An airport panic attack is debilitating: a true story

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Image for article having a panic attack at airport. Hipster girl in a hat and sunglasses hides half her face behind a vintage suitcase with stamps flags of different country

"I do not know what calm travel is. A panic attack at the airport is my norm" | Photo Credit: ©Poprotskiy Alexey / Adobe Stock

"The thought of airport security sends waves of panic through me, but somehow I always find the strength to face it head-on."

An airport panic attack is debilitating: a true story

For many people traveling with panic disorder is exhausting. Many people experience anxiety at airports, but the experience of having a panic attack at airport security or a panic attack on a flight is a totally different experience.

The taxi veered through the evening Delhi traffic-dusty roads, blaring horns, and road jams. The driver, a young guy, was surprised, but remained silent about the passenger’s request to roll the windows down and turn off the air-conditioning- he had never heard this request before in all his time as a driver in the summers of Delhi.

The passenger, a 27-year-old research scholar traveling with panic disorder, was frantically pushing buttons on her phone, texting a far-away friend, contemplating canceling the plan and just going back to her dorm room. She was on her way to a job interview in another city, but that seemed irrelevant then; only curling up in her bed seemed real and necessary.

The frantic texting soon advanced to wiping off sweat from her forehead, tears flowing down her face, and a strong nauseous sensation in her throat. The friend kept convincing her to stay in the cab, reach the airport, and get through security. More out of a strong sense of immobility than an active exercise of will, the woman reached the airport, paid the driver, and got out.

Airport security makes me anxious: having a panic attack at airport security

Through the entire check-in process at the airport, she seemed to be walking as though controlled by another person’s agency. If you were to ask her later, she wouldn’t know or recollect how she got the boarding pass. Anxiety at airports can do that to you.

After she collected her boarding pass she went to the bathrooms, noted gratefully that it was empty, except for a cleaning lady, and sat down in a corner and cried. The anxiety of airports – and the thought of yet another panic attack at airport security – had triggered a panic attack. The tears now streamed in a steady, silent stream, and she wasn’t sure whether she was wiping away the tears or the sweat. She was palpitating but kept telling herself to take deep breaths. She knew she could have a panic attack at the airport; after all, she had been traveling with panic disorder for years.

"Going through airport security makes me anxious laying the ground work for an airport panic attack"

After a few minutes passed like this, the cleaning lady asked her why she was crying. She said she had just experienced a panic attack at the airport because was scared of flying and of airport security. Between sobs, she explained how airports and flying made her nervous and that she often has panic attacks traveling as a result of her panic disorder. She believed what she was saying. She didn’t think there could be no other explanation for what she was feeling. The panic attack was real; just as real as the anxiety and panic disorder she experienced when traveling.

She got up, rinsed her face, put on some jewelry, lipstick and thanked the cleaning lady and got out. As she made her way through the security check with a confident gait in her step, she herself couldn’t think back to a mere five minutes ago, when she was crying in an airport bathroom. Sadly it was normal for her to have a panic attack at airport security.

"The panic attack was real; just as real as the anxiety and panic disorder she experienced when traveling."

That woman having a panic attack at the airport was me

This panic attack at the airport happened in mid-June, 2018. Half an hour after my panic attack, I was sitting in the food court of the airport, getting a quick supper, and texting the same friend who had convinced me to stay in the cab. Amidst the texts of his reassurances and photos of my food was a message that I had sent him –

‘I hate my mental state. I hate having anxiety at airports. I am terrified of panic attacks while traveling.'

Although I am used to having a panic attack at airports, it didn’t make it any easier.

Unfortunately for me, and for many other people, having anxiety at airports, including suffering from panic attacks, is an all too frequent travel companion.

I have always tried to manage my anxiety at airports, including being prepared for having a panic attack at airport security, in two ways, neither way makes much of a difference:

  1. My bags packed a day in advance and me extremely happy, talkative, and with music on my earphones; or
  2. A backpack stuffed in a hurry, tickets crumpled, and on the verge of canceling all my plans and shrinking into the familiar hole that is my room.

I do not know what calm travel is. However, I do know what anxiety at airports is like and what it feels like to have a panic attack at the airport.

