I’ve recently suffered recurring episodes of PTSD. So I haven’t been on an airplane in two years. Which is probably the longest I’ve gone since I was a teenager. For I love to travel. And even though my PTSD, SPD and anxiety make it extremely difficult to travel, I know that standing on the beach and breathing in the ocean air will make it all worth it. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.
Feeling drawn to the ocean and having some time off work, I decided it was worth the risk yet again. It has been a rough two years. So my husband and I booked a flight to sunny California.
We sat on the plane for over an hour before takeoff. Some kind of maintenance issue. Which brings its own set of anxieties. It was hot on the plane. Stuffy. And when the realization I was sitting in the same cramped spot I’d be in for the next four hours hit me, I felt the panic wash over me. So I had to get up.
I went to the bathroom, contemplating how I could find a place to stand until we were on our way. Then I realized I could stand in the stall. And I could smell a wonderful hazelnut coffee coming from the nearby galley, making the bathroom pleasantly fragrant to stand in.
So I stood. In the stall. Listening to music and reading and writing on my phone. Trying to breathe through the beginning stages of a panic attack. It worked, but when I finally left the stall and saw a line of people waiting, I felt guilty for a minute. But then I realized that having a panic attack was akin to having diarrhea. Only at least the stall still smelled like hazelnut coffee.
When flying with PTSD and SPD, there’s always potential for having a panic attack — you’re trapped and your personal space is invaded — and I did end up having one after returning to my seat. The man in front of me put his seat back, which prevented me from rocking, and it was all over.
I can thankfully say I did not have a panic attack on the flight home. Which I can credit to all the things I did to help calm my nervous system. So here are some tips for all you sensory warriors the next time you fly:*
- When planning the trip, make sure to think ahead about where you’ll be sitting and the details of your flight. Consider if you’ll need the window seat so you can see out or the aisle seat so you can easily escape. And how far back on the place your seat is. For me, the further back, the harder. Make note of if you’ll be changing planes, so you can prepare yourself for the change. And for how long your flight will be.
- The day of traveling, workout and/or do yoga. Make sure to move your body as much as possible before your flight in order to calm your nervous system.
- Eat right. Not too heavy, not too light. Eat enough protein. I also have to take my supplements and plenty of magnesium.
- Limit stimulants. I don’t drink coffee and limit stimulants like chocolate and caffeine.
- Wear comfortable clothing you feel safe in. I wear a leather coat and leather boots. And a backpack. To protect me.
- Dress in layers. So you can clothe and unclothe as much as needed to keep your temperature regulated.
- Once at the airport, hydrate. I buy a big water. And sometimes a hot water too to drink my hormone balancing and calming teas.
- Weigh yourself down. I contemplated bringing my weighted blanket, but then I realized it would be a hassle. So I weighed myself down with my bags. Across my shoulders. Down my back. And I put my purse back on my lap once we took off. To keep me grounded in the air.
- Wear noise-canceling headphones. I wear mine from the moment I get to the airport and listen to brainwave activation music. I might turn off the music, but I keep the headphones on. The entire time.
- Medicate. I take medical marijuana. Calming sprays and CBD oil. And I take magnesium supplements both before we board and once on the plane.
- Get plane-friendly activities ready. I download music and movies so I can access them at all times.
- Once on the plane, know which activities will calm you. I’m usually too wired to read, so I write and watch TV. Watching something is soothing for me. Always has been.
- Distract yourself. I distract myself as much as possible. By reading. Writing. Playing games. Trying not to let my mind wander.
- Keep the air flowing. I turn on the air as soon as I sit down and look up and breathe it in when I get overwhelmed.
- Eat and drink. I eat crunchy snacks and drink water.
- Schedule your treats. I plan my drinks and snacks. First hot tea. Then juice or whiskey (depending on how severe the need) and an airplane snack. Then possibly more magnesium supplements if needed. And water throughout.
- Schedule your time while on the flight. If it’s a four-hour flight, that’s a movie. Possibly two. It’s a book. If I’m lucky. With time to write or to close my eyes in between.
- Soothe your nervous system. I rock back and forth, weigh myself down, drink something hot and something cold, etc. Consider it like creating a sensory diet for the plane.
- Meditate. I use prayer beads and pray. For a safe flight. To not have a meltdown. For the person in front of me to not put their seat back and for the person behind me to not bump the back of my seat.
- If you feel overwhelmed while sitting, get up. Go into the bathroom for 10-15 minutes and try to find the safe space inside yourself.
*See 16 Ways to Meet Your Needs While Away for more tips on traveling.
The next time I fly, I’ll try taking melatonin once on the plane, so I can hopefully fall asleep. And I might even tell a flight attendant I have PTSD and SPD, so I may not be able to stay in my seat for the entirety of the flight. In hopes they will allow me a place to stand when I need to. To calm my nervous system. To be regulated. To keep myself safe.