Panic attacks when traveling are no fun. Here’s how I cope

by Lakshmi Krishnakumar

Panic attack when traveling in India! 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 when traveling is my norm.


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A panic attack when traveling in India

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, 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. Through the entire check-in process, 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. Then 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 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.

After a few minutes passed like this, the cleaning lady asked her why she was crying. She said she was scared of flying and that it made her nervous and that she has panic attacks when traveling. She believed what she was saying. She didn’t think there could be no other explanation for what she was feeling. 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.

That woman having a panic attack when traveling in India was me. Is me.

This incident happened in mid-June, 2018. Half an hour after the breakdown, 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 am used to nervous breakdowns and panic attacks when traveling. I have always prepared for a journey in two ways:

a) bags packed a day in advance and me extremely happy, talkative, and with music on my earphones, or,

b) 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. A panic attack when traveling is my norm.

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? 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.

Read more: Why my childhood panic attacks led to no more babysitting

Every trip 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. That would explain the sweaty forehead, the palpitations, and nausea.

If I had to question why I feel this panic, I wouldn’t know the answer. Maybe it’s the closed place, the proximity to others, or just the transposition from one place to another. But what I have also realized is the absolute hilarity of it all. After I have successfully imbibed what my friend tells me, wash my face and become a well-dressed version of myself for the journey, I am able to look back at myself and laugh; a mess one minute, and the picture of absolute confidence the next.

I can sit in a car on the way to a friend’s party and start feeling sick even before I get there; 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. Again, this is something I am used to, my extreme mood variations, something that my therapist would say is a characteristic of my borderline personality. I find this part hilarious as well.

However, 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. 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.

But what does give me the chance to laugh a bit at myself is the knowledge that somehow I have been okay so far. 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.

Read more: Exposure therapy for panic disorder with agoraphobia: a walk in the forest

Contemplation over the reasons for my panic attacks and sudden mood changes has been helpful for me to understand aspects of myself that I hadn’t really thought about before. While this is no way reduces the intensity with which I feel stuff the next time, there is always the minor glimmer of hope things will work out fine and 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 me from a woman who is ready to take on the world – one flight at a time. I do not debate its absurdity, but it works for me. And if it makes me laugh till the next panic attack, should I deny its hilarity either?

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Article by Lakshmi Krishnakumar



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