First off, if you’ve clicked this article because you have an anxiety or panic attacks when travelling, and you’re having it right now, use the table of contents below to skip to your situation. I’m just going to share my personal story first, but you can skip that for now – pop back and read it later; it’ll still be here when you’re ready.
Stopping panic attacks when travelling
Having panic attacks when travelling really, really sucks.
After all, this is something you’ve spent a lot of money on, have spent time preparing for, or something you may have people depending on you for. A lot of the time, it’s easy to write off the first two aspects – our subconscious whispers “who cares if you waste the money or the time, at least you’re alive!” (at this point, you should remind your subconscious that nothing was going to happen anyway, and that you’ll be totally safe). But having other people depending on you travelling, whether you’re a mother trying not to show fear, or whether you’re flying for a family reunion, can put pressure on you. And that’s a bit of a recipe for disaster.
Whatever the reason for your anxiety or panic, it can come out of nowhere. You can be heading to the airport, fully looking to your trip, when one suddenly fells you. And it’s an awful experience; you feel like you’re dying, or can feel like you’re heading to your doom. The walls close in. Something you’ve been joyfully planning for months can suddenly seem like the most toxic experience you’ve ever been through. And convincing yourself that everything’s okay becomes an almost impossible task.
I’ve had two major brushes with panic attacks when travelling, as well as an ever-present anxiety. One of these experiences turned out well, the other one… not so much. I really regret not having the know-how on how to cope with it back then, because I could’ve saved myself a whole lot of money and anguish.
The worst one was when I was meant to be flying from London to Phoenix for a tour around the national parks – it cost me quite a bit of money, and I was doing it solo. Or I would’ve done it solo, because I never got there. I had panic attacks after panic attack about the flight, worrying that it was too long, that I was bound to get DVT or just crash. It got worse and worse in the months building up to it, until two weeks before departure, I cancelled the whole trip. I’d already paid in full, and lost every penny of it. I’d convinced myself that something bad was going to happen two weeks before I even set foot on the plane.
My other experience went much better. I was again flying solo, from London to Cincinnati, and I had a messy panic attack in the airport – again, because I thought something terrible was going to happen to me. But this time, I had a coping strategy, albeit one that I discovered by total accident. The very simple task of walking around the airport, doing repetitive laps, flushed the panic out of my system. And I realised that maybe there’s something we can do about this, after all.
Taking back control
A lot of anxiety and panic attack sufferers hate the feeling of being out of control – that may be why planes are such a trigger for panic attacks when travelling, as we feel like we’re putting our lives into someone else’s hands. And we don’t know and can’t see that person; it’s bound to be a bit panic-inducing. However, we can take back control by recognising that fear, and understanding the reason for it.
Panic attacks are caused by our fight-or-flight instincts getting a bit overloaded. You perceive something within your travel as a threat to your life – whether that’s the plane, the chaos of an airport, or something shady potentially happening at your destination. But that threat isn’t in front of you (unless there’s a hungry bear right there, in which case you want to call airport security on that sucker), so you don’t know how to react to it. Do you run from it, and cancel your trip? Do you fight it, and potentially get hurt? Your brain doesn’t know which way to turn, and gets stuck.
So, do neither. Let it pass. Know that it’s purely your body’s natural defence system trying to do its job, but getting a bit confused. Ride out that storm, because now you know what causes it, you have power over it. Let those stiff muscles relax, let your breathing go back to normal, and tell your body “thank you, but not today. I’m perfectly safe“.
So now we have more understanding of why our bodies are getting all panicky. Let’s look at what we can do to best recover from panic attacks when travelling, specific to each situation you may be in. My advice is always to have the panic attack, let it ride out (it’ll only last a couple of minutes at its peak, and trust me, you can do it), but then to find a way to recover and carry on with your travels. I’ll even provide some helpful links which can help prevent future panics.
You’ve got this in the bag!
Pre-travel panic attacks
- Okay, the first thing I want you to do is to is to find a safe, quiet place, and have that panic attack. Trying to stop it is only going to make you feel worse. You’re at home, in a safe place: you go for it. Shut yourself in your bedroom, a bathroom, a staff room at your workplace. Come back here when you’re over the worst.
- Feeling a bit better, but still panicky? That’s okay! You’re absolutely done with the worst bit; it’s all smooth sailing from here. And don’t worry about being a bit teary and snotty; we all do that!
- Now you’re going to breathe some good deep breaths. Breathe in for seven seconds, and out for eleven seconds. Do that now. You can keep reading downwards, though.
