The Fear of Flying as a Traveller

Ben Nevis, Scotland

I can’t think of many things more frustrating than having a fear of flying as a passionate traveller.

I never thought I was a particularly anxious person. Yes, I was always familiar with that tense “something bad is going to happen” feeling you get when something is hanging over you or you have way too much caffeine; who isn’t? I always thought that was anxiety. And I suppose it is.

But when I was ‘hit’ with full-blown anxiety attacks in November 2017, I was faced with a darker, more terrifying and completely disabling level of anxiety.

However, I had always been scared of flying, which is utterly ironic as my biggest passion has always been to travel and see new places, which, of course, involves flying.

 

Around eight years ago, when I hadn’t travelled a considerable amount, I was on a night flight back from Cuba. I had been lucky enough never to have experienced turbulence on my annual holidays away to Europe with my Grandparents. So, this flight for me was horrendous. There is no doubt in my mind that my fear of flying was created that night. I genuinely thought we were all going to die.

I spent around five hours gripping the seat, terrified, praying, and hoping that the turbulence would stop and the plane would not go down.

Eight years later, and having taken many more flights to various destinations and experienced turbulence many times, I know it was just standard turbulence.

The pilot did do a poor job, in my opinion, in updating the passengers on board. He didn’t say a word the entire time. But then again, it was a night flight, and perhaps he didn’t want to wake anyone up. Not that I see how any functioning human could sleep through that nightmare, but I suppose not everyone was as terrified as me!

 

My fear of flying was born

 

On every flight since, any bump, any noise I don’t recognise, any alarmed look on any single person’s face sets my heart racing, my palms sweating, and my brain into overdrive convinced I might die any moment soon.

Ben Nevis, Scotland

This was and is a real issue. How could I keep travelling and seeing the world when I was sent into a panic every time I got onto a plane?  And not just once I got onto the plane. The grip of anxiety hits my stomach anywhere from a week before a trip just at the thought of being some 30000 thousand miles in the sky and altogether not in control of what’s happening.

Around five years ago, I planned to visit Thailand, Cambodia and Tokyo. Around that time, two planes had crashed and gone missing in Asia in a similar flight area to where I would be flying. As you can imagine, I was terrified, and it certainly didn’t help my fear.

I was filled with dread when I should have been feeling nothing but excitement. The trip involved six flights. I remember being so stressed out up to the trip. I was googling information constantly to try and reassure myself. Statistics for planes crashing due to turbulence, statistics for the chances of dying in a plane crash, reading up on the training pilots had to do to fly the aircraft, and the checks planes went through before taking off.

 

It helped a little; I now know that you are far more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than you are in a plane crash; you are also statistically more likely to die falling out of bed and hitting your head than you are to die in a plane crash.

Armed with all of this information, I thought.

‘I can do this’

 

I had booked the seats in the middle but towards the back of the plane (which I always did) as I had found out via one of my many google searches that you are slightly less likely to die if you crash in these seats, and you also generally feel less turbulence near the wing.

It was taking over my flying plans.

I got on the plane, the first flight to Helsinki, where I would connect to Bangkok.

I remember being sat there while happy and excited looking ‘normal’ people got onto the plane buzzing with anticipation about their upcoming trip and wishing I felt that way.

I was gripped with panic, and my brain started to go into overdrive, whizzing around and around with terrifying thoughts. I couldn’t breathe, I was sweating, I was dizzy, and I couldn’t hear anything going on around me. I wanted to stand up and run off the plane and forget the whole trip.

I had read up on how to cope when you are scared of flying before I left, and I tried to focus my mind as quickly as possible on those tips so that I didn’t make a complete idiot of myself by running off the plane and across the airport!

I switched on some upbeat music and put my earphones in; I tried as hard as I could to relax my body, steady my breathing, and started to try and picture relaxing thoughts, which was me stroking my cats while drinking a glass of wine, typical me! It was a battle, but after around 10 minutes, I felt calmer, I felt more in control and any thoughts of me sprinting off the plane had almost left my troubled mind.

