What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

Fear of Flying School

If you hate flying, I bet one of the things you fear MOST is having a panic attack. Or worrying that one might be just around the corner.

I know how you feel. After all, it was a series of mid-air panic attacks that forced me to quit flying. And which kept me grounded for nearly three years.

So what does a panic attack feel like?

In a nutshell, you’re overwhelmed by terror. And a conviction that catastrophe is imminent.

In a matter of seconds, you’re engulfed by symptoms that may include:

  • A sense of unreality.
  • A feeling that you’re about to go crazy.
  • A feeling that you’re about to lose control.
  • Dizziness
  • A pounding heart.
  • Chest pains (which are often wrongly interpreted as a heart attack – panic attacks don’t cause heart attacks).
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Sweating.
  • Trembling.

To make things worse, an attack often seems to come out of nowhere – an experience that’s frightening in itself.

Even worse, when an attack starts, it usually gives rise to a vicious cycle of fear. Why?

Because your panicked mind reads the attack’s terrifying symptoms as proof that something dreadful is at hand. And then responds by panicking more.

Fear of fear

It goes without saying that if you’ve had a panic attack in the past, it’s likely you live in fear of having another. In other words, that you’ve developed a fear of fear.

As I’m sure you know, thinking that way boosts your chance of having another attack.

Public humiliation

Annoyingly, the problems don’t stop there. If you’ve had a panic attack before, you may also worry that panicking will make you behave strangely. And that other people will notice.

In other words, that you’ll be publically humiliated.

For example, you may worry that in a panic you’ll beg to be let off the plane after the doors have closed.

Or that you might run around the cabin screaming. Or that you might lose control of your bodily functions.

The good news

On the positive side, panic attacks don’t cause any physical harm.

And they don’t last indefinitely. In fact, they normally go on for about 5-20 minutes. Often less.

Your views

What’s your experience of panic attacks? Have they affected your ability to fly? Leave something in the comments.

This is the first instalment in a series of posts about panic attacks.

Leave a comment


  1. Amit

    My panic attacks are not due to flying but to fear of illness. I sometimes worry that my heart rate is too high at around 90 bpm. This leads to an increased heart rate and shortness of breath. Is this anxiety?

    1. Lindsay

      Yes that is most definitely a panic attack

    2. Aron

      Ok my gosh I thought I was the only one that’s checkin my pulse and wondering what my blood pressure is 0_0

  2. Cheryl Stephens

    I get light headed on the plane and I think I’m going to pass out. This feeling starts my panic process. Could this be related to my oxygen level or is it anxiety?

    1. Tim Benjamin

      Hey Cheryl – obviously I can’t comment on your specific situation. Generally speaking, though, when people have panic attacks, they often feel light headed. To understand why, check out my article on how to stop panic attacks.

  3. Charles

    I have panic attacks every day. But I hate taking meds as they just make things worse. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to die.

  4. Semone Shea

    Hi. I never used to have a fear of flying and I flew once and had the feeling where I was sweating, my heart was racing and I felt light headed and this was before take off.

    I have now not flown in a long time.

    The same thing happened on the express train I was sitting there and all of a sudden I had these same feelings. I will no longer travel express I will get a an all stops as I know I have the chance to get off if I need.

    Why is it that I used to be able to fly with no issues and now I cant? Can you please give me some tips on this?

    Thanks Semone

  5. Semone Shea

    Sorry – I forgot to add that the one time I have flown (funeral), I would think about how many hours it was until I had to fly back. What is wrong with me?

  6. Sincerely

    I haven’t ever flown because I already know that I’ve had panic attacks where I did those things just from being in enclosed areas. It seems to be manageable if I am near a window. But, in an mri machine, where I was locked in for 7 minutes, I lost complete sense of control and felt like I was going out of mind. I worry about family members if they will lose control if they fly. And if there’s any proven methods for oneself to control that anxiety before it gets out of hand, does anyone know?

