The Moment I Saw the Difference Between a Panic Attack and a Moment of Panic

In the past few years, I have found myself on over 40 flights. I consider myself to be a skilled traveler, ready for what might face me. I no longer care what seat I get on a long haul flight, whether there is a delay or cancellation in my travel plans, or even if my luggage were to be lost.

On my flight home from Turks and Caicos, we were warned of incoming turbulence later in the flight. I thought I experienced turbulence before, but what I previously faced was nothing like this.

We were warned, but there were still screams and shouts of panic as the plane bounced through the air. Just as a carnival ride does, the plane felt as if it was plummeting through the sky.

Neighbors grasped each other’s hands tightly, as I did with my father’s. Children’s screams filled the cabin, as did those of adults.

Images of “Lost,” the missing Malaysia flight and the countless other planes that disappeared into the ocean, never to be seen again, filled my mind. My obsessions with tragedies haunted my thoughts, which ultimately triggered a panic attack.

I felt the usual symptoms of a panic attack begin to surface. My arms and legs and fingers began to shake; I had to let go of my phone because I couldn’t grasp anything. My heart sped up and I struggled to breathe. I was left to gasp for air and almost opened up the barf bag to hyperventilate into. My stomach clamped tightly together and I doubled over in my seat.

I saw others around me go back to normal. The woman behind me audibly laughed at the program she was watching. A few rows ahead, two men were having a conversation about their vacation. Even my family went back to what they were doing. Everyone continued with what they were doing, as if the quick loss of plane’s functions hadn’t even happened.

Meanwhile, I became a shell. I couldn’t get myself to speak to my family; I couldn’t even look at them.

I looked down from the provided film I had been watching — something simple and traditional like Home Alone.

I didn’t want to close my eyes over the fear of the turbulence hitting again. I refused to open the window — I didn’t want to see what we had flown through. I couldn’t play a game on my phone; my hands were shaking far too much.

I have had panic attacks before, but have always dismissed them as common reactions to events out of my control. But at 30,000 feet in a crowded cabin, I recognized that my reactions differed greatly from those around me. It was then that I recognized I struggle with a disorder that others do not, and that it’s real.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Getty Images photo via byakkaya

Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.

Related to Panic Disorder

two woman sit together on a bench in the fall

When My Panic Attack Unexpectedly Sparked a Beautiful Friendship

I have panic attacks. They started happening on a regular basis nine and a half years ago. Some attacks are worse than others. Regardless of the severity, it is often a difficult, painful experience. It helps when the people around me during an attack are nonjudgmental, kind and understanding. I want to share one such experience: [...]
woman afraid of something, covering face and head with light behind in white tone

What I Think and Feel Before, During and After My Panic Attack

Panic attacks can be terrifying to say the least. They seem to tug every ounce of strength right out of you. They’re ruthless. Scary. Confusing. Exhausting. But most of all, they take the “you” out of you. They attack you from the inside out. Panic attacks are something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. [...]
stressed woman

The Stressful Situation That Made Me Realize Panicking Isn't the Same as a Panic Attack

Within the last few weeks, my 8-month-old cat, Finn, has developed a newfound fascination with what’s on the other side of my apartment door. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but it did leave the cat in the hallway of my apartment complex, alone, for about seven hours. Last night when I got home, I opened [...]
woman stands in front of pink wall

10 Unique Tricks in My Self-Help Toolbox to Stop Panic Attacks

Racing heart. Shaking hands. Shallow breath. Have you been there lately? Earlier this week, I felt the anxiety seeded in my belly grow up into my chest and lungs. I knew I had nearly 10 sacred minutes to de-escalate my anxiety before it manifested into a panic attack. You know: the ugly, sobbing kind? I [...]