- Remember, you’re at home. You’re not near danger, nothing can get you. You’re not going to die, I promise. Focus on the things around you as you breathe. Look at the floor; touch it, and see what it feels like. Look at the ceiling – any patterns there?
- Don’t worry about things right now. You may feel like you want to cancel your trip, but put it out of your mind for now. And don’t give yourself a new stress factor by worrying about panic attacks when travelling either; we’re going to squash that. You can think about that stuff later: now’s the time for getting yourself back up and all good again. You’re nearly there, by the way!
- Okay, start bringing your breathing back to normal. You’ve got a good lot of oxygen into your body, and that’s awesome. Scroll up this page a bit, and read the section called “Taking Back Control” so you can see what your body’s up to.
- Kinda makes sense now, right? Use that thought to take back control.
Pre-travel anxiety attacks suck mightily, because you feel like you haven’t even done anything yet. But remember: you’re body is reacting to something you perceive as a threat, but it hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen, either. Remember why you booked this trip, and how much fun you’re going to have. Focus on the end result – brilliant memories you’ll treasure for a long time.
If you like, have a browse through my guide to making a pre-travel anxiety kit – I bet you’ll find at least one item on there that’ll soothe a worry you have about your trip. If not, have a think, and see what you can find.
You’ll make that trip, and you’ll forget this panic attack ever happened – wait and see!
Panic attacks at the airport
- Panic attacks at the airport are one of the most common panic attacks when travelling – trust me, you are far from the only person feeling like this. But for now, I want you to find a quiet corner. It doesn’t necessarily need to have seating; the floor is fine – just somewhere in a little forgotten nook where you feel nice and secluded.
- Okay, now have that panic attack. Let your mind race with whatever is scaring you; it’ll only last a couple of minutes, I promise. Let that panic out, and then come back to this page when you’re feeling like you can.
- Doesn’t that feel a bit better now that you’ve let it out, rather than try to cage it in? Don’t worry how you look: no-one can see you here, and everyone’s focused on what their flights are doing. You’re all good!
- Okay, now focus on your breathing a bit. Breathe in for seven seconds, and breathe out for eleven seconds. Keep doing that until you’re feeling better.
- You’re good and safe here – airports are one of the safest places in the world. You’re not alone, and there are plenty of friendly people nearby who know what you’re going through. Focus on your surroundings – what’s in your little corner of the airport? What pattern is on the floor? If you shut your eyes, what can you hear?
- Don’t worry about things for a moment. It can all wait, and be dealt with in your own time. Also, don’t give yourself an extra stress by worrying about having more panic attacks when travelling – you’re going to be fine from here on!
- Okay, bring your breathing back to normal. Feels much better now, right? You’re doing awesome!
- Have a scroll back up the page, and read the section entitled “Taking Back Control”. This’ll help you understand what your body has just been through, and understanding it makes it way less scary. In fact, it’s a completely natural instinct – your body just got its wires crossed for a bit.
- When you can, get up and walk for a bit. It doesn’t matter where, or for how far, and don’t worry about people watching you. Trust me, they won’t even notice! Just get your legs moving, relax, and breathe. Keep in a forward motion.
Feeling a bit better now? That’s brilliant! You’ve come through a panic attack unscathed. And if you can do that, you can do whatever it is that’s worrying you.
By the way, if it’s the thought of the flight that’s making you panic, remember that it’s absolutely the safest way to travel. That’s the complete truth. If you want my absolute best reassurance, hook up to the airport WiFi and download an app which has absolutely changed the way I travel, and given me so much more confidence about flying. Check out my SkyGuru review, and see if it can help you!
Panic attacks when abroad
Having panic attacks when travelling can be rough – you can feel like you’re totally alone. Don’t worry, you’re not – I promise. We’re going to get you though this!
- First, get yourself to somewhere you feel safe. This can be your hotel room, a quiet corner of your hostel, or a clean and friendly park out in the sun. This might mean that you have to hold off on releasing the panic attack for a while, and it can feel disorientating and confusing, but just do the best you can in that moment. Don’t worry if it’s not your first choice location.
- Okay, now you can let that panic attack out. Let it do its thing, let it wash over you for as long as it lasts. Don’t resist it.
- Feeling okay? Don’t worry, it’s fine to feel a bit disorientated and shaky, still – you might find that it last a little longer than you’re used to, because you’re in an unfamiliar setting. That’s totally fine and natural!
