you concentrate on it. 

It’s very important that when this technique is applied it’s done with an awareness of each of the senses. And of course it should be done slowly; don’t rush it. This should be followed by taking slow, deep breaths and drinking water. 

Finally, and very importantly, this is a strategy to help you with emotional regulation in a moment of crisis, but it is never a substitute for therapy. Good therapy is the only thing that can solve the problem at the source. Have a good – and panic-free – flight! 


Founder of Madrid’s Instituto Lanzas, David Lanzas is a psychologist specialising in anxiert and trauma. Follow him on Instagram at @Psicolanzas.
Photo | globalmoments