It would begin the moment I booked a flight somewhere, anywhere – it didn’t matter. Up until that point I was excited to be travelling, even if it was just for work. I loved sorting through flights and hotels, and working out how I would get from or to the airport. But in that second when I committed to a flight the panic would set in.
At first, it would manifest as a vague discomfort nagging beneath each day. But the closer I got to getting on that plane, the worse the fear of flying would become. Four days out I’d have haunting, shadowy dreams about really awful things happening but nothing so specific that I could remember details when I woke up. The dreams fed into my steadily increasing disquiet until I would be utterly and totally convinced that I should not get on that plane, that to do so would be tantamount to suicide. This sense of foreboding would take control of the days leading up to the flight to the point where just getting myself to the airport was an act of will.
When I got there I took the first – and only – step I had to mitigate the fear. I had a drink. A glass of wine calmed me a little. Which became two. Which became three. Even if it was only 6.30am. Even if I was headed off to spend the day training a room full of people. The only way I could get myself on that plane was to dull my senses. I never got drunk. Never broke the law. The alcohol wasn’t a cure, but it passed as enough to get me to my seat without making a total fool of myself.
Outwardly, I was the picture of calm. I didn’t pace, chew my nails or sweat profusely. I didn’t cling to people or talk incessantly about the statistics of plane crashes. I didn’t have the energy for that. All of my resources were trained on one thing – just getting through this hideous experience with my sanity in tact.
I’d do my best to think of other things as I cued up, as I took my seat. I’d have music ready to listen to, something to read in my hand. But it made no difference. How could I concentrate on even the finest works of fiction when I knew the place was about to come crashing down to earth?
I’d strap into my seat, get my stuff arranged how I liked it, tilt my head back and close my eyes, breathing deeply despite the adrenalin thundering through me. Hyper-aware of everything going on around me, the first jolt as the plane moved away from the gate would start my heart pounding. I knew what was coming and I wanted to be pretty much anywhere else on the planet.
Taxiing wasn’t too bad – we were on the ground and clearly not ready for take off. But that moment when the plane turned into the runway, when the engines flared and the brake was taken off sent me into a dizzying spiral of terror. Rumbling down the tarmac my hands, white-knuckled, gripped the seat, teeth clenched like I had lockjaw. The plane would reach critical velocity, take off and I was in utter hell. Every bang, crash, rattle and creak sent waves of panic through me. I would sit there, every muscle in my body stretched to capacity and repeat to myself over and over, “This is intolerable, this is intolerable!”.
It may surprise you to know that around 10% of people suffer genuine anxiety when flying, and another 10% aren’t all that comfortable with the experience. For the most part, people are afraid of either one (or both) of two things. The first is pretty obvious – that the plane might crash. The second is the dread of losing self-control, of having an actual panic attack in public, while trapped on a plane with no way off. For anybody who’s suffered this, you’ll know how horrifying the idea is.
Of course, the silly thing is, flying is safer now than it has ever been since Messers Wright pulled the craft out onto the field at Kitty Hawk. It doesn’t require masses of scientific studies to prove that flying in a plane is safer than the drive to the airport – or indeed, staying at home. Planes are built with double and sometimes triple redundancies, crews are trained in every conceivable – and a few inconceivable – possibilities. Heavens, a pilot managed to land a plane on a frozen river and not a single person was injured! I think we can confidently say that flying is safe.
Which has absolutely no bearing on a fear of flying. Because that fear isn’t rational, like all those wonderful facts above. Fear is irrational and as a result, is much harder to control – largely because it’s a well-proven survival instinct. If none of us felt fear, our ancestors wouldn’t have survived long enough for us to be born.
I hadn’t always been afraid of flying. As a kid, I’d loved everything about flying. The idea of getting on a plane and going somewhere was unspeakably exciting. Then one day that changed – although it took years to work out how and why.
Understanding the Causes
When I was about 22, I went on a roller-coaster – not a common thing for me as I suffer from motion sickness. But I didn’t want to miss out and was prepared to brave the risks for the experience. I was seated in the front right corner of the forward carriage. Back then, they simply lowered a bar across your lap and it locked into place to stop you falling out.
We took off and it wasn’t too bad. Then we climbed to the top peak and dropped down the other side – but instead of going up again to dispel some of our speed, this roller-coaster did a sharp turn left – which would have made me a little nauseated anyway – except that the bar holding me into my seat chose that moment to come unlocked. The momentum pulled me out of my seat and half way out of the car. I was a bee’s dick away from flying to a spectacular death and only my steely grip on the bar stopped me.
I was a shaking, gibbering mess after I got off that ride, unable to speak or even walk for a good half hour. I did recover (although steered well clear of such rides in future) but I wasn’t to know that the experience had left a deep scar on my psyche that would surface years later.
For a long time, I just put up with it. I gritted my teeth and tried to focus on how great it would be when the plane landed. But work demanded more and more flying time and with each flight, my fear became more acute – to the point where I actually cancelled a trip because I couldn’t face getting on a plane. My boss was not impressed. It was time to do something about my fear of flying.
