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

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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.

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Getty Images photo via byakkaya

Originally published: January 29, 2018
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