There’s no worse feeling then wanting to do something really bad, but being horribly afraid that you won't ever be able to do it.
That’s exactly how I felt about traveling abroad.
While cost was a factor, my biggest fear was that I would not be able to last though the plane ride to my destination without having a panic attack and completely losing my shit thousands of feet in the air with no escape.
But at the same time, I didn't want to let that fear hold me back.
The downside of my anxiety is that one of my biggest triggers is not having control of my situation. Which no matter how much you plan and prepare for, I have come to learn is pretty much a given when it comes to taking a 6 hour plane ride and traveling to a foreign country.
So what how do you do it?
How do you keep from losing your shit in front of hundreds of strangers on a plane, over an ocean with literally nowhere to go?
In my case on the flight to Paris, you don't. That’s right I actually did wind up having a panic attack half way through the flight from Iceland to Paris...and it was bad, like really bad.
But that leads me into tip number 1 on concurring panic attacks while flying.
1) Acceptance & Mentally Preparing Before Your Flight
As much as I would have loved to live in this ideal world where I make it through an 8 hour flight without even a glimmer of a panic attack. I know myself better than that, I was literally putting myself in a situation that was oozing with triggers.
I had to accept even when just booking my flight that "hey...there is going to be the large possibility of me having a panic attack" and I had to get very comfortable with that uncomfortable reality.
While this may not actually seem like a helpful tip, there is a lot to be said about facing the reality of your situation and people always say acceptance is half the battle. If I come to terms with the possibility, I can better prepare for it.
Making sure I have my gum (my way of coping with attacks), ensuring that I de-stress in the days leading up to the flight, conducting positive self-talk about my vacation and the flight and normalizing my panic attacks.
2) Having A Support System
If you're not traveling alone, make sure that the person you're traveling with knows about your panic attacks and anxiety because there is nothing worse than you losing your shit and then person next to you losing their shit too because you start to sweat and shake uncontrollably.
You're also going to want to ensure (if you can) that you really trust that person and that they are a good personal support system because sometimes when all else fails and your deep into a panic attack. Having someone there to coach you through it can really be the most important factor in bringing you back down. Trust me...I know.
About halfway through the second portion of the flight to Paris (around 4 am), I felt it happening. It started off simple, I felt like I was having a hard time breathing. The air suddenly felt thick and I wasn't able to get enough air into my lungs without a struggle, I tried to adjust the AC flow but it didn't help. Then my hands started to sweat, my stomach started to turn and the next thing I knew I was having tremors that I couldn't control.
I was having a full blown panic attack. One of the worst ones I’d had over the last year. I was in the window seat, trapped and I scared my boyfriend was next to me just waking up from a nap. I had to tell him. I was embarrassed, could barely talk without my voice shaking from the tremors that were lasting anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds at a time.
I couldn't control it.
He put his hand on mine and told me I was going to be fine, he started talking to me helping me focus on breathing and not trying to fight the tremors. He...was amazing. In my most vulnerable moments he helped me not feel afraid, he helped me feel normal and not scared.
A huge factor at getting past my panic attack on the flight was distractions. There comes a point during panic attacks I've now learned that even your personal distractions (my gum) no longer work. You're honestly just too far gone for you to be your answer.
This was another way my boyfriend was a huge help in the 15 minutes (seems like a lifetime) or so that my panic attack was at its worst.
He distracted me, once he realized holding my hand and breathing wasn't working he swooped in with plan B.
Rock. Paper. Scissors.
I know it sounds silly...but that was the point. He knew he had to get my mind off of what was currently going on...but how? He challenged me to a Rock, Paper, Scissors battle. At first I didn't really give in, didn't try to play because I was so focused on my attack. But once I realized he was starting to win...I got competitive, I wanted to win, I wanted to try.
It became more about guessing what he was going to throw out and about 5 minutes into the battle, I had won and the panic attack was gone.
The key was not putting energy into the panic attack.
4) Don't sleep before your flight.
STAY THE F#¢K UP all night (or day) before your flight if you have to so you can sleep through every ounce of your flight.
On the flight to Paris I made the huge mistake of being very well rested before my flight, so when I actually got on the plane I was lit up like a Christmas tree on December 24th. Completely awake and all the way on, nothing made me sleepy.
Not the plane ride, not reading, nothing.
I was completely aware and my brain was on a thousand, which I think helped spark my attack. On the way back from Paris however I stayed up packing and didn't go to sleep until about 2 hours before I needed to be up and on the way to the airport.
Outcome: I was knocked on the entire flight back. The only time I actually woke up was to change planes when we landed in Iceland.
It was absolutely perfect.
5) Emergency Medicine
Long flights may be the only time I feel as though having anxiety medicine is appropriate for me and even then its only for emergencies.
I had my doctor prescribe me a small dose of pills about a week before I left. It was nice to know that I could have them in my back pocket just in case things became to much to handle, but the idea of going on a new medicine and reading the side effects of what I was prescribed had me dreading taking them.
My personal hold up about medicating my anxiety has always been the side effects, this was no different. Had things gotten really out of control, I would have used them but I was completely committed to going at it non medicated.
6) Don't get drunk.
Have you ever had a panic attack while drunk?
I mean, I haven't but I can only imagine it to be hell. I know people often use alcohol help soothe our nerves and relax but one too many sips and a relaxed mind can turn into a belligerent mess so quickly. Not to mention the possibility of turbulence… and air sickness. Nope.
I shall pass and I suggest you do too.
Plus, what if you actually need to take your emergency medicine we talked about? Alcohol and medicine...on a plane? This picture we're painting just keeps getting worse, lol.
Let’s just save the drinks as a celebratory thing for once we land, k?
When the plane takes off, try having something in your hands to hold on to and rub. If that is not possible try stretching as soon as the plane begins to take off, as this will help your body tense and then relax which will ultimately give you a sense of relaxation and aid in relieving you of your anxiety.
If you're new to trying coping methods that don't involve medicine for your panic attacks, PLEASE read my previous article where I outline 7 daily practices you can use to ease anxiety and combat your panic attacks when they arise. You can find that blog post HERE.
Hopefully these tips will help those of you planning or dreaming of an amazing vacation and the only thing holding you up is the fear of that long, long flight. People with anxiety at the end of the day are just regular people and as long as we have the right tools at our disposal we can make it through anything.
Without a doubt, there will be surprises, mishaps and things will not always but up to you and on your time but there is no reason that you should feel as though you can't live a fulfilling and fun life because of anxiety.
It's just a small piece of who you are, not the deciding factor on what you can do.