What to do if you have a panic attack during a flight

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Air travel may not seem like much to many people. But for others, the experience is especially anxious. In fact, these difficult feelings can sometimes be strong enough to trigger a panic attack.

“Fear of flying can be considered a cross-section of different phobias,” said Meg Gitlin, a New York psychotherapist and the voice behind Instagram City Therapist therapy. “For example, the fear of flying could be rooted in other common phobias, such as the fear of heights and the fear of being trapped and not being able to escape.”

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified fears about germs, disease and close contact with strangers. The cancellations of rampant flights and delays of recent times only increase anxiety, and travelers wonder if they will reach their destination. And then there is the increase in incidents of violence on planes.

With all this stress, it is not surprising that some people feel more intense emotions about air travel. And even if the flight environment doesn’t affect you, it’s still possible to have a panic attack while you’re on a plane.

So what should you do if you are experiencing a panic attack during a flight? Then the experts share their tips for facing the moment and preparing for your next trip.

Focus on a breathing exercise

“People who experience panic usually do not breathe through the diaphragm, which can lead to hyperventilation,” he said. Kevin Chapman, a Kentucky clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety-related disorders. “Breathing is a ‘portable tool’ for lowering hyperventilation.”

He recommended inhaling slowly through the nose for four or five seconds and then exhaling through the mouth for six seconds.

“Imagine you’re breathing from your belly, hence the term ‘belly breathing,’ instead of taking more shallow breaths from your lungs,” Gitlin advised. “The focus should be on expanding the stomach and rib cage and going as slowly as possible, with expiration longer than inspiration.”

You can put your hand on your stomach to feel the breath coming in and out. Try counting and repeating the cycle several times.

Apps like Headspace and Calm offer guided breathing exercises; some are even available through on-board entertainment offers from certain airlines.

Use cold water

“My favorite coping mechanism for an approaching panic attack is to hit your system with cold water,” Gitlin said. “This activates what is called a ‘mammal diving reflex.’ It works by activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which conserves our body’s energy and slows our heart rate, allowing us to relax physically.”

Gitlin suggested asking a flight attendant for a glass of ice water and dipping a few fingers in it or rubbing a cold compress on the back of her neck.

“Often, suffocating air or tight seats or heat on an airplane can induce some of the physiological discomfort associated with a panic attack, which is feeling hot red, sweaty palms, heartbeat,” Sue said. Varma, New psychiatrist. York.

Varma also advised applying water to your neck or drinking ice water to help you cool down quickly. Walking in the bathroom and splashing cold water on your face can also help.

Take stock of what is around you

“Taking a position focused on the present and not judging on the flight is a very useful skill when experiencing panic,” Chapman said.

He advised practicing mindfulness, trying to focus your attention on the present moment as you begin to feel uncomfortable, “focusing on how my body feels in the seat, my breathing, the sounds of the plane, the talk, etc. “

If going inward and focusing on your physiological existence doesn’t work, try looking outward.

“An additional strategy is to divert attention from the current distress and toward an outward indication,” Chapman said. “This could include the backrest of the seat in front of you, the people around you, the flight attendants, and so on.”

Making and keeping a list of calming statements on your phone can help relieve a panic attack.

DaniloAndjus via Getty Images

Making and keeping a list of calming statements on your phone can help relieve a panic attack.

Create a list of soothing statements (and use them)

Making coping statements and storing them on your phone for easy access is another useful tool for dealing with anxiety and panic attacks.

“These are very specific to each individual and may seem like, ‘I can do things that I’m afraid of and I’ve survived all the flights I’ve been on,'” Gitlin said. : “I’m going on a flight to visit my sick mother.” Our relationship is very important to me and I am willing to feel uncomfortable seeing it. ”

Chapman advised relying on evidence-based thinking to separate the facts you know from the fictions your mind might create.

“This involves identifying the thoughts that lead to panic, but also recognizing the truth about the panic,” Chapman said. “Panic is uncomfortable but not dangerous. There is a significant difference between discomfort and danger.”

Some evidence-based thoughts that could diminish the increased sensations and feelings associated with panic attacks include: “temporary confinement is not being caught”; “this also happen;” “riding the wave” and “these symptoms are uncomfortable but not dangerous.” Chapman suggested stating these thoughts with a real tone in his head or out loud.

Instead of full statements, you can also find relief with shorter words or phrases.

“You want to be able to say a calm word that you have chosen in advance,” Varma said. “You can say ‘home’ or ‘breathe’ or ‘I’m sure’.”

Ask a doctor about medication

Panic attacks often come out of nowhere. But if you are prone to these sudden episodes, it may be helpful to talk to a professional about your medication options.

“Many people travel with a prescribed dose of short-acting benzodiazepine,” Varma said. “It doesn’t hurt to even book an appointment with a psychiatrist who can help you with this if you travel frequently. You want to discuss all of your specific symptoms with your provider, and this medicine has its own risks and side effects, so it may not be for everyone. “

You can take pre-flight anxiety medications or just have them on hand in case you start to feel a panic attack. While some medications may not work until after the time is up, Varma noted that it can still help with the aftermath or uncomfortable feelings that can follow an episode.

“I think a lot of people don’t even end up taking the medication right now, but they feel a little comfortable knowing it’s there if they need it,” Gitlin said.

Rely on a relaxing outing or a distraction

Before traveling, try to think about what can bring you comfort if you start to feel panic during the flight.

“Is there anything they find soothing?” Gitlin asked. “Maybe that’s uploading a few episodes of your favorite nonsense TV show to your iPad for easy access.”

Varma suggested packing headphones with noise cancellation and downloading music or movies that are fun and entertaining, or bringing some soothing essential oil if that helps you relax.

“In general, I like to tell people who are prone to panic attacks to take a seat in the hallway, pay more for legroom, get to the airport earlier, book a flight for hours. “Don’t worry, let them do everything they can to make their journey less stressful. Get started,” Varma added.

Chapman recommended some in-flight readings to help you understand and feel more in control of your emotions.

“Something therapeutic to help with panic could be reading scientific articles about the nature and causes of anxiety and panic,” he said.

Of course, making every flight worry-free is probably impossible. But you can learn from each experience and feel better prepared for the next one.

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