Aviophobia, the fear of flying, can be a significant source of anxiety for many people. For those who suffer from panic attacks while flying, or airplane claustrophobia, even a short flight can be a difficult experience. So, how can we prevent or stop a panic attack on a plane?
- Know Exactly What to Expect While Onboard
- Choose Your Seat in Advance to Prevent Airplane Claustrophobia
- Pack Everything You’ll Need Onboard in a Small Bag
- Bring the Best Sedative for Fear of Flying
- Recognize That You Are Having a Panic Attack
- Regain Control of Your Breathing
- Talk to the Flight Attendants
- Enjoy a Glass of Wine or Another Adult Beverage Onboard
- Watch a Movie, Listen to Some Music, or Play a Videogame
- Get Some Work Done
- Take a Long Nap
- Look Out the Window (or Don’t)
- Remember the Reason You’re Traveling
Not only did I struggle with panic attacks for years myself, but I also actually worked for several years as a flight attendant at a major airline. Working as a flight attendant, I dealt with many anxious passengers on a regular basis.
I’ll teach you the same strategies I taught my customers for how to stop a panic attack on a plane and conquer a fear of flying.
Let’s start at the very beginning – with what you should do immediately after booking your flight.
How to Stop a Panic Attack on a Plane (13 Tips from Flight Crew)
Know Exactly What to Expect While Onboard
The fear of the unknown can amplify anxiety significantly. Most people with a fear of flying are typically those who do not fly often, or have never flown at all. While working as a flight attendant, many nervous first-time customers would ask me all sorts of questions about turbulence, emergencies, etc. Most of the time, simply answering these questions was enough to put them significantly at ease.
Here are some facts that may put you at ease:
- Turbulence – I used to get a kick out of seeing all 200 customers nervously shoot me a glance for reassurance any time the ride got a bit bumpy. You should be ready to expect at least some turbulence on any flight you take. Turbulence is caused by atmospheric changes in air pressure. It can be uncomfortable, and even scary at times; but it’s not dangerous. A plane will bounce a bit in turbulence the same way a ship will rock in the waves or a car will shake on a gravel road. It is not harmful to the plane, and will not cause the plane to crash. More importantly, this turbulence is not coming as a surprise to the pilots or flight attendants – they saw it well in advance on the weather radar and are only flying through it because (although a bit uncomfortable) it is safe to do so.
- Onboard Emergencies – While it can feel a bit cut off from the outside world up there, you are never far from professional emergency assistance. In the event of a land or water evacuation, flight attendants are trained to evacuate an entire plane in 90 seconds or less. Flight attendants typically undergo one to two months of rigorous training just for emergency procedures; those who can’t stay calm and manage an emergency fail out of training. They are also trained to administer medical assistance like CPR, although oftentimes a more experienced medical professional will be found onboard and volunteer to take over (I have had to perform CPR onboard before; three doctors jumped up to volunteer their help alongside my crew). You are never far from professional assistance in the event of any inflight emergency.
- Pressurized Doors – While airborne, the cabin is pressurized in such a way that makes it physically impossible for a person to open the emergency exit doors. So, no, you don’t need to worry about anyone bumping into or even intentionally opening the doors.
- Entering the Cockpit – I won’t disclose any sensitive security information here, but I will say that security procedures have come a long way in the past 20 years. No one’s getting in there that shouldn’t be in there.
Knowing a few of these basic facts about flying should help to put many first-time flyers’ anxiety at ease. Aside from this, I’d also recommend you get to the airport early to give yourself plenty of time to get through security without having to rush or worry. Make sure you know roughly how long your flight is scheduled to be, so you know what kinds of snacks/activities to bring along.
Choose Your Seat in Advance to Prevent Airplane Claustrophobia
Airplane claustrophobia is a very real thing. Many people may have a personal preference for either a window or an aisle seat. More expensive seats in First Class or Business sections will also be roomier and provide greater comfort than those in Coach/Economy. Sitting in a middle seat in Coach on a 10-hour flight is enough to make anyone feel a bit anxious and claustrophobic.
Most airlines allow you to choose your seat in advance while buying the ticket or checking in online. If you are buying your ticket through a third-party website (not through the airline itself), that “cheap rate” you lock in can often be due to them buying a not-so-great seat and giving it to you. But, if you buy directly from the airline, you can usually choose your seat. This will vary from airline to airline, and some might charge you for the convenience of selecting a seat in advance. You may also try asking the ticket agent or gate agent (before boarding the plane) about changing your seat assignment. The emergency exit row is a favorite for many, as it is typically a bit more spacious. I personally ask for any row that is not full.
