Anxiety and the Fear of Flying

Prior to my first panic attack, I was obsessed with flying alone. Strange, huh? I loved the feel of walking by myself through the airport and finding my seat on the plane next to some stranger. I flew all over the world by myself, even to and from France where I lived for a semester.

Then, panic happened, and I couldn’t even walk out of the house by myself.

Reintroducing things takes time. There’s no way around that. I waited about two years after my first panic attack to take my first flight. I didn’t feel “ready” really. I was still terrified. But I felt like I was at the point in my recovery where I was strong enough to handle it.

Since then, I’ve been on seven flights post-panic. Woo hoo!

The biggest piece of advice I can give you if you’re afraid of flying is to DO IT. The more I fly, the less scary it becomes, just like with everything else. The more you avoid it and turn it into some big, scary thing, the more terrifying it becomes. JUST DO IT.

Here, I’ll be sharing some tips for how I overcome my fear of flying. I split it up into two categories: being afraid of having a panic attack and being afraid of something physically going wrong with the plane. Hope this helps!

If you’re afraid of having a panic attack on the plane…

This was the biggest fear I initially had when I went to take my first post-panic flight. I was terrified of having a panic attack, being so dissociated and confused, and having no way out. I imagined myself not being able to breathe or remember where I was or even causing a big scene. So, I get it.

Here’s what I remind myself: There’s NO SUCH THING AS SAFE SPACES. They are false and arbitrary. In actuality, there is literally no difference between panicking on a plane and panicking in the “safety” of your living room. Think about it.

Yes, you’re around strangers on a plane, but so what? Have you ever done something “crazy” or caused a huge scene while you were having a panic attack? Probably not. I never have. Honestly, no one ever really knows when I’m having one because it’s a purely internal experience.

Yes, you can’t leave or get off the plane, but so what? What would getting off the plane do? That’s just your fear telling you to run. Adrenaline is designed just for that. So we feel like we have to run and get away but we don’t. Getting off the plane or running away won’t make you any safer.

Having a panic attack is a completely internal experience between you and your nervous system. There’s no true difference between having one on a plane or in a restaurant or in your bed or on the beach or wherever. The more I reminded myself of that fact, the better I felt.

Tips:

  • If you have short-term anxiety medication, like a benzodiazepine, it’s always a good idea to have some handy. I always carry my Xanax with me, even though I haven’t taken it in two and half years. It’s just nice to know that there’s an option if I feel like I can’t bring the attack down.
  • It’s not uncommon for people to have panic attacks on the plane, so many flight attendants are great at dealing with them. Thankfully I’ve only traveled with my boyfriend post-panic and he’s really great at helping my anxiety, but I told myself that I could always inform a flight attendant about my panic attacks prior to take off if I felt like I needed to. That way, I’d feel less alone.
  • Self-talk is HUGE. Bring a sheet of anxiety-specific affirmations or your favorite mantras to whip out when you start to get scared.
  • I also distract myself as much as I can. This past time, I watched Tinkerbell movies on my laptop (which always calm me down). I read a book. I listened to relaxing music. I talked with my boyfriend. Anything you can do to take your mind off panic is great.
  • Deep breathing is so important. If I can’t feel my breath, I’ll often put one hand on my chest and one hand on my belly and focus on making my lower hand rise and fall.

If you’re afraid of crashing, dying, etc…

Then, there’s the fear of something going wrong. I never really had this fear pre-panic, but now I’m well-versed in the possibilities of things going wrong. I hate turbulence. It always feels like we’re going to tumble out of the sky. I get scared that the plane is going to break or run out of fuel. Or a terrorist is going to take over. Or the pilot is going to be drunk or suicidal.

What helped me is to do some research on airline safety.

According to accident data tracked from 1993 to 2012, an individual has a 1 in 4.7 MILLION chance of being killed while flying on one of the world’s major airlines. You’re far, far more likely to die in a car accident, or pretty much anything else for that matter. The chances are just that low.

I drive every single day. And I’m not constantly thinking about dying, even though there’s a fairly large chance of it. So it’s incredibly irrational for me to be more scared of flying in a plane than driving my car. It just doesn’t make sense.

On my recent flight home from Vegas, we were in almost constant turbulence. The seat belt sign was on. The bell kept dinging. The pilot came on several times to quickly tell the flight attendants to be seated, all of which freaked me out. So I kept repeating to myself: flying is safer than driving. Flying is safer than driving. And it helped me to see things from a more rational perspective.

I also did research on turbulence. No, turbulence is not going to cause the plane to barrel through the air and crash into the ground. Planes are extremely resilient and can withstand a lot of pressure. In the rare cases that turbulence was so severe that the plane was damaged, the pilots were still able to land safely. So even if the plane does encounter severe turbulence, it’s way more likely that the pilot will make a detour and land safely than that the plane will crash. The only real danger from turbulence would be if you’re not buckled in your seat and you get injured from the jostling.

On this latest flight, I did my best to breathe as deeply as possible. I reminded myself of the facts, employing my rational brain.

And then there was still the part of me that said: but what if this is the flight that crashes? What if this or that? I could come up with a million things to counteract the facts.

So I told myself that at the end of the day, I have to accept uncertainty.

We could crash. That’s true. I could die. That’s true. But if that’s the case, I can’t control it. I would rather live my life doing the things I want to do than be at home afraid of dying.

We have to trust that if we beat the incredibly low odds in a situation (a 1 in 4.7 MILLION chance), then it was just freaking meant to be. We can’t control everything. Life happens. Death happens. Accidents happen. Trust that your path is always, always right.

It takes practice to fly after panic. I’m still working on feeling totally at ease. But that’s okay. At least I’m doing it. I’m not letting fear stop me. We have the power to let fear dictate our lives, or not. I say, not 🙂

I hope this was helpful! Anyone have a trip coming up??

4 thoughts on “Anxiety and the Fear of Flying

  1. Erica says:

    This was so incredibly helpful!! I have a flight next week (but I’ll flying with my husband so that is always comforting) and then I have many flights flying all over the country by myself over the next few months so I am nervous about those. Perfect timing 🙂 Thank you for sharing!

    Like

    • mbradsh2 says:

      Wow you’re so brave!! I’m also nervous about when I fly alone, but I’ll just remind myself that I’ve got tons of coping skills in my pocket! You’re going to do great. Hope you have so much fun!!! ❤

      Like

  2. Ann Marie says:

    Love this!!! Thank you.
    “I say not” as well.
    I am going to save these words of wisdom and truths for myself and pass on to others. So very helpful. Going to big island Hawaii next month with my husband. I have flown there a few times but it is tricky for me as we depart out of LAX and fly over all that water! I am excited more than fearful right now so I am going to be alright. So happy for you 🌸🌸🌸

    Like

    • mbradsh2 says:

      That’s going to be so amazing!! I’m so excited for you!! Yes, my excitement always helps me when traveling to forget a little bit about the nerves. Hope you have lots and lots of fun 💕

      Like

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