I’m a recovered fearful flyer who experienced a setback this year, and I have to brush up on my anxiety prevention skills. Of course I knew this could happen. Apparently membership in the Fearful Flyers Club is for life.
I try not to despair. But when it comes down to it I wonder: how much work do I have to do to make something expensive and relatively uncomfortable into something that doesn’t turn my body into a dumping ground of stress hormones?
Five years ago I never thought I would look out of a plane window and think only, “Wow, this is so beautiful.” I can do that now. With a lot of hard work and determination I made it to that point, and the only time I ever get the jitters now is right when the engines whir up for takeoff. However, instead of having a full-on flood of cortisol, I’m usually too sleepy. I’ve been doing my breathing exercises for hours and now I just want to nap. But I don’t. I haven’t slept on a plane since I was 13.
So what was my big setback?
When we took off, suddenly there was an elephant in my row. We had some out of the ordinary crosswinds; it was blustery. As we barreled down the runway, we moved left, right, left, right, jerkily enough that we were all wondering if we were going to lose our lunch.
Then as we lifted off and climbed, we did the same dance, jerking hither and thither. I’ve never experienced a flight like this before and I fly at least 10 times a year — so it’s not something you should anticipate happening to you.
I don’t think anyone else was used to that kind of takeoff either. When we leveled off the man next to me matter-of-factly declared, “Takeoff was terrible.”
“Yeah,” agreed several others seated near us.
During the harrowing experience, I buried myself in my breathing techniques. Deep breath in slowly counting to five and then out slowly, again counting to five. Tensing and release my muscles starting from my feet up to my head, trying to tire out my tense muscles, which automatically went into cat-on-electrified-plate mode when I realized the plane was doing something I’d never experienced before.
“Don’t manage the plane,” I told myself. “That’s the pilot’s job. You manage yourself.”
The scared little girl inside me said the same thing she always says on roller coasters, “This is so uncomfortable. Will it ever stop?”
Calming myself through breathing and muscle relaxation was extremely difficult because I was out of practice. But I was out of practice because my stress and anxiety is at about a two on a scale of one to 10 these days.
Had I been prepared for a nauseating takeoff, I might have been doing my deep breathing exercises when I got to the airport. But I’ve left that stress behind. I have good flights now. Beautiful flights.
And of course I didn’t anticipate that I would have a bad takeoff. All that negativity and letting my anxiety predict the future is something I left behind. I’m the result of years of therapy, and I consider my anxiety something I have the tools to manage.
I had a flight coming up soon, and I knew I was thinking about takeoff it too much. So what do I do?
Well I used to listen to a YouTube playlist I made of plane noises. Some of takeoff, others of landing. It’s fairly easy to do. Plenty of people have recorded the inside of their plane taking off and landing, and I found it to be great exposure therapy. Those noises used to make my heart rate skyrocket and my hands clammy. And my brain took that physiological reaction to mean: There must be something terribly wrong. Go ahead and panic.
I went through the old playlist, and nothing. I added some new videos, but my heart rate stayed the same. I wasn’t getting keyed up. I sat in a plane-like seat and shut my eyes and tried to visualize takeoff. Easy enough. But there was no anxiety.
I had to find a new approach. I had this new worry that taking off on my next flight would be just as awful as it was on the last one. And by awful, I mean uncomfortable. I knew there was something to that: discomfort.
How do I normally deal with something that is uncomfortable? I stop it, get rid of it, walk away. I figured, that’s my answer. If I wanted to do a little exposure exercise I needed to find something uncomfortable that I would normally not subject myself to.
I made a new playlist of my least favorite kind of music and played it each day for one whole minute. Why a minute? Because that’s about how long it would take to takeoff and climb in an aircraft, although to me it seems much long than that. And let me tell you listening to a song I can’t stand seems much longer, too.
Sometimes instead of music, I put on television shows and news channels that I never watch. I made a rule: Don’t react or argue with the TV. Just sit with the discomfort. It will all be over in a minute.
All I could do is just sit there. No multi-tasking, no checking email, no sending texts.
After five weeks of doing this nearly every day, I flew to Cincinnati. I practiced my breathing as I left for the airport. My anxiety was relatively low as I boarded. And when I heard the engines whir up for takeoff, I felt a pang of dread but I actually amused myself a little bit, thinking, “Well at least I don’t have to listen to that awful song!”
While my body was stressed during takeoff, it was uneventful. When we leveled off I was sleepy and relaxed. I wondered why I didn’t breathe this way all the time. Life would be like a beach.
A common characterization of fearful flyers is that we have very vivid imaginations. I say make friends with your creativity. It can do a lot more than imagine scary things.