Having worked as a flight attendant, I’ll just warn you right now… Don’t complain to the flight attendant about your seat assignment. It’s frustrating for the flight attendants who are busy with other safety-related tasks, and unfair to the customers who have done their due diligence and chose a seat assignment in advance. If you know you’re going to feel more anxious in a certain seat, the airline will be happy to accommodate you; just make sure you get it taken care of before you’re on the airplane.
Pack Everything You’ll Need Onboard in a Small Bag
Airlines can vary considerably with regard to their onboard baggage policy. Some allow a free checked bag; some allow a free rollaboard (mid-sized bag for overhead compartment). Regardless of policy, overhead space is limited on every plane, and they often fill up fast (there is technically not enough overhead bin space for everyone to keep a rollaboard onboard). If overhead space fills up, the airline will simply check your bag for free.
This shouldn’t be an issue for most people, but sometimes people put things they need in their rollaboard only for it to be checked at the gate. Having traveled on hundreds of flights myself, I recommend everyone carry a small personal item (backpack, purse, etc.) that can fit under the seat in front of them. Just about every airline allows such a personal item onboard free of charge. In this personal item I recommend everyone bring:
- Sweatshirt/Jacket (cabin temperature often varies considerably)
- Headphones (for music or inflight movies)
- Book/Videogame (anything to keep you occupied)
- Water Bottle/Snacks (especially on long flights)
- Pillow/Blanket (if not offered onboard and you plan to sleep)
- Laptop (if you plan to get some work done)
- Phone Charger (for long flights with outlets available)
- Required Medications (if applicable)
- Anything else you need to comfortably get through the flight
I easily fit all of these items and more in my NOMATIC backpack, which is by far the best backpack for traveling that I’ve ever owned. Their larger sized bags look cool as well, but I’d be a bit nervous about actually fitting them under an airplane seat.
It’s important that you keep these items close by and easily accessible, as they will make it much easier for you to prevent or stop a panic attack on a plane.
Here are some of the things I bring along with me on every flight:
Bring the Best Sedative for Fear of Flying
For most people, flying is a fairly occasional occurrence. While I typically advise against using medication for panic attacks (since anti-anxiety medications should not be overused), it may not be the worst option if you are only flying very occasionally. This is something you will have to talk to your doctor about. If you have been prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, it may be a good idea to keep some medication in your bag in the event of severe anxiety and panic attacks. I would still, however, advise you hold off for as long as possible and see if you can manage your anxiety without the use of medication (this would be another small victory). For many people, simply having this option in the back pocket could be enough to calm them.
For milder anxiety solutions, check out our section on the best anxiety supplements. Although I don’t have panic attacks on planes, I would probably use phenibut if I did since it has always been my favorite option for long-lasting moderate to severe stress relief. A great option for mild anxiety would be to bring your own bags of anti-anxiety tea, as the flight attendants can usually provide hot water for tea onboard.
If you are bringing prescription medication onboard, you shouldn’t have to worry about bringing it through security unless it is an illegal, controlled substance in your country.
Recognize That You Are Having a Panic Attack
Alright, now that we’ve done everything we can before the flight to prevent having a panic attack on a plane, let’s cover what you can do if you still get anxious and need to stop a panic attack on the plane.
First off, whether you’re on the plane or anywhere else, the first step to beating a panic attack is always to recognize that you are having a panic attack. If you’ve never had a panic attack before, I recommend taking some time to read these articles and learning exactly what a panic attack is and why we experience anxiety. Just knowing these things can make panic attacks and anxiety far easier to prevent and manage.
With that said, there are two things you need to remember about panic attacks any time you begin having one:
- Panic attacks are not dangerous
- Panic attacks are temporary
Panic attacks are not dangerous, and you cannot die from one. You will feel extremely uncomfortable and anxious for a bit, and then the feeling will pass. A panic attack is nothing more than the triggering of your “fight or flight” response absent any real danger. This panic attack will not pose any real threat to you.
