Having a panic attack on a plane can be very frightening. Even if you don't necessarily have a fear of flying, there may still be factors that contribute to panic attacks in these types of situations.
In this article, we'll take a look at all of the potential reasons that panic attacks on planes occur, and what you can do to stop them.
Panic Attacks on Planes?
If you're someone suffering from panic attacks in any location, it is something you can control. Make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test right now to start learning what you can do to stop your panic.
Causes of Panic Attacks on Planes
Phobias themselves can cause panic attacks, but are technically still phobias. They cause extreme fear that may create panic attack symptoms. But not everyone's panic attacks are phobias, even on a plane, and while fear may be involved they are rarely the only cause/symptom. Learn more with my free anxiety test.
There are many reasons that panic attacks on planes are common. Obviously fear is one of them - even though panic attacks can hit when you have no anxiety, the additional anxiety of being on a plane makes the more common. But there are other reasons as well, including:
Plane "Symptoms" Being on a plane can cause physical sensations that may trigger panic attacks, especially in those that overly monitor their own body. For example, ear popping and fullness, feeling "lighter," and pressure changes may all be triggers of panic attacks, or at the very least increase the amount of self-monitoring a person does in a way that makes them more prone for attacks.
Plane Monitoring Anything that causes someone to overly monitor themselves may make them more prone to panic attacks, which is why a similar problem occurs when people start to overly monitor the plane. Those with panic may be more prone to noticing every right or left turn, every change in elevation, and anything that makes them feel that something is "off." Even if they know it's nothing, it's not the noticing that's the problem - it's the tendency for people to retreat into their own mind and notice even more.
Discomfort Of course, simply discomfort could lead to a likelihood of panic disorder. Planes are extremely uncomfortable. The seats are cramped, the seatbelts are tight, and there is barely any room to move. Comfort for those with panic attacks is very important, and there is nothing about being on a plane that is comfortable.
Hyperventilation Some of the issues may be related to the way people breathe on planes, which is partially anxiety and partially pressure changes and seat comfort. Many people with panic attacks tend to hyperventilate on planes. Their breathing speeds up because of anxiety, their stomach is pushed from the seatbelt, and breathing in general feels weird on a plane. Hyperventilation is one of the most common triggers of panic attacks and creates most of the symptoms, so this is a problem for those prone to them.
Motion Sickness Those that are prone to motion sickness - especially mild motion sickness - may also be more prone to panic symptoms on planes. Planes are notorious for creating motion sickness, and when they do they can cause nausea and faster breathing, both of which may lead to panic.
Fear of Panic Attacks And, of course, fear of panic is one of the most common triggers of anxiety and panic attacks, and when on a plane people tend to think about their panic attacks a lot. It's hard to control, but unfortunately the more you think about panic the more likely you are to get one.
Fear is, of course, the clearest reason for the increase in panic attacks. Everything about going on a plane can cause more anxiety, even if you don't necessarily have a specific fear of flying. From rushing to the airport, to parking, to checking in, to security, to getting a seat, and finally to takeoff - there are so many different issues that create anxiety, and unfortunately the more anxiety someone with panic attacks has the more likely they are to trigger it on the plane.
How to Control Plane Panic Attacks
Ideally, reducing panic attacks on planes starts on the ground. It's better to try to learn how to cope with panic long before you're ever in the air, since there are too many things related to flying that may trigger further anxiety. You should also research as much as you can about plane panic attacks before you go on a plane, much like you're doing now, because for many this type of knowledge helps them understand themselves better in order to reduce plane anxiety.
But if you're already on a plane, then consider the following techniques for controlling panic attacks:
Breathe Better Remember that hyperventilation is one of the biggest issues with regard to panic attacks, so make sure that you're breathing in a more efficient way. Take 5 seconds to breathe in, hold for 3 seconds, and breathe out for 7 seconds. This will help you improve your Co2 levels and reduce your panic.
Talk to Your Friend Another unfortunate thing about planes is that telling others you're scared is tough, because many people are scared and they do not like talking about it. But if you have a friend with you, talk to your friend about what you're feeling. You don't want to be in your own head too much, and talking to someone you know can be comforting.
Improve Your Comfort Try your best to reduce any discomforts. Loosen your belt a bit, find a comfortable spot in your chair, loosen your seatbelt slightly - do things that will at least make it easier for you to sit without feeling all of the different things around you.
Do Games/Tasks Try to keep your mind as active as possible. It can be hard to do this when you are already panicking or have anxiety, but it does help you decrease the severity of the attack. See if you can talk to your neighbors if you have no games ready, since talking to others is known to decrease fear.
Unfortunately, most panic attack coping needs to happen before you ever go in the air. You need to make sure that you're already equipped with tools to cope with anxiety before you ever get on a plane.
For those with severe panic attacks on planes, make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test now. You can learn more about how your panic attack symptoms work and what you can do to stop them in any situation.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.