- Time to get yourself breathing properly. Breathe in for seven seconds, and out for eleven seconds. Feel your lungs filling, then emptying, and notice how much your body is starting to relax again.
- If you’re in your hotel room, have a look at your surroundings. How does the bed feel? Can you feel the weave of the fabric? If you’re outside in a public place, what can you hear? Are there birds singing? Can you feel warm sunshine on you, or cooling shade?
- Let all your worries go for a minute. Yes, you’re abroad, but you’re safe. You’re likely no less safe than you would be walking down your street at home; it’s just less familiar. Think about all the good moments you’ve experienced on your trip so far! Which one was your favourite? And which one are you looking forward to?
- Okay, time to get your breathing back to normal a little. Scroll up the page a wee bit, and read the section called “Taking Back Control”. This is going to explain what your body is going through at the moment, and it’s going to make so much sense! Remember, the thing you’re panicking about likely hasn’t happened yet.
- Now you’re going to prove that you’re not alone. Use your phone to call home – don’t worry about time differences, no-one is going to mind if you wake them up! Even if you can only raise an answer phone, have a chat and let them know how you feel, if you like. You’re going to be listened to.
- If you can’t phone home, go to your hotel’s reception, and just have a chat for a minute. Ask them for some recommendations on fun things to do. And then go for a walk, even if its a short one. Keep moving forward, and thinking about how your body just had a natural reaction. You’re not ill, and you won’t need medical treatment. You’re going to be fine, I promise!
If you’re planning a solo trip, or currently on one, have a look at these solo travel tips for some advice!
Panic attacks at any time
It may not always seem like it (especially when that self-service checkout just won’t work – but there’s actually huge advantages to living in this technological age. The best one of all is that we constantly have help available, right at our fingertips.
BetterHelp provide online therapy which you can access at any time – yup, even on your mobile phone. You’ll be matched with a counselor, and you’ll have an online room available to both of you, where you can message at any time and receive replies. You can even schedule phone conversations. Away from home and feeling overwhelmed? No problem, just share your feelings in your private room, and wait for help and advice.
BetterHelp has a massive success rate (98% of people have made significant progress thanks to using it, which is amazing), and it can really help to squash that anxiety before you travel. You can go out into the world, equipped and ready.
Give it a look!
You’ve survived panic attacks when travelling – give yourself a massive pat on the back! Loads of people don’t cope well with it, and let it spoil their trip – you, on the other hand, are now perfectly poised to enjoy the rest of your travels!
But I bet I know what you’re thinking – what if it happens again? You might even already be thinking nervously about it, unconsciously tensing and breathing a little differently.
Don’t worry! It’s completely natural to think like that; after all, you’ve just been through a pretty unsettling and upsetting experience. But you really do already have the information you need to fend them off before they even happen.
The secret is the breathing you’ve been doing. Seven seconds in, eleven seconds out. It completely relaxes and de-stresses the body, and you can do it for as long as you need. It’s easy to remember too, even through the fog that might envelop you when you have panic attacks when travelling. Remember the numbers: seven and eleven. 7-Eleven, just like the store.
If you really do start to suffer badly with panic attacks when travelling, go and see your doctor once you’re home. There’s plenty of treatments you can have – some people manage to beat panic attacks after very few sessions with a healthcare professional. Don’t be unwilling to accept help which is available to you, especially if it’s impacting something you enjoy.
Above all else, enjoy yourself. Travel really is one of life’s most exciting and relaxing experiences, and familiarity with it will help enormously with any fear of it you might have. Live, travel, and love it!
I really hope this article has been useful to you – please feel free to drop a comment below, or to contact me at my email address if you’d rather be confidential. If it has been useful, or if you know someone who suffers with panic attacks when travelling, share it using the buttons below or pin the below image to Pinterest!
Anwesha GuhaJanuary 16, 2019 at 9:30 am
I am glad you found these steps to cope with your panic attacks. I know it’s not that easy but I am glad that you have found a way that works for you. Thanks for sharing those tips with the rest of us as this might help someone someday somewhere.
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:55 am
Thank you very much, Anwesha; I hope so too! 🙂
LaurenJanuary 16, 2019 at 10:34 am
I am so glad and happy you have found ways to cope and thank you so much for sharing. I am lucky to have never had a panic attack while travelling because I find travelling relaxes me but I am sure there will be a time where anxiety may occur. Therefore know these coping mechanisms now is great. Again, thank you for sharing.
