How To Prevent And Manage A Panic Attack On A Plane

panic attack on plane


Nearly 25 percent of Americans say they are scared of flying. And if you’re one of those travelers with a phobia, you might worry about the prospect of having a panic attack while on the plane. Will you be able to catch your breath? Will the pilot have to stop the plane?

While it’s true that panic attacks cause flight delays in instances when passengers need emergency help, these are rare cases. And with good coping mechanisms up your sleeve, you won’t be the person who causes an emergency landing out of pure distilled fear.

When You’re On The Ground…

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While you’re in the airport before your flight, try to keep your muscles and mind relaxed. Do small stretches and visualize a safe flight. If your doctor has prescribed you an anti-anxiety drug for the trip, now is a good time to take it.

Depending on your level of anxiety, you might want to clue a flight attendant in on your fear before you board the plane. They’re the experts while in the air and they can keep an eye on you during your flight.

When You’re On The Plane…

Since one of the first symptoms of a panic attack is difficulty breathing, wearing tight clothing and a seat belt make panic attacks feel more imminent. Wear loose, breathable clothing on the plane and keep your seat belt fastened, but not so tight that it affects your physical comfort.

However, don’t confuse the basic physical sensations of being on a plane with symptoms of an impending panic attack. Ready yourself for ear popping, feeling lighter and possibly motion sickness. During take-off, you’ll likely feel the shift in pressure from ground to sky. It’s not comfy for anyone, but you can rest assured knowing it’s not only you feeling these symptoms.

While the plane is taking off, the flight attendants are also seated. If you need help during this time, you might have to wait a minute until the plane is at cruising altitude.

When the seat belt sign is off, take short walks around the plane. Maybe splash some water on your face and wrists in the bathroom to keep yourself feeling fresh.

If You’re Beginning To Panic…

Symptoms of a panic attack include crying, breathlessness, chest pain and dizziness. If you feel yourself beginning to panic, don’t hesitate to ask for help. You can always ask a flight attendant for a glass of water. Each seat on the airplane has a call button for assistance.

The scariest part of a panic attack is the out-of-control feeling, so if you can cut it off before it spirals, your flight will be much easier. Start with deep, slow breathing. If the seat belt sign allows, take a trip to the bathroom for a change of scenery and the opportunity to move around. It’s a good idea to bring back some wet paper towels to put on your forehead for an extra buffer against stress.

Make sure you have an activity to fill your time on the plane. We suggest a great book or TV show that will fully capture your attention. There’s no time for anxiety when you’re devouring Sweetbitter or watching “Riverdale’s” melodrama.

If You’re Freaking Out…

Here’s the thing about panic attacks. It can feel like you’re dying, but you’re not. Sometimes this is helpful to remember and sometimes it’s just annoying to hear people tell you that when your adrenaline is pumping too fast for rational thinking. If you are in full-blown panic mode, you know yourself best. Follow your instincts. If you need to be talked down, tell someone near you to remind you to breathe. If you need to ride the cycle through, tell a flight attendant to let you cry it out.

Either way, you will make it through. Here are a couple of tips to get yourself back on track for the rest of your flight:

  • Don’t focus on your heart rate, focus on your breath. Your heart rate will speed up if you’re panicking, but you are not having a heart attack. Remember this and focus on slow, deep breathing instead.
  • Acknowledge the negative thoughts causing your anxiety and then let them go. It’s okay if the bad thoughts come back, just repeat the process. Hear them, acknowledge that they’re there and send them away.
  • Take off your shoes and any tight clothing. Let your feet breathe. Shoes keep a lot of heat inside your body. Taking them off will help cool you down. Pro tip: Sometimes bras can feel like they’re strangling you. If you’re worried about a panic attack, swap the underwire for a bralette or bandeau.


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