How to Plan for Panic on Your Travels

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional
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Lots of people get anxious about traveling, but those with panic disorder worry more than most. I’ve helped many men and women with this issue and my advice is always the same: Plan.

Very often it’s the fear of panic that is so debilitating. More often than not the focus is aircraft-related. Looking over my old notes from talks with aviophobics, I see a litany of fears. “I’ll be fine so long as we don’t hit turbulence,” someone told me once. Or, “I was alright until I saw a passenger standing by the door playing with the handle.” Or, “That claustrophobic tube, packed with people—it’s just the worst.”

One thing stands out: Most of the statements represent particular triggers. Some people with panic disorder fear takeoff because of the scream of the engines and the rapid acceleration; others focus on what could go wrong during landing. Some people fear they will lose total control of themselves on the plane and have an emotional meltdown. Others believe that something terrible will happen to the aircraft, or they will be subjected to storms. I have to say that my least-favorite aspect of flying is turbulence. Even when I’m warned, the jolts invariably jangle my nerves. However, I also know airplanes are designed to fly and the kind of turbulence that most passengers experience means nothing to an aircraft, so that’s reassuring.

Planning for Panic

You may think that planning for a panic attack is a bit like tempting fate; that by thinking about it you make it more likely to occur. In fact, the opposite is often the case. If you plan for panic, and you experience an attack, the chances are it will pass far more quickly because you are more in control.

If you’re anxious about air travel, then you might seriously consider taking one of the many fear-of-flying courses available, often organized and run by airlines. They offer a useful combination of information giving and coping techniques. Addressing concerns over whether a door into the plane can be opened in the air, or why there aren’t parachutes for passengers, or why the engines make different noises during a flight can be really helpful. These courses also teach simple ways of dealing with anxiety, such as breathing and relaxation techniques than can be done before and during the flight.

Reduce Other Travel Stressors

  • Anxiety increases when we’re placed in stressful situations. Because of this, your plans should take into account the fact that transportation and road infrastructure may not always be reliable. There’s nothing more stressful than being stuck in traffic on the way to your flight. Get yourself to the airport with time to spare.
  • Take some distractions. Download movies onto your laptop or tablet and get a good book. If you’re traveling with someone, bring mini board games you might both enjoy, like chess or checkers.

  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Avoid caffeine—many sodas and chocolate contain it. Stay away from alcohol in general and never mix it with prescribed anxiolytic medication.

  • If you dislike the whine of the aircraft, take noise-cancelling earphones. Listen to your own relaxing music or an audio book.

  • Consider downloading and using a fear-of-flying app. Unfortunately I’ve no personal experience with these but they’re an option that may be worth testing.

  • Educate yourself about flying. Get a book or go online to find out how aircraft actually work and why the pilot does what he or she does.

See more helpful articles:

Understanding the Vicious Cycle of Panic

Hodophobia—The Fear of Traveling

10 Tips for Better Sleep While Traveling