I’m a Claustrophobic Travel Writer; How I Deal With It on a Plane

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  • I’m a travel writer, and I spend a lot of time traveling on planes.
  • I also have claustrophobia, which makes this difficult for me. But I’ve learned to cope.
  • I take medication as needed, use breath work and meditation, and choose my seat carefully.

I’ve been globe-trotting full time since 2015 as a travel journalist and often find myself using various modes of transportation, including planes, trains, and automobiles. During my first few years on the road, this was never an issue. It wasn’t until 2018 that I started to experience claustrophobia — a terrible anxiety for a travel journalist.

The first time I felt claustrophobic was on a night bus in Cambodia. Instead of seats, there were twin-size beds. I hadn’t realized that my ticket included only half the bed; I ended up sharing the space with an older lady. When she pulled the curtain closed, I instantly felt like there was a complete lack of airflow. I was struggling to breathe, which would be terrifying for anyone but extra anxiety-inducing for someone like me, who has asthma. I asked the driver to pull over, and I went outside to get some air, then threw up behind the bus.

Since then, I’ve felt the same way more than a few times while traveling on planes. A few months later, I was flying to Australia in a window seat so I could enjoy the views. All of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, as though I was trapped by the passengers in the middle and aisle seats. I told the flight attendant I thought I was on the brink of a panic attack, and she let me move to an aisle seat.

Then, weeks later, I was in Papua New Guinea traversing the country in six-seater planes. I ended up sobbing in the back every time. The next time I experienced claustrophobia was while flying in a Cessna — a small single-engine plane — in Belize. Every time, I asked the captain whether I could sit in the front of the plane because being able to see my surroundings made me feel slightly calmer.

The claustrophobia I feel isn’t about flying itself — I always feel safe while in motion, whether on the ground or in the air, and I don’t worry about turbulence or a plane crash. My trigger is the fear of not being able to breathe in small spaces. 

Here’s how I handle my phobia while spending so much time on planes.

I take medication or CBD to keep me calm

After consulting with a psychiatrist, I was given a prescription for Xanax. I now bring it with me everywhere I go. While I typically don’t need it on short flights, on long-haul international voyages, I don’t hesitate to take it whenever I feel my claustrophobia coming on. And if I’m in a country where CBD products are legal and accessible, I will take CBD oil or a gummy as soon as I board because I feel it helps calm my nervous system.

I choose my seat strategically to avoid feeling trapped

When flying, I make sure to book aisle seats near the front of the plane. Seeing fewer people helps me feel calmer because I don’t feel as trapped. With a seat closer to the front of the plane, I can wait until the final call to board and, upon arrival, be one of the first people to deplane, reducing my time on the aircraft.

I download entertainment to distract myself

I always fill my iPhone with entertainment options so I don’t have to rely on in-flight entertainment or WiFi for distractions. I like to download silly sitcoms, rom-coms, and comedy shows on Netflix to keep myself distracted.

Right before the plane takes off, I’ll refresh my feed on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, and Instagram so I can scroll through. While I always bring a book with me, I find that screen time is what really helps me disassociate from claustrophobia. 

Mindfulness and breath work keep me focused

Besides being a travel journalist, I’m a yoga teacher. Yoga has taught me the power of breath work. When I start feeling claustrophobic, I have a list of breathing exercises I go through to self-regulate. I also do short meditations that focus on an image of light moving through my body.

When practicing mindfulness, to create a soothing environment while traveling, I use noise-canceling headphones and take sniffs from bottles of essential oils, as well as hold onto tiny amethyst, rose quartz, and quartz crystals that I keep in my wallet.

If all else fails, I ask for help

If none of the above helps me get back to a calm baseline where I feel safe and secure, I’ll walk to the back of the plane and tell a flight attendant I’m feeling anxious. They’re always glad to help, and drinking a glass of water and standing up for a while it’s safe to do so usually helps me feel calmer.

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