What to Do if You Suffer an Inflight Panic Attack

By David Lanzas

Inflight panic attacks are without a doubt amongst the top worries of anxious flyers, and this Love2Fly blog has covered how to minimise their likelihood in the past, for example here and here. But if one should unfortunately still strike whilst you’re up in the air, here’s a bit of useful advice on how to handle it and ride it out without angst.

As you no doubt know, panic attack symptoms include heart palpitations, a tingling sensation, nausea, and difficulty breathing – all brought on by the sufferer’s nervous system feeling it’s in danger.

So first and foremost, the main thing is not to fight it. I fully realise that these bodily sensations are not at all pleasant, but the fact is that fighting them only makes you focus more on them, and therefore ends up making them worse. It creates a vicious cycle which can turn your anxiety into a full blown panic attack.

How Exactly Do You Accept Rather than Fight?

Well, start by repeating the following mantra:

These feeling may be unpleasant but they are not dangerous”.

This simple phrase will connect you with the most important thing: it means that your brain and your body are connected and work in tandem.

If you were faced with a ferocious tiger, you’d feel the same but wouldn’t realise it, because your attention would be focused on the beast and not on yourself. What happens with phobias is that there really isn’t a dangerous stimulus, but the brain encodes it as there were. In the absence of “tiger”, your attention focuses on yourself and makes catastrophic interpretations of your bodily sensations, such as “I’m going to have a heart attack” or “I’m going to faint”.

None of that will happen. Remember:

These feeling may be unpleasant but they are not dangerous”.

Focus Your Attention on External Stimuli

Onces you’ve completed the step above, I recommend you seek out details in your surrounding – and preferably not having to do with the plane, since this is at the root of your fear. You might, for example, look at the buttons on the clothes of the people closest to you. Count them; how many are metal, how many plastic? These types of exercises allow you to put distance between yourself and the sensations without trying to reject them, and this gives you time to regulate yourself little by little.

Try to Slow Your Breathing

When you have a panic attack, you may find yourself starting to hyperventilate, which can be very disagreeable indeed, and can lead to shortness of breath. Your instinctive reaction will be to breathe more rapidly. Do not do this.

Hyperventilation occurs because your lungs have more oxygen than they need, not less. Your trachea narrows to make taking in oxygen more difficult, and your mind interprets this as experiencing difficulty breathing.

Making an effort to get more oxygen into your body will only make the driver shut down more. Instead of this you need to take very slow and deep breaths, and after a few minutes the hyperventilation will decrease.

Drink Water (Slowly), Even if You’re not Thirsty

Keeping yourself hydrated throughout a flight is a good idea under any circumstances, but during a panic attack it’s especially crucial, and will help you regulate yourself. And remember, sip, don’t chug.

I do hope these strategies will help you feel safer and more secure if you have an inflight panic attack. Breathe, drink, and stay calm!

David Lanzas, founder of the Instituto Lanzas, is a psychologist specializing in anxiety and trauma.

Photo | Anchiy