How to Handle a Panic Attack
The doors close and we must now accept that we will be trapped for the next 8 hours on this flying hunk of metal, unable to move without touching other people, and breathing the same air that has gone through 200 other sets of lungs and probably a few jet engines. And did I mention we will be floating miles off the ground?
It all seems so surreal, so inhuman.
I was not always afraid of flying. In fact, as a child, I adored every aspect of it, unable to understand why my mother was nearly crying as the plane took off. I even went on to skydive and became a parachutist.
Yet at some point, something changed in me. In my late 20s, I found that I acquired an uncomfortable fear of flying: aviophobia. This fear grew a little with each time I flew thereafter until it reached it’s pinnacle a couple of years later on a flight to Iceland. Though my last flights were not as bad as the one to Iceland a few years ago, I still have a small hint of fear that would love to gain the foothold it once had on me.
However recurring and present it may be though, I have not allowed my fear of flying to interfere with my travels. It is something I approach as a necessary evil and a chance to grow. Little by little, overcoming this burden.
Having said that;
What is it that terrifies us in illogical ways?
And how can we handle this fear?
How can philosophy help me where learning the facts of flying couldn’t?
How do we handle the uncontrollable discomfort of being packed like sardines into the back of an Airbus?
First of all, let me just say that even though panic attacks seem like the strangest and most shameful things to ever happen to us, for whatever reason, they happen to many good and honorable people. It doesn’t make you a bad person to be irrationally afraid of something.
It isn’t the end of the world, although let’s be honest, it feels exactly like that.
It’s a small consolation, but I feel this is a vital first step in getting over what terrifies us. Which for me is being trapped on a plane.
A bonus consolation:
Wolverine is the most badass dude I know, and he hates flying. Even the best of us have our fears. Nobody is indestructible, including the Wolverine.
The fear is there and it is real. Whether or not it is fair or logical doesn’t matter. It is real to the person experiencing it. The trick here, like any emotion or thought, is to not hide or run from it. Accept its existence. Allow yourself to feel it.
Allow the waves to carry you this way and that, knowing they won’t last forever, and they will eventually, yet always, bring you back to shore.
One of the first exercises I did when accepting my fear of flying was to write my thoughts and feelings as they were happening. Yes. It feels ridiculous, but the whole panic attack is ridiculous.
Shitting our pants or screaming for mommy while running off the plane may feel like the appropriate response to our fears, but taking the time to put the feelings in front of you and seeing them may be of more benefit.
Just remember. There are no wrong feelings, but there are better and worse ways to act on those feelings.
We don’t have to be at our best all the time. We are allowed shortcomings, and failures do happen in life. These shortcomings and failures may or may not be well-earned, but either way, we shouldn’t allow them to humiliate us.
The third step is not so much about how to breathe in the act of the panic itself, but rather, the repair after the rupturing of your psyche.
When you have gotten yourself back in a calm place, it is now time to reflect and ideally speak to someone: a friend, partner, or therapist. It’s okay to feel a bit shameful in this part. The point is to understand why we feel this way.
The answer may not be as simple as we think. A fear of speaking may actually be rooted in a fear of success, or more accurately, a fear that we will make those we care about feel envious or inadequate due to our success.
For me, my greatest anxiety came when hearing, seeing, and feeling the plane door shut. I knew a fear of heights wasn’t the cause of my fear of flying. And when I thought about being able to jump out of the plane with a parachute or even just being in the cockpit with the pilots, I eased tremendously.
So it was more of a fear of control, or more precisely, of not being in control. Perhaps there was a time in my life when I felt trapped or controlled and I was unable to get away. When I heard that door close with the knowledge it would not open again no matter what I did, it triggered some really hard feelings in my subconscious from a different situation in life when I was also powerless, and I felt helpless.
In this case, we must look back into our past. We must go back and try to understand what happened until we have drained the source of our fear of its power to hurt us in the present. We must listen to these ghosts of our past that haunt us. We must let them know they have been heard and then understand that even though the plane doors are closed now, they will soon be opened again. Therefore, we will be free to go wherever we want. A truth we can apply to all aspects of our lives as the liberated adults we are, even if we couldn’t apply this freedom so readily before in our childhood.
More than that, our fear may be tied to more than just one traumatic incident to extract and eradicate. It may very well come with the shame of being anxious. And it is this shame that gives strength to the fear. A feeling that we must always seem strong or impressive to the people in our lives.
In which case, give yourself a break and allow yourself the freedom of knowing you don’t have to impress anymore. You are okay just as you are. Don’t let self-loathing tear you apart more than it already has. There is nothing left to prove.
For the final step, we should just try to put everything into perspective. During the panic attack, everything seems so important, so vital. Which makes us even more agitated, gloomy, and fatalistic. Truthfully, it can help to see that whatever our fear is: none of it really matters.
Whatever happens, it will surely go almost unnoticed.
The flowers will still blossom next spring.
The moons will still orbit their respective planets.
And you will be dead and forgotten sooner than you think.
This may all sound, ironically, gloomy and fatalistic, but it should bring a measure of peace knowing that no matter what happens, good or bad, everything will carry on.
Bon Courage et Bon Voyage
A final word of encouragement.
We may have our fears. We may need help in conquering them. We will definitely need patience. Whatever the case, don’t let anxiety cause you to avoid life. Don’t let panic reduce you.
Don’t allow fear to dictate your desires. Respond to this internal tyrant with its contrast: a profound love towards yourself.