For some people, boarding an aeroplane and flying somewhere is no big deal. Maybe it’s a holiday, maybe it’s for work, but whatever the reason for your trip, you’re pretty much OK with it. For others, though, it’s not so simple.
In fact, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, about 6.5 per cent of the U.S. population suffers from aviophobia (fear of flying), while around one-quarter of Americans experience some sort of flying-related anxiety. And then there are the people who are mostly fine with flying, but do get a little nervous, especially during takeoff, landing and turbulence.
Other reports state that nearly 70 per cent of people around the globe fear flying to some degree.
Usually this low-grade anxiety goes unnoticed by fellow passengers, but what should you do if you see someone on a flight having a full-blown panic attack? Before we get into that, let’s take a look at exactly what constitutes a panic attack and what differentiates it from general anxiety.
What is a panic attack?
“Panic attack” is one of those mental health terms that we tend to throw around as shorthand for someone experiencing varying degrees of anxiety. In reality, though, panic attacks are pretty specific. According to the University of Michigan School of Medicine:
“Anxiety is a condition defined as excessive, persisting worry over an imminent event such as death or illness, or even minor events such as being late for an appointment or other uncertain outcomes. Symptoms include fatigue, hyper-vigilance, restlessness and irritability — and are often chronic.”
Panic attacks, on the other hand, are short bursts of extreme fear, often accompanied by increased heart rate, brief chest pain or shortness of breath, the University of Michigan School of Medicine explains. Your body is in immediate fight-or-flight overdrive. Other symptoms can include perspiration, trembling, feelings that one will go crazy or die, heart palpitations or shallow breathing, Marco Paz, a licensed clinical social worker at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California tells Lifehacker. “This is the body’s way of alerting an individual that there is a perceived danger,” he says.
The episodes usually last less than 30 minutes, and could occur once or repeatedly — sometimes without reason. Panic attacks can feel so serious that many people mistake them for a heart attack and head for an emergency room.
So if the person in the next row tells you that they’re a little nervous for takeoff or clutches their armrests during turbulence, they are most likely anxious, but are probably not having a panic attack.
What you should do if you see someone having a panic attack
Panic attacks are tricky, and what may be helpful for one person may be harmful for someone else. In fact, Adam L. Fried, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist practicing in Phoenix and assistant professor of psychology at Midwestern University, says that he’s not sure he would recommend going up to a stranger on a plane who is having a panic attack, especially if you don’t have training, because we’re not sure exactly what the panic attack is about.
But if you do see someone in distress, your best bet is to tell a flight attendant. “They usually have training and experience in how to work with nervous flyers and are likely the most effective people to handle a situation like that,” he says.
Along the same lines, Paz suggests reading the other passenger’s receptivity to your offer of help is key. “I would also scan for reactions about the panicked individual in other travellers,” he explains. But he also cautions that although anxiety and panic is a normal reaction and we all can experience it, that does not mean that some people would like any attention or aid.
But if you do spot someone you think may be having a panic attack and a flight attendant isn’t available or you feel compelled to help, Paz suggests simply approaching the traveller and asking them if they are feeling nervous or panicky.
“By labelling the person’s strong reactive emotion, you help in lessening the intensity; it’s comforting to understand what one is experiencing,” he explains. “That first step may mitigate some of the intensity, but what can really help is guiding the person through some deep breathing which engages the parasympathetic system which slows the heart rate, and overall relaxes our body.”
Again, please read the other person as much as possible. If they don’t want your help, do not start doing lamaze breathing with them against their will. That will probably only make things worse.
How to help a nervous flyer
If the person you’re dealing with isn’t having an actual panic attack, but rather some degree of anxiety or nervousness, Fried offers several tips for helping them out.
Stay calm, but acknowledge the other person’s anxiety
It’s important to stay calm yourself, but at the same time, don’t be dismissive of the person’s anxiety, he says. According to Fried, research suggests that many (but certainly not all) individuals who have flight anxiety have experienced a prior frightening event while flying. It can be helpful for an anxious flyer to know that another person is feeling what they’re feeling (like being uneasy during turbulence), but also to hear some reassurance about what it is and that it’s not an emergency situation. If you’re an experienced flyer, sharing that you fly frequently and that these are normal experiences can also be very helpful, he adds.
Have them talk to a flight attendant
If someone is experiencing anxiety, it may be a good idea for them to speak with a flight attendant, Fried says. This way they can provide helpful information about the flight, such as advanced warning if they know there are some times of turbulence ahead, as well as reassurance about the normalcy of the physical experience during take-off and landing.
Distraction can also be very effective during a flight, Fried notes. Engaging in conversation about things that are not stressful and not related at all to flying can work really well for some people.
A book, movie or television show or even a word game or the crossword can be useful distractions and give an opportunity for some of the anxiety to decrease. Fried says that he has found that the type of distraction really depends on the person and they should be in control of that. While some react well to having a distracting conversation, other anxious flyers don’t feel comfortable with that and would rather watch a movie on their own.
Try to help them relax
Come at them with facts
For some people, providing specific safety facts about planes can be reassuring, especially if the anxiety centres around turbulence or takeoff, which can be common anxiety points for nervous flyers, Fried says. As someone who experienced years of pretty severe flying anxiety, I can vouch for this technique.
I’m especially fortunate because my sister is a mechanical engineer who specialises in aeroplane engines, so having her rationally explain how a plane is able to stay in the air was a turning point for me. If you don’t have your own engineer relative and need somewhere to start, this article has some reassuring aeroplane facts.