How to Handle a Panic Attack on Vacation

Woman standing in front Of Chichen Itza before having a panic attack.
Elated while visiting the Mayan Ruins and unaware of the brutal panic attack I'd have days later.

Last February, I spent an entire blissful week in paradise at a 5-star resort in Mexico. It was luxury in every sense of the word, and exactly what I’d needed after several grueling months at work. I’d been floating on a cloud having enjoyed endless relaxation and experiencing a dream private excursion to the Chichén Itzá Mayan ruins. 

When it was finally time to return home, the come down felt like a bucket of ice water had been thrown over me. Gnawing worry about going back to work, bills, and a myriad of other things I can no longer identify snowballed in my mind. My anxiety merged with the uncomfortable situation I faced at the Cancun airport. It was packed with travelers, and it became difficult to move from one place to the next. 

I was gripped by panic and before I knew it I was in the throes of a full-blown panic attack in the middle of a crowded airport. 

This happens to be one instance. But this is just one of the many anxiety attacks I’ve endured on vacation.

Panic Attacks: Overview

Over 40 million adults in America have an anxiety disorder, that’s nearly 20% of the adult population. Which makes anxiety disorders the most common mental health condition in the country. I happen to be one of those Americans. Compounded with my Bipolar Disorder and Clinical Depression, my anxiety can be cataclysmic in any number of situations. Including when I travel. 

What is a panic attack? Well, an anxiety or panic attack can mimic a serious medical condition akin to having a heart attack. 

Some symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Chest pain
  • Hyperventilating
  • Trembling 
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea 
  • Profuse sweating
  • Chills 

Experiencing one of these attacks under normal circumstances can be horrendous and exhausting but in the middle of a vacation? It can be downright terrifying. 

Part of the joy of traveling is escaping from the pressures and stressors of everyday life. Nevertheless, numerous triggers can prompt a panic attack; a fear of flying, crowds of people, and lost luggage. Perhaps it’s as simple as the unpredictability of being in a new place creating travel anxiety. Even the idea of the post-vacation blues can be a trigger. Or it can happen for no concrete reason at all.

What Can I Do if I Have a Panic Attack While Traveling?

Sit Through the Panic 

It sounds backward I know. Your initial reaction to a panic attack in any situation but especially while on vacation might be to get far away from the cause or the people around you. It’s part of our body’s innate flight or fight response. My first instinct in the Cancun airport was to run to the closest bathroom or find a secluded corner where I could escape. But I didn’t, rather I remained where I was and simply let it happen. 

Instead of resisting the symptoms, ride them out. Accept that you’re having a panic attack. You’ve probably had one before and you know it will eventually pass. The more we fight it or try to run away from it, the worse it’ll become. Distractions might help for smaller bursts of anxiety but for a full-blown panic attack, it can’t be avoided. Remind yourself this won’t last forever; your breathing will return to normal, your heartbeat will slow and the trembling will cease once more. The less we fear the panic and the symptoms that accompany it, the quicker it’ll go away. 

Focus On Your Breathing

One of the most noticeable effects of a panic attack is the sudden onslaught of rapid breathing. It may feel as if you can’t get enough air into your lungs and the harder you try the more labored your breathing becomes. You’ll begin hyperventilating, and like a domino effect, your chest will start to hurt and you can feel dizzy or light-headed. 

As quickly as hyperventilating can worsen an attack, regaining control of your breathing can help slow it down. If you can, close your eyes. Start by taking a deep inhalation for five seconds. Followed by a deep exhalation for five seconds. Repeat it again, and again, until you feel breathing becomes steady. Slowly but surely it’ll return to normal. If you practice mindfulness or meditation this can also be applied with your breathing techniques. 

Take Note of Your Body and Mind 

As I’ve already discussed, it’s easy in the midst of an attack to want to ignore what’s happening to your body. The desire to run from it and pretend it isn’t happening can be overwhelming. But pushing past that fear to listen and feel your physical reactions, can help ease the symptoms and prevent a panic attack from getting worse. 

Acknowledge your anxious thoughts as they come. Tune into your body’s reactions. Count your breaths, feel your lungs as they fill with air, and listen to each of your heartbeats. Place your hand over your heart, and focus on your chest rising and falling. You’ll soon notice as your heartbeat returns to a steady pace and your breaths decrease. 

Prepare a Tool Kit and Use It!

While anxiety attacks are unavoidable at times, it’s best to prepare for them when planning to travel, especially if you have anxiety about traveling. First and foremost is to identify your triggers. Maybe like me, it's crowds, or perhaps it’s the fear that you’ve forgotten to pack something. Whatever it might be, it’s important to know and understand what your triggers are so you can learn how best to deal with them. 

Having a tool kit with a solid set of coping mechanisms that you can refer back to is the best way to do this. This is going to look different for everyone. It could be anything from writing in a journal to practicing grounding techniques. If you’re on medication then make sure you always have it with you. I happen to take medication specifically for panic attacks so when I start to feel my anxiety spike I know to take it. Apps on your phone can also be a great resource. Calm and Moodmission are two of my favorite apps to help with anxiety. 

Ask for Support

If you’re having an attack and it’s not dissipating or you’re just unable to focus on your breathing and ride the wave through it, that’s ok! It happens. None of this is an exact science and at the end of the day, we’re all human. However, if you find that the situation is unraveling then you should ask for help. 

Tell your travel party what’s happening, whether it be a friend, family member, or a tour group. If you’re traveling alone seek out an airport worker or a hotel employee, depending on your surroundings. If none of those is an option, call a mental health hotline or even an emergency number. Either way, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for what you need. This is your health! 

Finally, Remember That This Will Pass

All panic attacks eventually come to an end. In the middle of an attack, it might not feel like it. It might even feel like you’re dying, but you’re not. You are going to be ok. Remind yourself that you will get past this. Just as you have before. 

This is but a single moment in time. It doesn’t define you nor does it define your vacation. Your vacation isn’t ruined because you had a panic attack. When I look back on my time in Mexico, the attack was but a slight blip in an otherwise unforgettable vacation. It won’t make me stop traveling, and even if it happens again on the next trip, I know I’ll be ok. 

Couple at beautiful beach resort.
The magic I remember from my vacation.

If you’re struggling with anxiety and looking for help or someone to talk to then please see the resources listed below.

Mental Health Resources for Anxiety:

Handling a panic attack on vacation.

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