Ten years ago, just driving past an airport was enough to trigger a panic attack, and make me physically ill. If you want to know how phobic I once was, read the first part part of this post about my fear of flying.
Today I fly regularly, and often, without stress! Getting to where I am now has been a long process of trial and error.
The regular stuff – statistics and hypnosis and self help books didn’t really help me much. But other things did. Below I have listed the things that have helped me cope with my flying phobia, in the hopes that it will help someone else deal with or even conquer theirs.
Doing it anyways! First and foremost, get on planes.
It was not easy to force myself when I was at my worst, but at least once a year I did it and it was some of the hardest things I ever did. I often joke that the flight to Siberia to adopt my oldest daughter was far, far, worse for me than any of my three labors with my three bio kids. Except it’s not a joke. It was worse.
I was miserable when I forced myself. I rewrote my will each time and said my final goodbyes to my parents, children and even my pets. I imagined their lives without me and how they would have a memorial without my body. At least they would be spared funeral costs…
Some flights went better than others. It didn’t always seem to make sense, but when I paid attention to myself I noticed a few key things.
A pill for that – how anti anxiety meds helped:
When I had to fly to Kansas during blizzard season for a family affair, I went ahead and got a prescription for xanax. I did not want my young daughters to see me sobbing on a plane.
This took the edge off my fear to where I was able to be on a flight and be calm enough to take my own mental temperature.
I should note that I don’t like to take anything that knocks me out and I’m a lightweight when it comes to drugs like xanax. I was afraid I’d be too knocked out, but I am so glad I caved on that flight to Kansas and took a low dose of this anti anxiety med.
Anti anxiety meds got me over a hump. It made me less afraid of having a panic attack. With xanax I might still be scared, but it would not likely escalate to a full blown panic attack. I was back in control of myself.
While on xanax, on the next few flights, I paid attention and took stock of the parts of the flight that bother me the most.
- Taking off
- Rapid altitude changes
- Sudden unexpected turbulence
A physical reason for some of my discomfort – inner ear issues:
While my reaction to sudden turbulence was likely PTSD-related, take off and banking bothered me for reasons that had nothing to do with my bad experiences. Paying attention to myself, in a calmer state, I realized that what was freaking me out was that that I had no sense of my body’s position, unless I was able to see the horizon. I was experiencing a severe sense of vertigo along with ear/head pain and pressure. It wasn’t due to my imagination or aviophobia, it was due to an inner ear problem.
I also had no sense of equilibrium and felt like the plane was flipping over every time we turned.
So I saw an ENT who treated me for allergies and chronic congestion. He recommended a time release decongestant prior to flying and I instantly found that I felt far less vertigo and fewer earaches and as a result of being more comfortable on planes…. you guessed it… less panic.
One time I was not able to refill my prescription for xanax before a quick last minute trip. I took some children’s benadryl and found it worked almost as well as the xanax. It had the added benefit of easing any feeling of motion sickness during turbulence, and worked well with the decongestant to keep vertigo at bay.
Mental stuff: My big bag of brain tricks.
Much as I wished the inner ear and anti anxiety meds were a cure, I still panic a little on flights. Brain games are how I cope.
99% of the “Cure your fear of flying” articles and books out there quote statistics. Knowing statistics does nothing for me. Statistics are rational. My fears are not. My fears are a tantrumming 2 yr old who is willing to hold his breath till he passes out.
Fortunately for me, and my fellow passengers, I can trick the irrational part of my brain into behaving with a combination of the activities that I have listed below.
- Meditation/”square” breathing. This involves breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four, holding… etc. It’s stupid but it works to stop hyperventilating.
- Noise cancelling earphones. If you cannot hear scary noises, they cannot scare you.
- A good music mix. Cue up whatever calms you on the ground. In my case it’s cheezy jazz versions of 80s classics. Who know Spandau Ballet would be such a lifesaver?
- Preflight rituals & rewards. I have specific snacks I only buy when I fly, as a treat. I have a favorite wrap and scarf, and I like to get to the airport early enough to not have to rush, but not so early I ruminate. When I get on the plane, I always touch the outside of the door with my right hand, then left hand, then right again. It’s nuts, and I’m sure the flight attendants see me do this and roll their eyes, but it makes me feel better. Saying a prayer works for some people as well.
- An imaginary story or place to go to: For me there are two fantasies. One is floating in a bubble. The other is that I am a war correspondent fleeing a bloody military coup. We’ve just escaped the bombing and machine gun fire and at last I am away from the danger, safe on the plane.
- An in-flight assignment: If I am flying in daylight and lucky enough to have a window seat, I take wing pics to add to my collection. I hyperlapse film the take off and landing and make cute videos to share on social media. If I am in a middle seat or flying at night, I cull my photos. Airplane time is the perfect time to organize your cell phone photos.
- Helping others : If possible, and without being annoying, I try to find ways to be helpful. It’s hard to be helpful and fearful at the same time. Helping others is a great way to get outside your own head. If there is a mom traveling with a small child, I’m happy to help. If there is an elderly person who needs assistance, sign me up.
When all else fails – digital “shock” therapy breaks the panic cycle.
Panic for me seems to trigger perseveration. I begin to imagine things going wrong and my brain gets stuck in that rut, replaying the terror tape again and again until I believe it is actually happening or imminent. Every turn is a sign. Every bump is the beginning of the end!
Movies and books do not distract me. In panic mode I lack the attention span to keep reading or follow the plot. My mind keeps coming back to the well worn and smooth grooves of its worry loop.
One day I picked up my phone and forced myself to play the latest stupid, simple addictive game that my kids had recently downloaded. Never a fan of these silly “time-wasters” on the ground, I was utterly shocked at how well it worked as a panic-debugger for me in the sky.
Of all my tricks, this is the one of the most powerful ones.
The trick for me is finding a game that involves prediction/patternmaking, and that is repetitive. In my special “flying games” folder you will find games like:
All of these require a little bit of simple puzzle solving, combined with an element of luck and fast, repetitive swiping. The effect is hypnotic, and successful, even though actual hypnosis seemed to do little for me.
I cannot tell you why these games short circuit the perseveration, but for me it is impossible to form the patterns in the game while predicting certain doom. Stupid swiping games have gotten me through a lot of bad turbulence!
I am a work in progress.
I wish I could say that I don’t ever panic anymore. On my recent flights in the Philippines, I had to force myself onto the plane. I still experience moments of severe stress, with some frequency. But I also experience moments of calm. And I know I am ultimately in control, able to master my fear.
Travel is still my favorite thing, it turns out, even if I don’t love the flying part. I am that ironic character – the travel writer who hates to fly. I don’t let it stop me, and neither should you!