How I Got Over Flight Anxiety
I’ve been afraid of flying for as long as I can remember.
The first time my fear of flying held me back was when I was about 16 years old. My grandpa who lived in another province had passed away and my dad was looking for someone to fly with him to the funeral. He said he had asked other people and I suppose he went down the list until he got to me. I remember I was at a friend’s place when he called, and the thought of choosing to be up in the air in a capsule with my dad or safely on the ground spending time with my friends resulted in me turn down this opportunity to fly. I carried the guilt of turning down that opportunity for a long time, which I think reinforced my fear of flying, not even supporting my loved ones could encourage me to leave the ground.
As part of my journey to conquer my fear of flying, I did some personal therapy. Through therapy, I determined that my fear of flying went back much further, to around the age of 5 or 6. We had a beautiful walnut tree in the backyard of my childhood home and my dad and his friend decided to build a tree-house in it. I remember I was on the balcony area of the tree-house, sitting among the framework for the future tree-house. They had built a makeshift ladder and for some reason the ladder was removed. As I was up in the tree, I realize that I had to use the bathroom and there was no way down. I called for my dad, and he told me to jump from the tree house to his arms. I felt completely petrified and stricken with fear. It was probably only 10-15 feet off the ground, but as a little kid it felt like 100 feet. Eventually I jumped because I really had to go. My dad caught me and I landed safely back on the ground, but I think the fear of this personal flight imprinted on me and lasted with me into my later life.
My first flight was when I was 18 years old, so I managed to put off flying for a long period of time. The person I was dating went to school overseas and I decided to spend a semester there to take a break from my college studies and see Europe. We flew from Vancouver to Hungary with a layover in Toronto. There was turbulence, rain, the sky was gray with clouds- the perfect storm for someone who has an irrational fear of flying. I didn’t know what was normal for flying, and I cried heavily in the airport as I left my family and the ground behind me. After this trip, I didn’t flying anywhere for a long time.
About 6 years later, I was dating someone new and we decided to take a trip to Mexico. I knew I was afraid of flying, so I talked to my doctor and he gave me some medication that would help calm me down. I should also mention that at this point in my life, I already had high anxiety due to a panic attack that was brought on by caffeine around age 19. So I had a pretty good understanding of the unpredictable nature of my anxiety and knew that flying would be a trigger. I had anxiety on the flight, of course. I took medication once I felt panic, and it help me get some rest and burn off my anxious energy. We went to Mexico again a couple of years later, and then to Cuba a year after that.
This was a traumatic flying experience.
On the way home, there was the most turbulence I had ever experienced on a flight next to my Atlantic flight home. I remember looking out the window (because I like the window seat) and I could see three lightning storms happening in the black sky outside. I couldn't tell tell how far away they were, and if I were to describe the scene, it looked straight out of the TV show Supernatural when an angel dies. The seat belt sign was on for the entire flight, and I was 11/10 scared. Medication helped to decrease my heart rate and remove my intrusive thoughts, but I know my mind wasn’t making up the storms I saw outside the window.
Since then, I’ve done short flights to California every once in a while with my sister. We went in 2012, 2013, 2017, 2018 and even this year. I had some anxiety every time until 2018. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn't in sheer terror every time I stepped on a plane. I had moments in a flight where my anxiety was really low, sometimes for most of the flight, but no flights where my anxiety was completely gone.
Back Across the Atlantic
Last year my partner and I flew to Europe to visit family. This was my first Atlantic flight in over a decade. I did a pretty good job avoiding leaving North America up until this point. I knew it was going to be a long flight, I knew there might be some turbulence and I knew that I didn’t want to feel scared or have anxiety during my trip overseas. So I did what any self-aware therapist would do and I started going to therapy. (This was how the early childhood treehouse memory came up, during an EMDR session.) We would talk a lot about flying and breathing exercises and ways to lower my anxiety. Some days I felt anticipatory anxiety thinking about the flight; other days I was really excited to see what it’s like to be back in Europe because I have dreamed about going back many times over the years.