Panic attacks are temporary, and this one will pass like every other panic attack you’ve had before it. During a panic attack, we often worry if we will feel this way forever, but this is simply because we are not thinking logically. The average panic attack lasts for just a few minutes. Set a timer, compare it to your previous panic attacks, and wait it out for probably 3-10 minutes. It won’t last too long, I promise.
Remember these two facts about panic attacks, and recognize your panic attack for what it is. Just like turbulence, a panic attack is a frightening and uncomfortable, yet harmless and short-lived experience. Recognize it, identify it, and wait it out. You’re going to be okay.
Regain Control of Your Breathing
Something we’re almost all guilty of during a panic attack is losing track of our breathing. During a panic attack, many of us feel as though we are not getting enough oxygen. We panic, and actually hyperventilate – a nasty habit that leaves us over-breathing and low on carbon dioxide. When we hyperventilate, we actually exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety and make ourselves feel even more panicky. It’s important that we get our breathing under control.
Breath work is something that can be practiced on your own time through exercises like yoga and meditation. These are highly recommended for anyone suffering with anxiety. In a pinch, however, you can simply try and follow a comfortable pace to get your breathing steady.
Breathing for 6 seconds in through your nose and 6 seconds out through your mouth is one commonly recommended rate of breathing. Some people also like to breathe in for 5 seconds, hold their breath for 5 seconds, and breathe out for 5 seconds. Experiment a bit and see what’s most comfortable for you, just keep your breath steady and consistent until it becomes automatic for you again.
Some people feel more relaxed while breathing into a paper bag. Most airlines will have paper airsickness bags in the seatback pockets that could work in a pinch. This could draw a bit of attention to yourself, however, so I usually just recommend tucking your mouth and nose into your shirt and breathing that way for a bit. It may seem odd, but it’s an easy and casual trick that often helped me to feel calmer during my panic attacks.
With some positive mental distraction, your breathing will become normal and automatic again after some time. Rest assured knowing that, in the event of an emergency, oxygen masks would deploy directly above your seat. Additionally, flight attendants onboard have access to portable oxygen bottles that they routinely administer to any customer experiencing a serious medical emergency. During a panic attack this would do more harm than good, but it should give you some peace of mind knowing that they are available for real medical emergencies.
Talk to the Flight Attendants
I wasn’t the most enthusiastic “I-love-doing-this-job” flight attendant in the world, but even I was more than willing to help talk customers through their fear of flying. Most flight attendants have enough empathy to understand when someone is anxious, and they’ll do their best to help you feel more comfortable.
To be honest, once I finished beverage/snack/meal service, most of my job involved sitting around reading a book and waiting for time to pass. As long as you’re not overly intrusive of their personal space (I’m looking at you, San Franciscan passengers doing yoga in our galley), they’ll be happy to talk with you.
You may choose to small talk with the flight attendants for a bit just to distract your mind, or you may wish to admit to them how anxious you’re feeling. If they know how anxious you are, chances are they’ll do their best to explain everything about air travel to you in a way that helps to stop your airplane anxiety. Most flight attendants will go above and beyond to help you feel comfortable and less anxious.
Interestingly, I was once approached on the plane by a young nurse who told me she was a medical professional and knew something serious was wrong with her. I followed routine medical procedures according to her symptoms, but I recognized from personal experience that she seemed to be having a panic attack. I let her sit down in the galley, away from prying eyes, and sat on the floor next to her with an oxygen bottle (oxygen won’t help a panic attack, but this was standard procedure for anyone experiencing “difficulty breathing”). I asked her a bit about her medical past, and asked if she had ever experienced anxiety or panic attacks before, to which she admit she had. I sat with her and talked for a bit, telling her about my own sister who is also an anxious nurse. Eventually she calmed down from what did appear to be a panic attack and no additional treatment was necessary.
Don’t be afraid to talk to the flight attendants if you need a bit of help calming down.
Enjoy a Glass of Wine or Another Adult Beverage Onboard
Another great reason to let the flight attendant know you’re feeling anxious? They’re often more than happy to comp you a free alcoholic drink to help you relax. Seriously, it’s one of the easiest problems a flight attendant can solve in a matter of seconds (Just don’t have the audacity to request a free drink!).
Lots of people enjoy a glass of wine, a beer, or a cocktail or two while onboard to calm their nerves. Just be careful you don’t overdo it – I’ve seen plenty of people get kicked off or banned from flying due to being intoxicated onboard. Something about being at a high altitude seems to make alcohol hit you a little bit harder and faster; just something to keep in mind as you pace yourself. Also, never mix any sort of anti-anxiety medications with alcohol, especially on a plane – it’s just not the place you want to get in trouble for being too rowdy.