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:54 am
Thanks, Lauren! Yep, unfortunately anxiety can creep into trips at any time, in various degrees of seriousness – I hope all your travels stay stress-free! 🙂
BeaJanuary 16, 2019 at 11:31 am
So courageous of you to share these. I occasionally suffer from mild anxiety, but have never suffered a panic attack yet. However, these are excellent points for coping and I will keep them handy should I ever suffer from one. As well, I will share your post with a friend who wishes she could travel more but her severe anxiety keeps her grounded. Perhaps your post will help her travel a bit more.
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:52 am
Aw, thank you! I really does hope that it helps your friend – I’ve got some other guides on the site which may also be useful, if she’s interested! Here’s hoping we both stay panic-free! 🙂
Mohana and AnindaJanuary 16, 2019 at 5:13 pm
So brave of you to share your experiences. Thank you so much for the tips and the coping mechanisms. Anxiety is my personal demon and I often find myself crippled by it. I will often spend the first day in a new place indoors, in the hotel room or at a cafe, in order to familiarise and feel comfortable.
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:50 am
Aw, thank you! And that’s absolutely a good thing to do – it’s all about feeling in your comfort zone, at least a little bit. It’s much better to take a day to acclimatize, than to rush it and feel anxious for your whole trip! 🙂
AnyaJanuary 16, 2019 at 5:15 pm
This is such a good resource – so many people don’t realise how crippling anxiety can be! I’m so glad you found ways to cope with your anxiety, and sharing those ways with others is so thoughtful and helpful.
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:48 am
Thanks, Anya! I agree; it’s still so little-talked about, which is bizarre given that all of us suffer anxiety at some point in our lives. Things are changing, though!
Jenn - The Solivagant SoulJanuary 16, 2019 at 5:29 pm
I think that even if rationally we know how to stop and how to get better after or during a panic attack, at the end the root of these attacks are not based on reason and it can be hard to cope. I like that you propose different approaches depending on where and when these happen and I am sure these tips will be very useful to many people. Thank you for sharing!
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:46 am
Absolutely – knowing what causes panic attacks definitely helps, but it can’t stop them completely. It’s much better just to let it do it’s thing, but to have that information in your armory to recover faster. And thank you! 🙂
ShirleyJanuary 16, 2019 at 6:08 pm
I am not prone to panic attacks but one of my student’s gets them frequently so I know it can be a very scary time. It’s great that you have a system in place to help you avoid having an attack. I’m sure this article has excellent information for those that need it.
Shirley recently posted…Go Beyond Key West: Visit Florida’s State Parks in the Keys
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:43 am
Thank you very much, Shirley! I hope your student is ok, too – panic attacks are awful at any time, but when you’re traveling and out of your comfort zone, it can be completely overwhelming.
LyneJanuary 17, 2019 at 12:03 am
Such a nice post, it’s always nice to see people with anxiety share them experience and method to cope with certain situation and location when travelling. I’m happy to know you found ways to cope with yours!
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:41 am
Thank you; me too! 🙂 I always like to share as much as possible – all of us get travel anxiety at some point to some degree, and there’s still surprisingly little info about it out there!
AnyaJanuary 17, 2019 at 9:56 am
I am a bit relieved to find someone who faces the same challenges as I do. I love being in a new destination but at the same time I truly hate the act of traveling, meaning to go through the airport, security and hopping on a plane. I have panic attacks quite often and sometimes not sure what to do with them. Thank you for this post, I love your tips.
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:39 am
Aw, thank you very much! Yes, airports and planes were such a huge source of panic and anxiety for me, and I’m proud of how much I’ve been able to reduce them. Panic attacks are such an awful feeling!
LisaJanuary 17, 2019 at 1:30 pm
Excellent post – well-written and focused on the practicalities. Thankfully I haven’t had panic attacks myself, but this is such an insight into how it feels. Do you think the more you travel, the less prone to anxiety you are?
Lisa recently posted…How to spend a perfect day in Aitutaki
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 18, 2019 at 7:37 am
Definitely – being on a plane used to be a massive trigger for me, and by flying considerably more in the past year, I’ve almost completely got rid of the anxiety surrounding that. A couple of months ago, I was on a plane with such bad turbulence that I almost cracked my head against the window, and it didn’t really bother me at all! 🙂
John GatesbyJuly 7, 2020 at 11:50 am
You are correct about going through panic attacks silently, I have practiced mindfulness during these attacks and they always subside after reaching a peak. Trying to stop them always prove to be counter-productive.