For my personal prep, I decided to seek information about flying and flying anxiety. I have tended to avoid thinking about planes and make a point to not watch any movies or tv shows involving plane crashes, so this was a big move. What was very helpful for me was listening to flying anxiety podcasts; hearing from people who travel for business and have flying anxiety and listening to pilots who have flown hundreds of thousands of miles and spent years of their life in the air. I learned about the statistics that you’re more likely to get in a car accident driving 3km then you are to get in a plane crash. I learned that turbulence is normal and is equivalent to waves in the ocean as the airstreams past one another, and that the GeForce that plane wings can withstand is well beyond what occurs in flight. Planes can withstand a very high level of GeForce, and even in the worst storm, the captain is going to change the altitude of the flight to a level the plane can with stand, so there's no lack of safety in turbulence.
Before my flight overseas, I was a mini-expert on the mechanics of planes and anxiety strategies for flying. On the suggestion of my therapist, I wrote an in-flight plan for myself in a journal I had at home to bring with me. My plan included a list of things I could do during the flight and items I wanted to make sure I kept in the cabin in my carry-on. I made a list of movies and TV shows that I downloaded from Netflix onto my phone and I purchased a magazine for the flight. I also brought a novel from home in case I wanted to dive into a story. Our flight had some turbulence, but with the help of the SOAR Conquers Fear of Flying mobile app and the captain of the plane, I knew approximately where in our flight path we would have some turbulence and how long into flight this would happen so that I could be prepared and practice breathing exercises or listen to a guided meditation. It also warrants mentioning that I received a new prescription of medication for flying and my doctor instructed me to take the medication as soon as I sat in the seat and buckled the seat belt. The flight there was relatively uneventful except for the anticipated turbulence. Every time we had a moment of turbulence, I took deep breaths and would silently repeat to myself “waves in the ocean” to remind myself that turbulence is as normal as waves. The ocean is a calming place for me, so this helped me relax and focus. On the flight home my anxiety was much lower, but I had intrusive thoughts which are harder to distract from and a much more subtle form of anxiety during flying. I ended up taking 1/2 a dosage of medication about halfway through the flight. So my anxiety wasn’t cured yet, but it was significantly reduced compared to earlier in my life.
This year I decided I was going to test my flying anxiety, and so I booked a flight from Vancouver to Seattle and traveled alone! It’s 30 minutes gate to gate, “the perfect flight” as I described it, because I’m not off the ground for very long. Seattle is also a place that I've visited many times, but I have only ever driven there. I know the city well and it feels familiar, so I knew it wouldn’t be an environment where I would be likely to feel uncomfortable or out of place. I had all of the same preparations as my previous overseas flight- my journal with my in-flight plan, a book, a magazine, a sleep mask and earplugs, and I downloaded a ton of episodes of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo because a lot of clients were talking about it and it had popped up in my Netflix suggestions. (I also LOVE organizing and cleaning, which is part of how I calm myself when I feel stressed.) I actually felt kind of disappointed that we landed in Seattle before I could finish the second episode, isn’t that funny? I even looked forward to the flight home because I knew I would be finishing the episode and watching the beginning of another one. My flight home had only one moment of very low turbulence, and my anxiety was insignificant.
I flew to Seattle alone again in March to attend a training workshop. I can’t even remember if there was any turbulence other than the initial bumpiness of ascension. I continued to watch Marie Kondo and by this time I had already re-folded all of the clothing in mine and my partner’s dressers. I was hooked on the tidying up philosophy because it aligns with my eco-friendly lifestyle. My flights there and back were as normal as hopping on the bus. This past May, my sister and I flew to California again. This was my longest flight since learning to fly without anxiety. I kept my medication on hand as well as my in-flight plan. I didn’t use either, but I did watch some more Netflix downloads. The biggest test was in late May as I was attending a weekend workshop in Arizona. This would be my longest flight without a familiar co-traveller. I prepared my in-flight plan and made sure I had medication just in case I felt anxiety. My flight there had a few little bumps- NO anxiety, and my flight home had one jolt that struck me in the gut, but I reminded myself of “waves in the ocean" and felt calm as can be. As far as I can tell, my flight anxiety is cured. I'll be flying again soon, this time with my mom, who I’ve never flown with before without other family. I have a few episodes left of Tidying Up that I can’t wait to dive into, and as for the flight, well, I’m not worried about it.
