Thursday, October 10, 2013

Getting Over My Fear of Flying

You might not believe it, but the past year I have been battling a terrible fear of flying.

I know what you're thinking...how can YOU be scared of flying? You're on planes all the time!

You're right! This year alone I've been on 23 flights, plus 2 upcoming flights this weekend. Twenty five in the past nine months!! That's crazy!



I have never liked flying, but I was never scared of it until we had a scary, crazy turbulent flight in Turkey last year. Then, on a flight to Venice a few months later, I suddenly started bawling when our plane hit some turbulence. I was so convinced something terrible was going to happen, and for a few months afterwards just the sight of an airplane caused my heart to start racing. I refused to fly at all, so most of our trips were with trains or the car. But soon, the lure of our Christmas trips to Spain and Ireland convinced me I'd have to get on a plane again.

Well, that and the fact that if I ever want to go home to America, I'll have to fly...

After seeking advice from a medical professional friend, I went to the doctor, who prescribed me a sedative. While it kept me from having a full blown panic attack, it completely knocked me out. I knew this wasn't a long term solution. It was time to face my fears and get to the bottom of them.


Let me just stop right here and say I am not a medical or mental health professional. I'm just a girl who's scared of flying and telling my story of how I dealt with it. If you think you need serious medical help dealing with your fear, please don't supplement my advice for a professional's. 


Step 1. Confronting my emotions
Because I had previously flown anxiety free, I knew it had to be possible to do that again. I started by listing all the emotions I felt when I dealt with my airplane anxiety. My fears boiled down to fear of feeling trapped, fear of imminent danger, and most importantly, fear of not being in control.


My first question to myself was, "What is causing me to feel this?" I examined my current situation and noticed areas where I felt out of control (moving to a foreign country, feeling out of sorts in a new place, the death of a close friend from back home, as well as dealing with the stresses of being recently married, graduated, and fresh out on my own). I started to realize that maybe my fear was a manifestation of not feeling in control of other aspects of my life.


Obviously, just realizing this was not going to change my situation over night. I had developed a real fear of airplanes and flying. The nights before a flight I would be sick with worry and dread, and every vacation was tinged with the fear of the impending flight home. I had to confront the symptoms of my fear of flying before I could treat the disease.

Step 2. Learn about the technical side of airplanes
This is where it really helps coming from an Air Force family. My brother works on planes and flies all the time. In fact, part of his job is opening up the door while the plane is in the air and tossing things out. He's also one of the sweetest people I know and an excellent advice giver. So I called him up and confessed my fear.

My brother (left) at work. Don't worry, they wear harnesses when the aircraft is open!

I still cannot believe this is actually his job

"You're scared of planes? Really? Well, next time you come home I'll take you up and we'll open the door and let you look down. That cured me of my fear."

...I declined that offer.

Talking with him was really helpful because he was able to answer all my seemingly dumb questions:

-Can a plane fall out of the sky like a bag of rocks? No. Against the laws of physics.
-What if the plane suddenly lost power?? The pilots could glide it to the ground.
-But what if the engine stops working?!? Most planes are designed to function with only one engine as a safety procedure.
-How do planes even work? They work by gliding.
-What if a door suddenly came open?? Highly unlikely. If it did, the oxygen masks would come down and the pilots would quickly descend to a safer altitude.
-Does turbulence mean something awful is about to happen?? No. Turbulence is just moving air. It's like if you were kayaking-if the water is still, there's no resistance against your oar. If it's moving, then there is resistance, which would cause your oar to get bumped around.

After a long series of Q&A, my brother finally said (very sweetly, I might add), "You just got to remember there are a ton of safety checks and protocol they have to comply with to even get off the ground. It's really super safe to fly. You just need to have a few good flight experiences, and you'll get better."

(for the record, if you have any plane related questions I'd be happy to pass them along and get him to answer them for you!).

Talking with my brother really helped. He flew in warzones and I was scared of flying from Munich to Edinburgh??

Step 3. Getting off the runaway thought train
Slightly more confident, I started trying to get over my fear. I would still take my sedative, but I would talk myself through anything I found scary. Weird noise? That's the plane changing altitudes. Turbulence? This is just bumpy water against an oar. Terror during take off? Deep breaths, this is all ok and soon you're at cruising altitude.

Mostly I just tried to remain calm. Deep breathing, distractions in the form of magazines, snacks, Jewel Quest, in flight movies-as long as I wasn't feeding the fear monster with a runaway thought train, I could keep it under control. And my brother was right-the more positive flight experiences I had, the easier it got to fly.

Another thing that really helped me was relying a lot on my faith. Giving up control is scary, but in some ways it made me stronger to be like, "God I'm giving this to you. I've got faith you'll keep us safe" and just stopped worrying about it. Even if you're not religious, worrying doesn't give you a single ounce of control. It just robs you of any peace of mind. When I let go of that want to control, it helped me immensely.

