Is there a doctor on board?
June 9, 2016 5:42 AM   Subscribe

I have a longstanding irrational fear of flying due to the thought of panicking or losing control during a flight.

I recognize that it's classic anxiety disorder thinking, but I thought I'd try to find real info about uncomfortable experiences while flying and what would happen if someone actually needed assistance or help during a flight. Over land, I think one ultimate result is that the plane would divert and the passenger would be able to leave the plane and get help. What happens if you are over water? I have an international flight coming up.
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think probably what would happen is that someone on the plane would have some Xanax and give it to you. Doctors prescribe small doses of it to people who have flying anxiety and on a plane of 100 or so people, someone is guaranteed to have some. If you were on my flight, that person would be me.

Is there any reason you can't go to the doctor and get a prescription yourself? The last flight I was on that I had to take my Xanax, there was a vomiter and the Xanax made it so that it didn't bother me at all, and I am an emetophobe.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:10 AM on June 9, 2016

It's up to the pilot to make a best determination about if and where to divert, and that will depend greatly on where you are. Going over the north Atlantic to Europe, for example, there are many places to land; the easternmost airport in North America would be Gander, and then there are places to land a large aircraft on Greenland and Iceland before reaching the British Isles. You're not more than an hour or two from a landing site on that route.

Heading across the Pacific presents fewer options spread farther apart, but depending on your start and end points you might be more likely to head north over the pole instead of directly west.

Again, it's up to the pilots where and whether to divert - if you're having a panic attack but otherwise not being dangerous to yourself or others, they may elect to continue the flight to its destination. Flight attendants are trained to deal with minor medical problems, so it's entirely possible that they'll deal with you somehow rather than incur the (not insubstantial) cost of landing the plane somewhere else and inconveniencing the rest of the flight. If you do end up becoming disruptive, I'd say it's better than even odds that you're met at the gate by the police rather than an ambulance. Regardless of who meets you, I can guarantee that you won't simply be "let off the plane" - if you're in such a state that the plane has to land, then they're assuming you're in current dire need of assistance.

As an anecdote - and none of this is meant to scare you, just to give you an idea of what the pilots have to deal with - I was stuck on a plane at JFK for several hours due to poor weather once, and while waiting to take off in a long line of planes someone insisted on being let off. We lost our slot in the takeoff queue and there was an additional delay because he had checked a bag and they had to go find it. While we were waiting, the pilots ordered more fuel - we had been waiting in the takeoff line for maybe an hour, and the fuel bill ended up being on the order of five figures.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:14 AM on June 9, 2016

I second the recommendation to get anti-anxiety meds for the flight. I have a terrible phobia of flying, I was also anxious about asking for meds, but I brought it up at a physical once, when I had a flight a few months out, and they were super chill about giving me an as-needed prescription. Now I just call my doctor a few weeks before flying and they put in a new prescription for me to pick up a few pills before the flight. They don't give me Xanax, it's some other medication, and it doesn't totally fix the phobia, but it settles my physical response so I'm not crying and shaking with terror. I also read the book Cockpit Confidential recently, and it actually really helped to ease some of my fears.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 6:22 AM on June 9, 2016

Hey! I've had a panic attack on an airplane as a passenger!! It's not pleasant but you will survive. You'll be terrified for a few hours until your panic attack burns itself out. Someone may offer you booze or pills or both. I was too young for either at the time.

Now I take Ativan for flights and once the tearful-take-off is completed I spend the rest of the flight glossy-eyed and calm.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:34 AM on June 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

best thing to do is get some xanax, that's helped me. and often just knowing i have it if i need it is enough, and i never actually have to take it.

you're panicked about having a panic attack, which is classic for anxiety sufferers. i used to get a lot of panic attacks, and i was scared of having them, because they're scary, embarrassing, etc. but i really have gotten over my fear of panic attacks by thinking/visualizing about "what's the worst thing that could happen in a given situation if i have a panic attack?". in almost all cases the worst thing that happens is that i have a panic attack. i know i will get thru it because i have gotten through many of them.