Where I'm at Now
I was scared as heck of flying. It required a lot of mental, emotional and probably spiritual energy to encourage myself to work on my fear of flying. It helps to know your big WHY when you want to make a change; the reason you're doing it in the first place. I have fantasies about traveling to different places all over the world, and you can only drive to so many continents. Flying is actually more convenient and I'd rather fly to somewhere across North America than drive. So my big WHY is to travel and see the world.
How to Conquer Flight Anxiety
Below is a list of things that helped me overcome flying anxiety that I hope will help you in your journey:
- Make an in-flight plan. I’m serious. My in-flight plan simply was a list of activities I can do during my flight. Plan for MORE than you could possibly do, because you may decide to switch tasks. My in-flight plan includes reading a book or magazine, watching a movie or TV show, trying to sleep and gratitude journalling.
- Do something interesting and relevant to YOU during the flight. If you like to rest, take a nap or listen to a guided meditation or calm music. Watch a movie or tv show that keeps you focused. I love to organize and clean so Marie Kondo was naturally a good fit.
- Have a mantra (positive phrase) that you can repeat to yourself to focus on if you begin to feel anxious when flying. My mantra of “waves in the ocean,” reminded me of a place where I feel calm and reminded me that bumps in the air are normal. Feel free to use mine or make one for yourself.
- Learn about flying and flying anxiety. Here are the podcasts that were particularly helpful for me: 1. Hiding in the Bathroom: Flying Anxiety 2. The Anxiety Podcast: Captain Tom Bunn - Conquer Fear of Flying
- Download SOAR Conquers Fear of Flying by SOAR, Inc. This app will show you charts that indicate where turbulence will happen on the day you fly to help you anticipate any bumps.
- Keep hydrated. Stress takes a lot of energy, so make sure that you have access to cool water on the plane. Alcohol can intensify anxiety and cannot be mixed with medication, so I recommend to refrain from drinking so that you can teach yourself how to calm naturally to overcome your fear of flying.
- Look at the other faces if you feel worried. There might be other anxious fliers, but a lot of people are going to be sleeping, doing some enjoyable activity or a work project. Pay attention to the stewardesses faces in particular. They spend so much of their time in the air and are a great point of reference for gauging if turbulence is worrisome. They are instructed to sit down and buckle up during turbulence and this is completely normal. Even during the flight home from Cuba with the lightning storms and turbulence, the stewardesses were completely calm. They sat and chatted as we sailed through the air.
- If you’re flying alone, talk to the person sitting next to you or engage with them in someway. This can help you refocus your mind on something other than fear, and you may even get to have an interesting chat on your journey.
- I mentioned that I took medication for flying. It‘s not a failure if you take medication when you fly. In fact, it can help you feel a sense of security to know that you can calm down if you 're really freaking out. Even though I don’t need it anymore, I keep medication in my carry on so I have a back-up plan.
- Keep trying! I took a lot of flights before my anxiety went away. I also recognize that there are going to be times when I feel some low-level anxiety flashes, like when the plane jolted and I felt it in my gut. Take deep breaths, drink some cold water or other decaf drink and remind yourself that this is as normal as waves in the ocean.
- Consider getting professional help for your anxiety. Talking to a therapist helped me uncover the roots of my flying anxiety and generate a plan. It might help you to learn some grounding and calming techniques ahead of your trip in a one-on-one setting.
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