Traveling Tips for Those Who Suffer From Panic Attacks

Updated on June 20, 2017
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia is a university student. She's been battling social anxiety all her life, and about a year ago she developed panic disorder.

Bravery is not about being fearless. Bravery is about being acquainted with fear on the most intimate level. Spinning in a mad dance with it until you are dying, breathless, exhausted, and yet managing to go on living in spite of it. The mad rollercoaster of anxiety is enough to bring anyone down in the most favorable conditions. It is hard to battle in the safety of your own house; add to it all the nervousness and uncertainty of travelling, and the result is bound to be ungodly nerve-wrecking.

Still, I do believe that actually facing your condition out in the wild may be beneficial in the long run. Nobody wants to be shut in their house forever, missing out on all the exciting things.

Of course it’s much easier to say than actually do. How to travel with panic disorder? I'm afraid I don't have the perfect recipe, but I may have a handful of my own experiences.

My Tips on Dealing With Panic Disorder While Traveling

  • Don't avoid planes/buses/cars because you once had a panic attack there – avoidance will only make it worse!
  • Travel with friends you feel comfortable around
  • If you travel on your own, take it slowly, one thing at a time
  • Before going hiking be sure to exercise
  • If you do have a panic attack on the trail, tell your friend about it, sit down in a safe place and wait until it passes
  • Most important of all, don't ever be discouraged and have fun!

Means of Transport

My worst ever panic attack was triggered by the take-off of a plane. I had never had any troubles on planes before (no panic disorder then), but this time was different.

I felt that something had gone wrong, because the plane wasn’t leveling up. I immediately found myself in the grip of a blind animal panic. I not only felt like dying, I was actually 100% sure I would die.

But we didn’t crash and after a while I managed to calm down. My next flight is due in a month. I'm going to sink into the seat, put on my earphones, listen to some music and breath very slowly. I'll see how things go this time.

A fear of specific places and situations that previously triggered a panic attack can make you develop an avoidance pattern that is difficult to break. It may have quite a debilitating impact on your life as you start missing out on the things you once enjoyed. And the worst part is that avoidance doesn’t really cure the anxiety, if anything, it exacerbates it. After having read a few amazing accounts of people that overcame panic disorder (most notably meloncauli’s) I’m convinced more than ever that it’s the fear of having another panic attack that keeps you locked in this vicious circle. So going on that damn plane in a month and proving that the anxiety can’t have it its way seems like the best I can do.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Or see you in hell.

Travelling With Friends

And now onto some more positive stuff. I found that a recent trip to Edinburgh with my friends actually actively improved my mental wellbeing. I had only one minor panic attack, which was really negligible in comparison with what I had suffered before. The excitement of travelling took the edge off my anxiety. It was a perfect distraction for me; I couldn’t be anxious while having such an amazing time.

I was lucky to have gone on this trip with two of my friends I felt comfortable around; things might have turned out differently if I had felt bad or awkward around my companions. A word of advice to anyone out there wanting to travel with panic disorder: choose your buddies wisely. You don’t want to feel ashamed in front of them for any reason; if they can’t understand your condition, it’s probably not worth it.

If you choose to travel alone, take things slowly. Especially planning beforehand might be quite distressing (and I should know, I’m going on Erasmus next month). It feels like all the stuff you need to take care of form one gigantic lump in your throat. What I try to do is cut this lump into small pieces. I make a list of all the things that need to be done and focus on one at a time. Some unexpected hurdles and anxiety are bound to happen on the way, like when I spent an entire evening looking for a room in Spain and then it turned out that the website I was using was a scam. But in the end you’ll figure it all out!

Hiking

I love the mountains. I’m addicted to the feeling of freedom they give. I love that you have to pay for this freedom with sweat, commitment, and endurance. The mountains are not an easy mistress but when you do win her favor, the reward is tenfold better than what you had to put in.

But the mountains can also be dangerous. And this is especially true for people with panic disorder; if you lost control over yourself you could easily slip and fall down. I didn’t want to chicken out without giving it a try, however. I figured that with a bit of physical and mental preparation I should be able to decrease my chances of getting a panic attack on the trail. If, nevertheless, I felt panicky, I could always go down to the valley and try again at a later date.

Before the trip I watched tons of hiking videos on YouTube. I paid attention to every difficulty on the trail and figured out in my head how I would go about surmounting them. I tried not to be overwhelmed by the abyss, just focused on the technicalities. Adrenaline was flowing in my body even then, but I told myself it was a healthy reaction. It was excitement.

After a couple of days I had in my mind the complete map of every trail we were going to be on this year. I knew what was awaiting me and I knew how to tackle it. As for the physical preparation, I started running. I highly recommend it even if you are not about to go on a mountain trip. Running relieves stress from the body and floods you with endorphins. A sense of achieving more and more every time you go for a run (be it better time, be it more kilometers) adds immensely to the overall positive experience. Get those old juices flowing! Set some goals and watch yourself achieving them; I guarantee you’ll feel much better in no time.

And you know what? All this preparation was worth it! I had one or two adrenaline kicks before some particularly challenging or exposed spots; but nothing I couldn’t handle. It never erupted into a full-blown panic attack.

So if you suffer from panic disorder, but love travelling or hiking, go for it! Be cautious, obviously, but give it a try nevertheless. The first step is the most difficult one, the rest you can handle.

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