Fast forward to the present-I have not taken my medicine in months and have been able to fly almost 10 times without taking anything. Do I like flying? Not at all. I don't enjoy it and prefer direct flights. But I don't want my fear to control my life. When I get nervous I try to be rational about it, take a deep breath, and change my focus-read a book, play on the ipad, or sometimes (this is most helpful) meditate on all the things I'm thankful for. Counting my blessings fills me with joy, and I think where there is joy it is hard to feel fear.

Trying to see these as exciting possibilities, not fear!

Do you struggle with fear of flying? Have you got any questions for my fearless bro? Any suggestions for helping me get over my fear? I'm all ears! :)

20 comments :

  1. Wow! Good on you for confronting your fear! Although you may not be totally "cured" of it yet, I think it's INCREDIBLE the progress you've made! That shows a LOT of strength in itself xx

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    1. Thank you! I have really been working hard to overcome it!

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  2. I honestly think sometimes the more you fly, the scarier it gets, as like you said you might have a bad experience (or a few) and those are what you focus on. Kudos for being so analytical though and getting to the root of it!

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    1. That is so true. This started happening when we started flying more! Just trying to get through it one day at a time...

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  3. Good job on you for trying to control your fear! Wow, 23 flights this year? That's a lot! My mother inlaw doesnt ride planes at all. For the same reasons you have. Yeah, deep breathing helps and I usually watch movies to take off my mind off things. Thanks for this very informative post!

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    1. I love playing Candy Crush on the plane. I'll get so into beating my score I barely realize I'm on a plane! :)

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  4. I too am afraid of flying. I was bawling on a flight to Colorado. My doctor gave me a sedative and thankfully it took some of the edge off. I'm still scared of all of the possibilities, though.

    Bailey
    BecomingBailey.com

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    1. Same here. Planes are just scary sometimes, no matter how you slice it.

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  5. I get SUCH anxiety when flying. It's funny, because my husband is a pilot. He tells me what's up and it STILL doesn't help. I've had anxiety for years. Actually, I can't remember any flights where I didn't freak out just a bit... but I still fly, unfortunately!

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    1. Same! I feel like the anxiety never truly goes away. I always try to pick the shortest most direct flight possible, even if it costs me more.

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  6. Thanks for sharing - especially the information from your brother. It's not my favorite form of transportation and something that's become harder the more I do it (should be the other way I suppose) - but I know it's something I have to keep under control for the sake of my son.

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    1. For me, doing it more absolutely made my fear worse. I don't know how flight attendants do it! Fionn and I try to stay strong for each other. He gets anxious on planes after his job sent him to school to learn how to jump out of them...so we try to keep each other calm! :)

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  7. I was sort of in the same situation quite recently. I had a crazy turbulent flight to Turkey, too, which unnerved me a little. Then I had an even worse flight shortly after that to New York!! Though I never refused to fly, so probably didn't suffer as much as you, I would totally panic any time the plane jolted just the tiniest inch. Eventually I think I just got tired of being stressed out on every flight I took, so just sort of got over it. But good for you conquering your fear! It must have taken a lot of willpower to do so! :)

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    1. New life rule: never fly Turkish airlines! Our flight on Friday was awfully turbulent, I was so glad to be on the ground again! Takin it one day at a time.. ;)

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  8. Two things that help: the book SOAR, The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying and the free app that proves the plane is doing fine when in turbulence. The free app is called SOAR Conquers Fear of Flying and is on the Apple App Store.

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    1. What a great app! I'll have to try that. Thanks for the tips! :)

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  9. Wow that's a lot of flying! As a therapist, I'd definitely say good for you to getting to the root of the problem and not just using medication as a band-aid!

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    1. It's a work in progress, but I'm glad I'm making strides ;) our flight on Friday was pretty turbulent, but Fionn got me through it by making me watch Batman!

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  10. I just love this post! I could have written it myself it is so reminiscent of my experience. The first time I flew abroad, I was 17 and went from Seattle to London with my best friend. She was a wreck and I was fine. Suddenly, the next time I got on an airplane with my husband when I was 22 from Seattle to Iceland, I was a nervous wreck and practically frothing at the mouth. My vacations were bittersweet; I loved the time exploring but was convinced they were my last days on earth as I was sure our plane would crash in a fiery ball on the return flight home. I too took drugs and they did.not.work. I was still a mess. The only thing that works for me is meditation. I have to constantly monitor my body & thoughts and assure myself that I can panic like I want to IF the plane starts careening towards the ground. I am an expat and travel all.the.time so this was/is a huge issue for me too. Thanks for your post!

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    1. It's so weird how this fear just comes out of the blue! I agree with you, you've got to conquer the fear monster rather than using drugs to smother the fear. The root of the problem is never dealt with if you never try to tackle it. It was really empowering to realize that even though it's difficult, I can take control of my thoughts and try to keep myself from panic. It's an ongoing battle, I guess!

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