How to Handle a Panic Attack While Traveling
Traveling is great—we know this. Suspending your daily routine and immersing yourself in a new environment and trading a frantic cubicle for a sunny cafe means to be calm, at ease, and at peace—it's why so many of us love to travel.
But as much as we love sharing highlights from our travels, there’s a lesser discussed side of traveling that many of us deal with and few talk about: panic attacks. Whether being overcome with fear or inexplicably unable to take deep breaths, sometimes being in a foreign place can overwhelm us to the point when we’re simply paralyzed. And this often happens without reason and without warning.
Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional. If you’re already talking to a therapist or doctor about anxiety, then by all means, please stick with that advice. However, if you, like me, occasionally find yourself stricken with worry while you’re on the road know you aren’t alone. The below advice is meant to be a starting point to keep the fear of fear from ruining your next trip.
Know what you’re walking into.
Source: Jason Briscoe
To start, give yourself the freedom to be uncomfortable. So often we head into a trip with warranted excitement and courage at what we’re about to do. That’s great! But it can also make anything less than those emotions a place of shame if we find ourselves uneasy or afraid.
Know that traveling does require a healthy amount of bravery and you are purposefully putting yourself into a situation that’s outside your norm. Acknowledge that you’ll have frustrating moments or less than ideal circumstances—this shouldn't lessen your excitement or ability to be a pro-traveler.
If you’ve already given yourself the freedom to experience a range of emotions while traveling, then when unexpected feelings arise you’ll have an easier time seeing them through in a healthy way. The last thing you want to is do avoid or ignore feelings only to have them build and explode later on.
Have a designated point person.
Source: Mavis CW
In the same vein, giving yourself the freedom to feel also means you can put a plan in place to deal with panic (should it happen). Doing so can help you gain control of an out-of-control situation.
For example, if you’ll be traveling alone, designate a friend or family member back home to be your go-to person. Ask ahead of time if you can call, text, or FaceTime if you panic. This is different from the “send me pictures!” request of a friend who wants to hear all about your trip. Instead, this is someone who knows you best, who will be available and ready to talk to you calmly in the moment and get you out of your head when it’s spinning.
For me, this is my husband. He knows me; he won’t pepper me with a million questions about why I’m feeling what I’m feeling (or criticize me for being irrational) but instead get right to the heart of helping me—affirming that I’m safe, that I’m not alone, and that I’ve been here before, and that my anxiety will pass. (And if no one comes to mind for you or in the moment is unavailable, this recording is great to keep on hand.)
Research the emergency services of your location in advance.
Source: Oskar Krawczyk
This might be obvious, but it can mean a world of difference when you’re panicking. Since we often fear what we don’t know, take an extra ten or twenty minutes when planning your trip to also jot down a foreign city’s emergency response number and hospital location.
You will doubtfully need it, but in the moment if you can’t catch your breath or are overwhelmed with emotion, the thought of having to call 911 or figure out how to rescue yourself can make the anxiety substantially worse. Instead, having a quick note stored on your phone can be a good first check-in point. This way you'll feel at ease knowing that if something went wrong, you'd know what to do and how to communicate in the language. Whether you deal with anxiety or not, this is always a good step to have in place for any trip!
Engage your senses to work through it.
Source: Clarisse Meyer
Since a panic attack begins in the mind signaling the brain to produce a real, biological response in the body, it often works best to work backward and stimulate your senses to shut off the input to your brain.
In simpler terms, use the senses you can control to control the feelings you can’t. If you’re laying down, sit up and put your feet on the floor. Pick up something tangible nearby—a sweater, guidebook, glass of water—and hold it in your hands. What does it feel like? Does it have a smell? If it’s edible, what does it taste like? If you tap it, what does it sound like? Go through this process several times if you have to, concentrating on what’s grounding you and what’s real right in front of you.
Have a distraction tool at the ready.
Source: Jens Kreuter
Similarly, if you’re able to recognize the onset of panic, then it may help to have a go-to “snap out of it” technique at your disposal.
For me, I’ve found that Pinterest actually works great here. Whenever I get panicky, it tends to be during the witching time of 2-4 a.m. when I haven’t fully fallen asleep. I’ll wake up and if my surroundings seem eerily quiet I somehow convince myself that I’m having an attack. So I’ll open the Pinterest app and start scrolling to get outside of my head. Before long, I’ll have fallen down a rabbit hole, and instead I’ll be thinking about rearranging my living room or, simply, how the sun will rise soon with a day’s worth of adventure yet ahead of me.
For you, think ahead to what distraction technique may prevent a full-on anxiety spiral from occurring. If there’s a time of day or a certain situation you know always puts you on edge, then think about what can anchor you outside of the fear to normalize the situation. Maybe it’s an app, maybe it’s putting on a face mask, maybe it’s playing “I Spy” to notice a travel detail to tell a friend about later. Whatever it is, think about it ahead of time and put it on the “What to Do When I’m Freaking Out” checklist. It’s a list that can work wonders.
Though everyone’s experience with anxiety is different, it's helpful to know that others can relate and have experienced it also. Again, you are human, and to feel anxious or frightful is a normal human occurrence. With a little bit of forethought, you’ll get through it and beyond it so that your adventurous, courageous self can take all the credit.