PANIC ATTACK? WE’RE NOT CRAZY by Art Smukler MD

About fifteen years ago, on a return flight from Japan, I started to have this very strange sensation that the roof of the plane was too low, and that the walls of the plane seemed to be closing in. I took a deep breath, looked out the window at the night sky, and tried to relax. Maybe I was just overtired?

“What’s wrong?” my wife asked. “You’re sweating.”

“Nothing. Maybe just a little warm.” I got up out of my seat, and as I walked towards the bathroom I mopped my forehead and pulled my shirt away from my chest. I was drenched! What is going on? I wondered. This is ridiculous. I was bathed in sweat! In addition,  I couldn’t catch my breath. With ten hours left to go in the flight, I wondered how I could possibly make it.

I washed my face and forced myself to take deep breaths. This was absolutely insane. Was I having a silent heart attack? How could that be? I was healthy and strong. There was no pain anywhere. Was I going crazy?

I left the bathroom and spent the next hour walking up and down the narrow aisle. There was no way I was getting back in that tiny, claustrophobic seat! No way! Ever!

I walked and walked and told my wife and friends that I needed to stretch. They looked at me quizzically. I looked back at them and shrugged.

Nothing made any sense. Why was I acting this way? What was happening to me? I walked and I thought and I walked and thought and finally it hit me. I WAS HAVING A PANIC ATTACK. The psychiatrist was falling apart and going crazy himself.

Crazy? Was this really happening? Was I going crazy? No! That’s ridiculous. I knew that wasn’t the case. But why, why now have these symptoms? I’d flown all over the world and it never happened before. Maybe too much coffee? Too little sleep? Going back to the stress of everyday life after a wonderful vacation?

It could be… But I still couldn’t go back to that disgusting seat! Not yet. I wandered to the back of the plane and stood in the area where the flight attendants served meals. Eventually, I asked a young woman for a glass of water. “You okay?” she asked.

“Actually I’m feeling somewhat claustrophobic. It never happened before.”

She smiled kindly. “That happens a lot. It’s more common than people know.”

“Really?”

“I haven’t been doing this for all that long, and I’ve seen it happen at least a dozen times.”

I nodded.

She smiled and squeezed my arm. “You’ll be fine. It goes away.”

I walked the aisle for another twenty minutes and finally sat down. The panicky feeling was still there, but not so bad. What had just happened? Why would the reassurance of a young woman less than half my age be so comforting?  As I thought about it, the whirring of the engines, and the gentle rocking lulled me to sleep. The last thing I remembered thinking was how she said, “You’ll be fine. It goes away.”

That’s a lot of what happens in our lives. Something triggers our autonomic nervous system and we are clueless as to what’s happened. When someone can legitimately reassure us, all the hormones and excited neurons can go back to normal and we can relax again.