I am severely claustrophobic and tomorrow I have a middle seat on a plane. I need some tips on how to handle it?
First off, do you have a diagnosis from your doctor, with a letter stating this? It could be useful, and I'll get to that.
If you have time before the flight to get a letter, and potentially a prescription, the doctor may have some suggestions or medicine to help you cope with the flight - something to relax you.
Get to the airport early, giving yourself plenty of time. You want to be relaxed, not stressed.
You have three opportunities to try and change your seat. At check-in, at the gate (ask the gate staff) and onboard - ask an attendant or another passenger if they'd mind swapping or if there's a spare seat, if you can move. The flight attendants may even let you use their seats while they're not using them. Showing them the letter from the doctor (if you have one) may help, but it's not essential. Remember, however, that it may be a full flight and it may not be possible to accommodate your request - don't get worked up about it, and certainly don't upset the attendants, just ask that if anything changes, to let you know - someone may fail to turn up, or there might be a passenger who wants to move away from another seat (some hate aisle seats!).
Board the plane as late as possible. This does not mean go to the gate late - get there early, in fact, to avoid stress, but just wait until nearly everyone else is onboard - minimise your time spent in the plane.
Once seated, and you've taken off, let the passenger behind you know you're going to recline your seat as you have claustrophobia, and do so politely. If they ask you not to, do consider they may struggle with less space as well.
Distractions are good. Watch movies (bring something on your phone/laptop if you can't or the airplane has no tvs). Talk to the passenger next to you, ask for food or drink. Try and be as relaxed as possible - take off your shoes, get up and walk around, splash water on your face.
Some people claim drinking onboard helps, but arguably it can increase your stress, and if you're taking anti-anxiety meds, or in fact any other meds, it's best not to take alcohol with that.
Remind yourself if you are nervous that while it's a challenge, it's NOT impossible to fly with claustrophobia. An estimated 35% of those who are afraid of flying and avoid flying are claustrophobics. And if you need help, flight attendants are trained to handle all sorts of in-flight emergencies, including panic attacks. If you feel one coming on, hit that call button - it's what they're there for.
Finally, if you didn't already follow the link earlier, check out Relaxed flight - they have an article on Claustrophobia in flight. It's written by an airline captain with plenty of experience seeing passengers deal with this, and he has some solid advice.
Fear is real. I have a tip or two.
My anxiety stems from being pinned in and not being able to escape on my terms. Middle seat and window seat are terrifying. Tray tables down, knees blocking my path, and any discomfort will amplify my fear. And don't get me started on the snack cart being parked in the isle next to my row. It's total entrapment. No escape. The heart starts pounding. You want to jump up out of your seat to safety. Step on people's heads if you have to. My biggest fear is being stuck in a tarmac with no idea how long till freedom. I can't ride roller coasters because I'm locked in.
keep your head down and focus on a book or phone, anything. Look out the window. Try to avoid noticing the obstacles pinning you in. And looking up at the people in front of you will only remind you of how tiny the tin can really is.
Pretend the close quarters are comforting and cozy and that you enjoy the safety of having people close to you offering protection. Almost like snuggling. It's all mental so think about how comfy you are snuggled in bed in a cold morning. Transpose that feeling with the current situation. You like cuddling so you should like the middle seat. Right?? This worked for me once when I was in a pickle.
Taken your shoes off. This provides a feeling of release and freedom. I wear flip flops and shorts so there are no personal restrictions. By all means be comfortable.
Tell the guy next to you that you are claustrophobic and might have to dart to the isle in a moments notice. This is so he can be ready to moved those giant legs out of the way. That will comfort you in knowing the obstacle is movable and willing (or warned) to do so. Also conversations pass time. And he might relate to your situation.
Establish your leg room early. Man spread to add extra space to your area. And avoid storing bags in your legs space. Never decrease the size of your personal area.
Board the plane last..
Fly when you're tired. Sleepy people have less energy to get worked up. If your tired you're less fidgety and less likely to panic. If you're tired you might even fall asleep.