When my mother or my roommate packs her stuff and leaves in a graceful exit, I am amazed. How can they do that? Aren’t their heads in a flurry over the transit? Not over the fear or excitement of going to a new place, but merely the travel itself? Airport security and all that goes with it. 

That is something I always wondered about people who travel for a living: they apparently don’t feel the need to throw up at the thought of the cab or bus ride, or placing one’s arms up in the air when they are searched by airport security staff, which is usually the trigger for my panic attack at airport security.

Thinking about having a panic attack at the airport puts me in a panic!

Ever since I was a child, I was motion-sick- every bus ride or flight was a flurry of anti-motion sickness tablets and plastic bags crammed into every available corner of my bag, just in case I want to throw up. My mother always attributed my intense motion sickness to an empty stomach, which was highly probable.

But more than that, as I grew up, I’ve come to realize that the sickness may not entirely due to a lack of food, but due to the panic building within me about the upcoming travel. Airports and flying increased my anxiety tenfold. That would explain the sweaty forehead, the palpitations, and nausea.

If I had to question why I feel this airport panic, I wouldn’t know the answer. Maybe it’s the closed place, the tensions of airport security, the invasive unwelcome pat-downs, the proximity to others, or just the transposition from one place to another in a thin metal tube. But what I have also realized is the absolute hilarity of my panic attacks at the airport.

After I have successfully imbibed what my friend tells me, wash my face and become a well-dressed version of myself for the journey from the airport food court to the gate, I am able to look back at myself and laugh; a mess one minute, and the picture of absolute confidence the next.

Thinking about having a panic attack at the airport puts me in a panic!

I can sit in a car on the way to a friend’s party and start feeling sick even before I get there; I have a panic attack when I arrive, throwing up before I even eat or drink anything, but a wash of the face later, I am laughing at my own panic, my own fear of meeting new people now forgotten. These extreme mood variations, these panic attacks are something my therapist describes as a characteristic of borderline personality disorder. I find this part hilarious as well but not because of their diagnosis.

The fact that I can find the humor does not mean I reduce its seriousness or even pretend that I do not suffer from the emptiness, the unpredictability and the havoc that borderline personality disorder wrecks on an individual. Or the panic attacks at the airport that make travel hell. I do not also pretend that it has been a similarly hilarious ride for those involved in my life and in my condition: it certainly isn’t for my parents or my closest friends.

"Despite the chaos and unpredictability, I've learned to embrace the absurdity of my panic attacks at the airport and find hope in the midst of it all."

But what does give me the chance to laugh a bit at myself is the knowledge that somehow I have been okay so far. That somehow I have managed to survive airports and traveling and life. True, my career is at crossroads, I am incapable of long-term relationships, and I am still prone to living in denial, accompanied by flights of panic. 

However, thanks to a network of friends and family, I have made it out always, so far. The very proof of my existence now is to look at stuff through the funny side of it; when a friend jokingly retorts ‘go die,’ I tell them, ‘hey, I might just listen to you.’ Awkward silence at first, then back-thumping.

Similarly, my mother laughs about the last time that we had a row about the cleanliness of my room, a row that would have quickly escalated to serious emotional or mild physical hurt to either of us. Again, I cannot stress how much it is possible to laugh about all this merely because there isn’t tangible evidence of its damage.

Contemplation over the reasons for having my airport panic attacks and my sudden mood changes have been helpful for me to understand aspects of myself I hadn’t really thought about before. While this is no way reduces the intensity of my future panic attacks or sudden mood changes, there is always the minor glimmer of hope things will work out fine and that I am still on the path of finding something that works for me.

The acts of washing my face, putting on my jewelry and putting on my lipstick mark a departure in time – a series of actions that separate the messy and anxiety-ridden panic attack at the airport from a woman who is ready to take on the world – one airport security scan at a time. I do not debate its absurdity, but it works for me. And if it makes me laugh till the next airport panic attack, should I deny its hilarity either?

"Having a panic attack at the airport is like a rollercoaster ride from tears to confidence, but I always manage to find my way back to laughter."

Article by
Lakshmi Krishnakumar

Lakshmi Krishnakumar, the author of "An airport panic attack is debilitating: a true story," is currently at the cusp of leaving behind known and uncomfortable territories of her life and venturing into new ones. Her borderline personality makes her an absolute roller coaster to be with, mostly to herself. She enjoys reading, cats, and reading to her cats.