Check out our article on alcohol for anxiety to learn a bit about the short- and long-term effects of using alcohol for anxiety.
Watch a Movie, Listen to Some Music, or Play a Videogame
Panic attacks occur when we look anxiously inward for too long and eventually get sucked into the rabbit hole of a panic attack. To counter this, it’s important that we find another way to occupy our thoughts and mental energy. One of the best ways to stop a panic attack on a plane is to have plenty of distractions to keep yourself busy while onboard. As long as you’ve brought a compatible pair of headphones, you’ll usually have lots of entertainment options available while airborne.
Many airlines nowadays offer complimentary movies via the TV screens built into the seat in front of you. Some may even offer free Live TV, music, and Wi-Fi options. These can all be fantastic ways to make time "fly by" and to distract you from any anxious thoughts. You should, however, always have a backup plan in case your TV is broken. I usually bring an iPad (preloaded with movies and TV shows), my phone (with all of my music playlists downloaded on it), and my laptop with me on every flight. Choose one to tune into and visualize yourself as being at home watching the movie from the comfort of your own couch.
Something else I brought with me (both while traveling and just working as a flight attendant) was my Nintendo Switch. Whether you’re into videogames or not, they’re an awesome mental distraction from panic attacks and anxiety. It’s a cheap and awesome game system and probably my top recommendation for friends who travel frequently.
Get Some Work Done
If there happens to be a remote component to your job, or even any passion project or hobby you may be working on, a long flight can become an extremely productive time to focus and get work done. Keep yourself busy enough and you won’t even have time to worry about how to stop a panic attack on a plane; you’ll just be in the zone the whole time.
Seriously, as previously mentioned, most airlines offer Wi-Fi onboard. As long as you have your laptop (notebook, sketchpad, etc.) with you, you can get a lot done with your time here.
Take a Long Nap
This may be difficult for nervous flyers, but nothing speeds up a flight like taking a good, long nap. I’m fortunate in my ability to knock out as soon as the plane starts moving, and to wake up as soon as the wheels touch down; it basically feels like I have the ability to teleport.
It may be difficult for you to get a nap in if you’re extremely nervous on planes or having a panic attack onboard the plane. However, after combining a handful the previously mentioned strategies, it may be a bit easier. If you do have a panic attack onboard, you will likely feel quite tired and fatigued afterward (post-panic attack phase). At this point, it may be a bit easier to catch some Z’s. Remember, the best way to prevent a panic attack on a plane is to sleep right through the whole flight!
Look Out the Window (or Don’t)
Perhaps a weird suggestion, but one way to stop a panic attack on a plane could be to spend some time looking out the window. Being so high above the earth has the humbling tendency to make us feel small; our troubles insignificant. For me, this has always put things in perspective in a way that makes my anxiety feel silly and not worth focusing on.
Gaze out the window for a bit. Admire the cities, the mountains, the ocean, the clouds. Let yourself get lost in thoughts beyond the scope of your anxiety.
Or, if you have a fear of heights which is responsible for your panic attacks, maybe do exactly the opposite. Close the window, or ask the passenger in the window seat if they would be okay with closing the window.
Keep the window in whatever position you’re most comfortable with.
Remember the Reason You’re Traveling
Probably the best way to stop a panic attack on a plane is to simply remember the reason you’re traveling in the first place. If you’re a first-time flyer or occasional flyer, there is probably a huge, significant importance attached to this trip.
Are you moving to a new city? Going on vacation? Applying for a new job? Visiting a loved one?
Whatever your reason for traveling, it’s most likely something very important to you; especially if you’re risking a panic attack to do so. Focus on your “why” and remember the reason you’re doing this. Is this a surprise visit that’s going to light up the face of the person you’re going to see? Is this the job interview that could change your life forever?
Remembering why you’re traveling can help to put things in perspective. No one is physically forcing you to travel. Something is at the other end of that tunnel that is so important to you that you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and do something brave. Hold onto that.
More Tricks for Stopping Panic Attacks
If you've made it this far but are still feeling a bit anxious about an upcoming flight, or about anything else at all, feel free to check out this article to learn many more tricks for how to stop a panic attack!