Flying with Tourette Syndrome

Air travel can be stressful at the best of times. Flying with Tourette Syndrome can turn a standard trip into an ordeal that lasts long after we depart the airport at our destination.

Flying with Tourette Syndrome can be troublesome for many reasons. Motor and vocal tics can be frustrating going through security, not to mention sitting on a plane for anywhere between 30 minutes to 24 hours. Tics may also be seen as a nuisance or safety risk by any airport and airline staff not educated on the condition. Anxiety, ADHD and OCD are some other factors that can make the experience overwhelming.

This post aims to provide support to those that may have concerns about flying with Tourette, and help raise awareness for the condition by providing an insight into this experience.

The problems pre-flying

It can start with a lack of sleep often co-occurring with Tourette. Frantically getting everything together for the trip to the airport builds up anxiety. The taxi is warm. The seatbelt suffocating. You feel trapped. The silence awkward.

For me, sensory problems are a big trigger of tics. Being stuck in one place for prolonged periods of time drives me crazy. The claustrophobia doesn’t end the moment I take the seatbelt off and get my luggage out the boot. My body feels on fire for hours.

There’s a desire to do nothing but move my body. Free myself and let the tics out. But knowing I have to get in line for the luggage, then the security, and then board a flight has me running to the bar for a drink.

Stress is a well known contributor to tics. Often, the problems experienced when flying were formed in the stages prior to check in.

I now wear a t-shirt, shorts and comfortable shoes for a journey. Maybe a cardigan or light jacket in my hand luggage if it gets cold. The less the better, and this has a direct impact on my stress levels throughout.

The security checks

Wearing less really helps me in the security section of the journey. The less I have to take off and throw in the little tray the better.

The less we have to think about, the more fluid and stress-free the process will be.

One obstacle we struggle with is acting ‘normal’ at security. Have you ever looked more guilty than when the security give you the nod to walk through the metal detectors? You know you are fine, but that potential ‘woo-woo’ sound is enough to get adrenaline pumping.

This is compounded in the line beforehand. Tics gain attention not just from fellow travellers but eagle eyed security trained to spot people in the crowds.

I like to think they are used to people like me and I am not that different, but the feeling of being watched can be overwhelming.

The in-flight experience

Two things make this the most stressful part of the whole journey for me. One is the time spent with limited stimulation. The second is the confined space in which I have to remain until we land.

For many people with Tourette, ADHD is a co-occurring condition. According to WebMD, 60% of those with Tourette Syndrome also have ADHD. This is a big percentage of TS sufferers struggling with symptoms such as restlessness and fidgeting.

Sitting in a tiny economy seat with barely any legroom, combined with a strong urge to tic, can make this an incredibly stressful environment.

So many of Tourette Syndrome’s co-occurring conditions can be experienced here. It might not simply be a strong desire to move about.

It could also be the struggle with anxiety disorders exacerbating a fear of flying.

OCD may create unpleasant intrusive thoughts during the trip, making us worry about safety or a potential crash.

Depression can be greater during times where we have more time to think. Staring at the seat in front of us for hours only gives us more time to really feel the effects of depression, especially when travelling alone.

Despite being surrounded by people, travel can be an incredibly lonely process.

Personally, I am happy to take the emergency exit seat as it provides more legroom.

On long haul flights I also like to take regular breaks by walking to the exit doors and gazing out the window. I have even found conversation with others doing the same thing and this helps to escape the boredom. A quick stretch of the legs can do wonders every hour or so, and makes sitting down much more manageable.

Planning ahead can really take the stress out of flying

I get it, planning anything can be a boring task. But if it rewards us with a much more pleasurable and stress-free experience, it is definitely worth it.

Planning could be as simple as packing in advance and planning what to eat for breakfast.

My top tips for flying:

  • Pack in advance. As someone that used to pack the morning of a flight, packing at least 24 hours in advance really clears the mind. Use the time wisely!
  • Get plenty of rest. Having Tourette can really affect our sleep. Getting an early night and not eating too late can help with this.
  • Wear comfortable clothing to travel. Tight, heavy clothing drive my tics crazy. Do what you can to stop sensory problems by wearing something comfortable.
  • Limit caffeine and sugar intake. It’s easy to forget how much these ingredients contribute to anxiety and hyperactivity. Know how much you consume and consider avoiding it when travelling. Anxiety and tics often go hand in hand.
  • Leave on time! Get to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Rushing only causes more stress, makes it easier to forget something, and worsens our intrusive thoughts.
  • Don’t be afraid to stretch on the flight. There is nothing wrong with getting up to move! It helps with circulation and can ease stress. Even if we have to ask fellow passengers to get up to let us out, they will understand. Like we would help others with a specific condition, people are usually happy to help us too.

Flying with Tourette Syndrome is possible, although the severity of how much it impacts a journey varies from person to person.

It is advised to speak to a specialist or your doctor beforehand, as they will be able to provide specialist advice.

Speaking to the airline may help, as they could allocate a seat they feel is best. Tourette is considered a disability in many countries and as time moves on, companies will have more emphasis on helping customers with specific needs that aren’t currently met.

Wherever you’re going, don’t let Tourette ruin the experience. Have a great flight!

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Disclaimer: Articles contain lived experience and research but cannot be used to diagnose. Diagnosis can only be obtained from a licensed professional.

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