When Anxiety Strikes on an Airplane


I’m on an airplane. I just boarded with my husband after an amazing week in St. Croix, visiting his parents and soaking up the sun, sipping on fruity rum drinks and enjoying family time. We’d flown to San Juan and had a meal, browsed the duty-free store and gotten on the plane. I’m excited to have the window seat since I took the middle on the way down; it’s my turn to have a wall to sleep against. I swallow my trusty Dramamine — while I don’t usually get nervous on flights, I prefer to sleep my way through them —  and try to settle in. I’m crossing and uncrossing my legs, propping myself up against the window, leaning on my husband’s shoulder. I can’t get comfortable. My neck and shoulders start to ache, my lower back too. We haven’t even taken off yet, and I suddenly need air. 

The flight attendants have begun their safety speech, and I continue to squirm. I try tucking one leg underneath me, then the other. I ball up my hoodie and try to lean against the window using that. Everything hurts. It’s not just an aching anymore, it’s a throbbing that courses throughout my body, my arms, my legs. I start to feel like I want to crawl out of my own skin — anything to stop feeling so uncomfortable. I lean back in my chair so hard that it tilts back the way airplane seats sometimes do, surprising the woman behind me. I turn around and smile apologetically, adjusting my seat so it’s upright again. She has no idea of the frantic flurry of thoughts in my head trying to get my body to relax. We still haven’t taken off. 

After what could only have been 10 or 15 minutes, I have become so restless I feel like I’m disturbing the entire plane (this is unlikely; it’s a big plane). Finally my husband turns to me and asks, “Are you anxious?” 

“Oh,” I said. Yes, I guess I am. Sometimes it feels so physical, and I don’t think I have anything to be worried about, so I forget anxiety just does this sometimes (you’d think I’d start to get with the program one of these days). I have nothing to take to make it go away. This type of anxiety usually only overtakes me at bedtime at home, where I can take a sleep aid or get up and do something else to quiet my nerves, so I don’t have any actual anti-anxiety medication with me. I’ve never gotten this way on a plane before. Now that I’ve identified what’s going on, I start to feel worse instead of better. My heart gets a little racy. I want to jiggle my leg up and down, but I know that will shake the whole row, so I settle for tapping my fingers frantically against my thigh. This is awful. How am I going to get through four hours of this without moving around or screaming or bursting into tears? 

I count down backwards from 100 to give my mind something to focus on. When that doesn’t work, I try counting down by twos or threes to make it harder. It helps for maybe a few seconds at a time.

Drinks and snacks come. I can’t eat. I’m desperate to feel something, anything, other than this agonizing feeling that something is terribly wrong. My husband suggests I hold an ice cube. (He works with kids who have mental illnesses. He’s good at this.) He puts one cube on the back of my neck. Cold water drips down the back of my shirt, and this makes me cringe, but holding the ice on the pulse points of my wrists seems to help briefly. I want to shriek. Everyone around me is reading, watching movies, sleeping. How can they be so relaxed? Usually I can read and then drift off to sleep, but not now. My husband holds my hand and tells me everything is OK. He tells me I am his best friend. I smile because this usually comforts me, but the anxiety is like a thousand ants crawling over every inch of my skin. How could this possibly ever be OK? 

I’m distraught, about to come completely unglued. Last resort: we have some nips in our carry-on. I drink one. It helps for about 20 minutes. I might doze for five or 10 of them. I am miserable. I drink another one. Again, relief for a few precious moments. I think I have to pee, but the idea of disturbing the woman in the aisle seat makes me cringe, and anxiety surges up inside of me. This becomes all I can think about. I know I’m perseverating, but I can’t help it. As soon as I decide to make a move for the restroom, the seatbelt sign goes on. Now I am convinced I cannot get up to pee (it’s against the rules!), but after several others do I muster up the willpower to ask the woman on the aisle to let me out. Just walking the aisle I feel a little better. It feels good to stand up. I’m not trapped against the wall of the plane anymore. I’ve never felt claustrophobic in this way, but being up and about feels so much better than sitting that I wonder if that’s what this is. 

After the bathroom, I sit in the middle seat because my husband has moved over. I am OK. Surprisingly, this feels better than my usually-preferred window seat. We are landing in less than an hour. I somehow manage to read a little bit and sit quietly without wriggling around and accidentally elbowing my seat mate in the face or slamming my seat back into someone’s knees. Thank goodness for small favors.

We land in Boston and get off the plane. I have survived one of the worst flights of my life. I think I have decided depression is way easier to deal with than anxiety. (Until, of course, the next time that sad, familiar pain creeps into the pit of my stomach in a few days, and I will change my mind again.) For now, though, I will breathe and thank God for the relief that comes when the ants crawl off my skin and scurry away, when I can breathe again, when the anxiety lifts from my cramped, tense shoulders. 

Follow this journey on Go Where It Hurts.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were traveling that was either incredibly challenging or where you faced adversity. Tell us how you handled it or wish you had handled it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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