so think about what will REALISTICALLY happen if you have a panic attack while on a flight. you will suffer the panic attack and feel miserable during it. you will cry and shake and turn red. you may hyperventilate. people may look at you like they look at screaming babies, but that is not your concern. someone may offer a xanax or a drink or a kind look; take it if you feel comfortable doing so. if someone asks, explain that you really are fine, you're okay, you're just having a panic attack and it will pass. more people are familiar with these than you may expect.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:06 AM on June 9, 2016

Once, on an international flight, I had motion sickness/morning sickness and felt panicked about being in the middle seat. I got up, even though the seatbelt light was on, because I couldn't handle being in between two people while feeling that way. The flight attendant buckled me into the fold-down seat for flight attendants and let me just sit there and chill until I felt better. (And I've never booked the middle seat again.)
posted by xo at 7:15 AM on June 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have been on a flight sitting near someone having a (relatively quiet) panic attack. Obviously it was concerning for the passengers and flight attendants, but they are well versed in dealing with people who have a fear of flying. The plane was not diverted or anything. The passenger just (quietly) freaked out throughout the flight. If they were creating a disturbance or safety hazard, the flight would be diverted for the safety of the crew and passengers.

I have also been on flights where someone had a medical emergency, including the classic "Is there a doctor on this flight?" Surprisingly enough, there is often a doctor, nurse, or EMT on a flight.

Sometimes I get anxiety about the whole "fasten seatbelt" thing - in my experience, flight attendants understand that someone may need to get out of their seat (IBS, claustrophobia, etc), and will attempt to accommodate as best they can.
posted by muddgirl at 8:48 AM on June 9, 2016

I had motion sickness/morning sickness and felt panicked about being in the middle seat. I got up, even though the seatbelt light was on, because I couldn't handle being in between two people while feeling that way. The flight attendant buckled me into the fold-down seat for flight attendants and let me just sit there and chill until I felt better. (And I've never booked the middle seat again.)

This happened to me on a flight, too. I stumbled to the flight attendants station at the back of the cabin and they sat me on their fold-out seat and had me put my head between my legs until I felt better. Obviously panic attacks can't be solved so easily, but on a big plane you might be able to go back there and endure your panic attack a little bit away from everyone else.
posted by BungaDunga at 12:18 PM on June 9, 2016

It would be nice if just acknowledging our fear was enough, wouldn't it? Like, the reward for facing up to your fear is that you are empowered to overcome it. I would vote for that system.

I've developed a fear of flying, and was able to recognize how my anxiety was ramping up before my flight. It really helped me to tell pretty much everybody along the way from the ticketing agent to the security people to the flight attendants that I was feeling apprehensive. Not in a "I'm panicking right now do something" way, but more like "Scaredy-cat coming through. Don't mind the sweaty hands."

The flight attendant I spoke to quietly when I boarded was completely nonplussed and asked me if I felt I needed to take anything. (I hadn't been diagnosed with anxiety disorder yet, and wasn't familiar with meds; I was afraid to accept anything unfamiliar in case it made me feel out of control.) Then she came to speak to me as we were taxiing, and explained a few things the pilot wanted to pass on to reassure me. That made my seat mate aware, and she was wonderful and non-judgemental and very solicitous of my feelings.

Now I have Xanax and my sister to accompany me. Get a script. Take the pill. In fact, get a few pills and start a few days ahead of time to keep the pre-trip anxiety manageable (plus you'll know how you react to it).
posted by ezust at 2:01 PM on June 9, 2016

This maybe unconventional advice but worth a shot. I'm speaking as someone who is working on getting their private pilot's license, who flies a single engine Cessna, and has a deathly fear of heights.

Go to your local flight school and take an introductory flight with a certified instructor. You don't need to learn how to fly but you should accompany the instructor on the preflight checks and ask them questions about the safety of aviation and the safeguards in place. Aviation is one of the most regulated sectors and for a very good reason. We've built upon the knowledge over the years to make it the safest form of transportation. There's a joke in general aviation that goes - the most dangerous part of flying is the drive to the airport.

So go out to a local flight school and tell them that you'd like to work on your fear of flying. Any good school will work with you and put your fears at ease. If you need specific advice, memail me.
posted by rippersid at 5:14 AM on June 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

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