For the rest of that trip, flying came easy. I don’t know why; I can’t explain it, and I think that’s the thing that I struggle with the most with panic and anxiety. You have very little control over when it comes to when it goes and how it feels.

It’s not reasonable or sensible, and it’s not something you can necessarily always understand.

All I know is one minute I can feel fine, and a minute later, I feel as though a dark curtain has been dropped over me, and everything feels out of control, and I cannot cope.

Views from Munduk - Bali

Since that trip, I have read numerous books on flying. My favourite was the British Airways ‘Fear of Flying’ book, which explains so much.

It explains the training, testing and checking pilots and their planes have to go through. It explains every noise you may hear when flying, which helped me so much as I now know that the noise I could listen to or could no longer hear was not the engine cutting out. It was where the plane had levelled out in its ascent for a moment. The clunking noise was not a door falling off; it was the sound of the wheels being tucked safely under the plane. And that turbulence was a regular and perfectly safe part of flying, much like the bumps in the road that your car goes over when driving. I have practised grounding techniques on every flight ever since, such as staying present, relaxing every part of my body inch by inch, regulating my breathing and distracting my mind by listening to music or watching a film. It does help. But frustratingly, I know I will never be rid of my anxiety around flying and will always be looking closely at the flight attendants’ faces as soon as I feel one bump, scanning them for any glimmer of concern.

Since experiencing crippling anxiety bought on by life events in both 2017 and 2019, I have to admit; that flying has not gotten any easier.

It is something that has amplified and worsened my fear of flying. And actually, it has heightened any fear I had previously had tenfold. If you have never experienced anxiety at the level many other people and I have, you may think my wording of being ‘taken down’ is a little dramatic? It’s honestly not.

But here I am, scared of flying and prone to anxiety attacks at any random time for any random reason. Yet we are still planning to fly as many times as possible each year and still travel and experience as many new things as possible in our lifetime.

I wanted to share my story to show that you can suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, be terrified of flying, and travel the world despite this. It can be done, and it can be enjoyed, and it is possible.

Whilst my generalised anxiety is much less these days, my fear of flying will always be there.  Some flights are worse than others, so I continue to do the things that I know help me through each flight and know that it’s okay to be scared, but I go armed.

I genuinely hope this helps someone and helps you to realise that even if you have the most crippling fear of flying, you can still travel. And travel you should.

Sending you all so much love!

x

Some of the things that have helped me with my fear of flying are:

 

Fear of Flying book – British Airways book – they also do a course you can attend

The book was super helpful, it explains noises and processes and also all of the training Pilots go through in order to become qualified which was very reassuring.

The book – Understanding Panic attacks This book changed my world. It confirmed every single symptom and effect I was experiencing was in fact normal. It was a normal bodily response and that alone made me feel less panicked.

Listening to relaxing music – Always helps me, a form of meditation and works really well with slowing your breathing. I am a big fan of HZ music which is known to have a calming effect on the nervous system but honestly, listen to what works for you!

Breathing techniques – belly breathing, combat breathing are a few things that are worth googling – both of these techniques have gotten me out of the clutches of a threatening panic attack.

Colouring books – it’s actually a really good single focus brain activity that helps your brain slow down – Yes I feel like a five-year-old on the plane but I don’t really care

Meditation – Just doing this once a day for ten minutes really helps you get practised at bringing yourself to a place of calm which can be super helpful when you are on a plane and feeling nervous. There are so many good apps such as headspace or calm or just youtube tutorials. But I like to just focus on my breathing and count my breaths.

Purposefully relax every muscle in your body – Your body will find it very difficult to be in a state of panic when you are relaxed – the mind and body connection was one of the best things I learnt about last year

Word games – on your phone to distract your mind when you start to feel anxious

If you haven’t yet read about my journey with anxiety and would like to hear my experience, you can find my story here

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