Panic Attack in Transit


I have a fear of heights and therefore I hate flying.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I signed up for a study abroad program in Canada while I was a student in Austria back in 1997. But I did. That flight to Toronto was completed with lots of Alcohol in my system. I got stuck in North America not too long after and long story short, I have been flying ever since, at least once a year. Mostly I fly cross-Atlantic but sometimes half around the world cross-Pacific. I am what they call a cosmopolitan global citizen, a globalization winner. And flying is part of my life.

I developed a routine that includes superstitious rituals and pep-talks to myself such as “this is going to be fun, like, lots of movies to watch, right?!” But as soon as we hit wind turbulence all this goes out the window and I start to panic.

Not too long ago on a family trip to Asia this very thing happened.

We were sitting in the last middle row in the back of the plane (my daughter assured me “this is the safest row to be sitting in”, thank you for that!) and we hit strong winds, the plan was going up and down and from side to side, the pilot announced to stop all services and had the crew to take seats with seat belts fastened securely.

I panicked. I screamed. I prayed. I wailed. My six-year-old sitting next to me found this very amusing (thank God she did not get scared), and my teenager was embarrassed. My husband was sleeping.

I kept thinking to myself: “Why is not somebody coming to rescuing me?” “With the plane full of flight attendants, why is not one of them coming to me, hold my hand, and give me a tranquilizer?” And why the hell did people not even stare at me (I guess it’s all these movies). I thought I would die. I thought I cannot stop myself and this panic attack will be the end of me.

Then I thought to myself, nobody is coming, you have to do something for yourself. I remembered the first rule in meditation — take deep breaths in and out. And so I did. I started to breath slowly and deeply in and pushed the air out slowly holding my belly. And it worked. I was able to calm myself down. I focused on my breathing and my body and nothing else. I was able to disengage from my panic attack and I relaxed.

What lesson can I take away from this? Are we all alone in the end when it comes right down to it? Is there nobody that can help you in a panic attack? Yes and No. Yes because in the end nobody can overcome an irrational fear for you. You have to do this bit yourself. On the other hand, I did not come up with the breathing technique myself out of thin air. I learned it from somebody. Other people had been experimenting with it and now it is sort of common knowledge. So no, we are not all alone in our misery but we have to be our own best advocate as much as we are able to, as adults anyway.

Not too long after this trip, my teenage daughter had an unpleasant medical procedure and I was able to help her calm down from a panic attack using this breathing technique and assuring her that it will be alright.
In many ways we (people in general) need one another in order to become our own best advocates.


So many people are forced to travel – to migrate – these days and have very few advocates. They might not fear wind turbulence or heights as I do. I am privileged. I don’t need to travel if I really don’t want to. Migrants however have often no choice, and many are terrified by the ordeal they are being put through, whether they migrate because of economic or humanitarian reasons, because of violence or famine. With children who have seen war and starvation. I hope they have advocates but I am afraid many of them are left to think “Why the hell is nobody rescuing me?” and breathing exercises will not do the trick while we are busy watching movies.