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Getting Over a Fear of Panic Attacks on Planes

This is not about how to get drunk in the airport or sedate yourself for the flight. The fear of panic attacks on planes is all about the compulsions we’re engaging in around physical experiences and uncertainty. It’s completely possible to get over panic attacks on planes. And not only on planes, but anywhere we run into this challenge. However, that does involve making changes in how we interact with experiences, around us and inside of us. When we learn those skills, though, the sky won’t even be the limit. 

I’ve been working with people for years on tackling the fears that hold them back from traveling. The approach with the fear of panic attacks on planes is to step towards increasingly challenging situations with similar environmental factors, while learning how to cut out compulsions. Those internal skills are key here. It’s not simply about exposing yourself to some train rides before your flight. That train or bus or subway or whatever is like a playground, where you can practice the skills that you’ll then take on the plane. 

First, we’ll go through a typical mental fitness workout plan for this, which you can adapt to your specific situation. Then we’ll cover the types of skills you can apply throughout the workout plan.


Panic Attack Workout Plan

Something we should probably cover quickly before going any further: this will work best if you WANT to have panic attacks. Don’t approach this workout plan as some magic ritual to make bad feelings disappear. That’s actually a massive part of the problem. Hating on these feelings only tickles more of them out of our nervous systems so we can try to chase that control we’re craving. Want to have panic attacks. Want to be awesome at having panic attacks. That’s the secret sauce to this. When panic attacks become something you very much want to have, you’ll find it’s quite difficult to have them.

Week 1

Explore this meditation exercise to practice sitting with discomfort and not moving. Try it a few times over the course of the week: Curiosity Meditation

Week 2

A few short rides in any vehicle you don’t control. Practice being curious about discomfort. Give your attention to something you choose.

Week 3

Take three rides you’re a little nervous about. Practice possibility. See below for a description of that skill.

Week 4

Do new things. Order something you’ve never ordered at a restaurant you’ve never been to. Visit a new part of town. Volunteer for a task at work you avoid. Be curious about these experiences. Notice how the brain tries to control and check.

Week 5

Take two longer rides that make you nervous. The day before each of them: practice accepting the worst case scenario. Tomorrow’s trip is the last trip ever. So how do you want to live today in a way that matters to you?

Week 6

Take a longer ride in a vehicle you don’t control, feel free to use any distractions. Practice choosing the distractions instead of anything your brain throws up.

Week 7

Take an even longer ride in a vehicle you don’t control, no passive distractions. Practice giving gratitude to the scenery or random objects or engaging with something active, like a conversation, writing, drawing, a game, etc.

Week 8

Get on that plane and want to have the most spectacular panic attack!

To implement that workout plan and adapt it to our unique situation, it’ll help to understand how panic attacks work. Understand the machinery here and you’ll be able to pull apart. Right now, it might seem like panic attacks just happen. That’s ok. With practice, you can get ahead of the seemingly automatic reflexes here. Check out the breakdown in the next section of how a panic attack comes together.

What Causes Panic Attacks

Panic attacks rely on us checking, judging, and controlling. These are compulsions–actions we repeatedly do to avoid some bad outcome or chase a feeling, but they actually create the opposite of what we’re chasing.

I like to describe compulsions as hitting myself in the face with a frying pan. It hurts. And I might go looking for solutions to the pain in my face. But the far more useful thing to do is to not hit myself in the face with the frying pan at all. That’s why we’re not talking about coping strategies for travel anxiety. We’re cutting out the compulsions that cause it.

It all begins with us checking how we feel. Inevitably, we notice something we judge as wrong. That leads to more checking and judging around that wrong feeling. We attach meaning to it. That feeling shouldn’t be there. What if it gets worse? What if it means there’s something wrong? Can you be yourself? Will people notice? 

Then the controlling starts. It might only be subtle at first–shifting in your seat, trying to reassure yourself, trying to replace the feeling… That’s combined with more of the checking and controlling, which only registers things are not getting better. Sweating, heart rate increasing, you notice your breathing and try controlling it. The wrong feelings spread, only confirming those judgments about wrong feelings. The anxiety grows. The brain fog sets in. This leads to more controlling, more checking, more judging, more controlling, spiraling up into a spectacularly uncomfortable panic attack. 

All of that can happen in seconds. Especially after years of practice. The checking and judging can also be spread out over days of chasing “right” feelings to replace “wrong” feelings. That’s the machinery to dismantle.

Mental Fitness Skills for Panic Attacks

As you’re going through each week of the workout plan, you’ll have opportunities to cultivate these skills. 

Curiosity & Non-judgment

Panic attacks rely on judging and attaching meaning to physical sensations and uncertainty. From the start of the workout plan and throughout, you’ll be learning how to interact differently with your internal experiences. This is something you can practice throughout your life. Instead of attaching a label to an experience and shoving it in a rigid category of good or bad, what if you give it your curiosity instead?

Practicing Possibility

This is about giving yourself trust and seeing yourself as powerful and possessing agency. Next time you notice yourself worrying about a terrible thing happening, imagine it in a way that’s ridiculous, and places you in a position of power. For example, if you were afraid of having a panic attack in front of everybody, picture yourself jumping up in front of them and leading everyone in a choreographed musical number about flying donuts. Your brain is capable of imagining more than just disasters. But you may have to teach it how to do that. 

Accepting Consequences

Much of the struggle with compulsions comes from trying to avoid some terrible consequence, like losing control of ourselves, being hated by everybody, dying, etc. And then we invest so much of our lives in trying to control this fear, that we miss out on our lives! Anxiety loves irony. So accepting the consequences is about quickly ending the debate in our heads and accepting it’s already happened. If my brain is worried I’m going to die tomorrow, then I accept that’s already certain. So I’d better get on with living today since it’s my last day! Combining this with Valued Action is key.

Valued Action

We shift the focus to this moment. Instead of trying to fix the past or control the universe of possibilities in the future, we can live our lives right now, and give our time and energy to the things that matter to us. This isn’t about getting rid of a bad feeling. We can welcome a bad feeling, it can sit down beside us, and it can join us in giving our attention to whatever we choose. This is about adding and creating instead of the subtracting and avoiding and controlling we did in the past.

A note on adapting this plan to your needs:

It’s entirely possible that planes are the only type of transportation that makes you anxious. This isn’t strange. The underlying fears we’re reacting to can be complex. For example, many people afraid of panic attacks are actually afraid of being embarrassed in front of others. It’s about social anxiety. They might fear panic attacks on the plane because they don’t want other people to be angry at them for ruining a trip. But that fear translates elsewhere to avoiding presentations at work, or cancelling social events because they don’t feel “right”, or rereading emails to make sure they didn’t say the wrong thing. It’s all the same work to chase right feelings and control what others think about them. So their workout plan might involve seven weeks of progressively challenging exercises in social situations. The first exercise would stay the same, though. 

Feel free to send any questions about adapting this workout plan, comment below, or chat about it with a skilled professional.

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