I have a companion who shows up at my doorstep at least two hours prior to any flight I’ve ever taken, accompanies me to the airport, and even sits with me on the plane. As you may have guessed, this companion’s identity is anxiety. The root of this fear- flying of course. Many behavioral therapists will tell you that exposure therapy-repeated exposure to triggers that cause anxiety, is indeed a good way to overcome one’s fears. As someone who suffers extreme flight anxiety, and has done her share of flying, I can attest that repeated exposure does very little to ease these fears. In fact, for me, the experience only serves to make it familiar, not less problematic. Typically the word familiar has positive connotations – if it’s familiar it should be comfortable because we are being exposed to situations, people, or things that we have experience with. So, yes when I fly, I am being exposed to familiar surroundings and feelings. Unfortunately the familiar feelings I have are not positive. Nor do they ever feel easier to handle as the likes of therapists would suggest. With every flight I take along panic, heart palpitations, nausea, butterflies… all the typical symptoms of anxiety. It does not disappear, or decrease the more I am exposed. In fact, I anticipate its arrival each time I travel. Anxiety is not a welcome companion, yet it finds me nonetheless. In fact, I am currently writing this post from the confines of an airplane, and my companion is definitely along for the ride. My heart is pounding, my mind is racing, my stomach is in knots, and I’m desperately trying to focus on the words in this blog. Which leads me to the purpose of this piece…how to manage these fears.
5 ways to cope with the anxiety of flying:
Every time I fly and I feel sick with worry/ nerves, I remind myself that this is just part of what is normal flying for me. After years of incorrectly thinking I’m sick ( nervous tummy), I now know that when I wake up on a traveling day feeling queasy, anxiety is the root, not some virus or bug.
For all the times I have flown in my adult life, this companion has partnered with me. No matter how badly I want to fight it, the feelings remain. And trying to ignore the symptoms has never worked for me. They are fierce in their desire to accompany me (after all, they do ride for free!).These days I merely “welcome” the anxiety aboard.
On days like today, when my flight is merely an hour, I have the luxury of knowing that by the time this blog is nearly complete, we will have begun our descent. Having a good book, blog, and/or music slightly helps when panic mode is high. Especially when writing or reading about said anxious feelings. Sounds crazy, but writing about these fears can put them into perspective. (Captain just announced our arrival- wait, already? I’m not finished this post yet!)
#4 Fake It
In order to fit in to the norms of society, I play the part of someone well experienced, and at ease with the rituals of flying (lest I show the inner workings of my phobia and labeled as the crazy lady talking,or worse, crying to herself). I am mindful of my surroundings, and I watch others who are sleeping, reading, or working. I take cues from adults, and sometimes children, who appear so at ease and unphased by the reality of being transported some 30,000 feet into the air. Sitting in close proximity to others who appear as though they could be sitting in their living room, can sometimes spur me to emulate that kind of bravery. Sometimes.
When/ if all else fails, anxiety medication can help reduce these fears. I was extremely hesitant to include this last coping mechanism, as some of you reading may not view it as a means of coping. For many years I felt the same, and still do to some extent. A therapist once explained to me that if I had a medical disease, such as diabetes for example, that I would take medicine to help my body. Her suggestion was that the medicine I need would help me in a similar fashion. (For those of you with diabetes, please understand that I am in no way comparing a life-threatening disease like diabetes to anxiety. Believe me, I know the realities of anxiety, and that they pose no real threat to the body). However, I do include it here in the hopes of enlightening those of you who never experience this kind of suffering.
So, if on your next flight you see a blond lady staring at you, she’s not being rude. Give her a small smile of encouragement, and maybe tell her how much you hate to fly.