My first step was to understand the problem better, and I found a really good book: Flight to Delight. It focuses on a form of psychological treatment called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) which put more plainly, is a way of recognising triggers in your behaviour and then having techniques ready to deal with them. It works by identifying and then changing unhelpful ways of thinking and feeling. It might appear odd at first, but it’s a very successful technique.
The book lays out a series of questions to help define exactly how your fear of flying manifests itself and then provides ways to challenge those beliefs. Once challenged, you can then create a new set thoughts – called ‘self-talk’ that you use when you’re flying to better control how you feel.
It’s a little hard to describe how this works without going into immense detail, so I’ll just give you an example of one of my fears:
Fear of Flying Cure Step 1
The process begins with identifying the adverse situation: Flying to Auckland
- Identify the beliefs: that the noises and banging and bumping and shifts and turns when the plane takes off means we’re about to crash
- What are the consequences of those beliefs?: Afraid to fly to Auckland
So to challenge those beliefs we focus on the truth: That the noises and banging and bumping, shifts and turns during take off are actually examples of exactly what happens when a plane takes off safely. The plane is supposed to do that. When a plane does that, it’s proof that the plane is taking properly and safely.
The consequences of the new beliefs is that I felt a lot better about taking off in a plane because I could replace that awful negative repeating cycle of self-talk with this new truth. And yes, I went through the process of typing these out, laminating them and then reading them repeatedly throughout the boarding and take-off process – and it made a huge difference to my anxiety levels. Not a cure, but a big step forward.
One of the down sides however was that I had to do this reading and preparation for at least two weeks before every flight and I found that very difficult to keep up. Eventually I again found myself having to fly for work and dreading the very idea, my fears all back in force.
In desperation, I went to my doctor and told her my story. I expected a shrug and an instruction to stop worrying about it, but what I got instead was, “Oh you poor thing!” Her response completely changed my life.
Fear of Flying Cure Step 2
She explained a few things about traumatic experiences and what they do to the brain. Basically, there’s a part of your brain essential to our survival instincts, called the amygdala. It’s where the “fight or flight” response is driven. When you experience intense trauma, the event “image” is imprinted on the amygdala so that it can recognise the next time something that scary happens and can trigger the fight or flight response. Effectively it takes a snapshot of dangerous shit and gets you the hell out of Dodge before anything bad can happen. When you’re surrounded by tigers in a jungle, this is a great thing to have at your disposal. When you want to get on a plane, not so much.
You will recognise this response as the core of what we all know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What I didn’t realise was that my roller-coaster ride had given me exactly that problem. Every time I got on a plane, my amygdala recognised sounds and movements, thought I was going through the same thing again and immediately triggered the fear response of adrenalin pumping, high blood pressure, terror, etc.
The problem with curing this is that shifting those imprinted things from the amygdala is very difficult and sometimes impossible. Which is why when my doctor suggested anti-anxiety medication I decided to take it. She explained that while the medication won’t fix the problem, it will help change my experience of flying by suppressing the anxiety reaction and keeping me calm. She said there was a possibility that over time, repeated new, calm experiences of flying might replace that imprint of terror. I was willing to try anything.
I took just half a pill 20 minutes before I got on that first flight. Fifteen minutes later, it was like somebody had flipped a switch. I literally went from a state of high-stress anxiety – to chilled in the blink of an eye. Over the course of the next year, I could pinpoint exactly when the medication would kick in – and hand on my heart, it was wonderful!
I sat on that plane with my eyes closed, repeated my CBT positive thoughts and just let the plane take off. No butterflies, no adrenalin, no clenched teeth, no mantra of terror. Nothing. It was like I was chilling on a Friday evening with a gin and tonic in my hand. In short, flying suddenly became a pleasure.
As each flight went by, I continued to take the medication (nope, I’m not saying which one – your doctor will give you that kind of information). Almost two years after that first blissful flight, I finally reached the point where I had no choice but fly without the pill. I was doing a short hop from Washington DC to New York city early in the morning, after which I would be spending the day sight-seeing around the Big Apple. The last thing I needed was to feel sleepy and drowsy all day. So I decided to take a chance.
I got on that plane like a boss. And I enjoyed it. No more fear of flying. And yes, that’s right – drug and alcohol free. And I loved every minute of it. My one complaint? That I couldn’t see anything of NYC as I came into land at Kennedy.
I got off that plane walking on cloud nine! I couldn’t believe that at last I was finally free of that dreadful curse. That not only could I fly without fear, but that flying itself could once again be something enjoyable. I had never felt so free as I did in that moment.
I’m no neurologist and the scientific details are extensive – but for me, I no longer have a fear of flying and in fact, I love it. A combination of CBT and medication cured me of my fear of flying. Now any excuse to get on a plane now is a good excuse. And that’s just how I like it.
Do you or have you had a problem flying? Please share your experiences below. I’d love to hear from you.