  7. Patty Walker

    I am flying to Hawaii tomorrow night as a gift from my children for my 70th birthday. The last two times I flew (over 15 years ago) I had a panic attack before I was seated and ran off the plane. It was horrible. They did get me back on the plane and once we took off I was fine, but I am afraid it will happen again. My daughter told me if I run off the plane I’m on my own – they are still going to Hawaii. (That made me feel better, haha.) I do have xanax and hope that will stop me from having an attack and Tim’s advice seems to be helping me.

  8. Derrick

    I don’t have a fear of flying I’ve flown the friendly sky’ plenty of times, but I think I’m having anxiety and/or panic attacks EVERY TIME I fly for some reason…I was just on a flight where I had one of these attacks and I fainted trying to get into the restroom because I had to use the facilities… They start off the same, I start sweating profusely then get lightheaded. This last particular attack I had just finished an alcoholic drink and had the sudden urge to go as soon as I felt the attack come on which I usually weather with no problems. My son was on this flight with me and it scared him to death seeing my pass out. Is there anything I can do so this doesn’t happen again???

  9. Shelia Gentry

    I’m flying for the first time in my life in October with my husband I have atrial flutter and my doctor has given me Xanax to help with anxiety.Everyone is telling me I’ll be find,guess I’m scared my heart rate will get out of control and cause more problems.Any help?

  10. Phil

    I have had panic attacks most of my adult life. I was just about to take a flight. I got off just before they closed the doors. I choked, I felt like I was going to throw up. I grabbed my bag and ran out. The thought going through my mind was: if I am going to be sick I do not want to spoil the other people’s flight. We were going to vegas . I have flown many times. I know pretty much what to expect. This time I just totally choked.

  11. Courtney S Thompson

    We just flew a total of 20 hours to Thailand from Alaska. I was close to a panic attack a lot of the time, and then we had a terrible landing in Taiwan. It shook me up so bad, that I did have an attack on the four hour flight to Bangkok. I then started to have an attack (my heart is in my throats and all fluttery, like it’s going to forget how to beat properly) when my husband made plans for a domestic one hour flight from Bangkok down to our destination. We took a train instad, because I was a mess. I CAN’T spend this vacation in fear of the return trip. I had a dream last night that it happened…there was some sort of impact in the sky and we were falling, and I felt as if I had known it was coming…a plane full of people…can I heal from this during my one month stay in Thailand? I just want to take the slow boat home…

  12. Amy Jo

    I don’t fly, never have. My panic attacks are brought on by, well, nothing. At least nothing that I can pin point. Why does my vision seem off during and shortly after, a panic attack?

  13. Linda Yoakley

    Dear Tim and anyone who can throw some positive thoughts on this …. this coming Friday we leave for Spain (my partner and 7 and 8 year old daughters). Two weeks ago I had start of a breakdown for want of a better word. Last week it hit hard. I broke. I’m extremely claustrophobic. However, lived many years abroad and flown the world without difficulty. Once had a panic attack when my girls were both under two. Sheer exhaustion I suspect. But this time the fear of the fear is at a while new level. I’m catastropising things. I’m not sleeping. I’m basically terrified of that plane keeping me ‘trapped’. I’m doing everything I can as My family needs this break. I’ve been to a psychologist. She thinks plane symbolises layers and layers of other issues I need to address. Separation anxiety with my kids. Relationship challenges. My own health which has been tough with many things including endless migraines over past five years. But primarily my daughter was diagnosed with cancer when she was 2. She lost her eye that same week and it has been a rolller coaster of appointments for the last five yesrs. She’s doing very well but she is at risk for secondary, so your natural being is to be on edge at all times. Even if you try not to be. She is well. I keep telling myself. Thank God. So psychologist thinks the stress just overflowed that cup and to try and leave all of that in a bucket until i come home. I need to keep reminding myself that this is a plane. I’ve been on many. I’m with my family. Leaving them isn’t an option. Breathe deeply and regularly. And maybe just maybe it won’t be half as bad as the anticipation. But I’m so damn scared that I’ll bolt for the door. So scared. Good luck to anyone out there in same position. Sometimes stress of life just becomes overwhelming and it overspills elsewhere. Wish me luck for Friday because I feel so in need of stability and home right now. My kids and their Dad need me in Spain. Ps I sit up few rows from front as easier and quicker to get off and psychologically I pretend to myself it’s massive behind me!

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