Defeating Dread: How I Overcame My Flight Anxiety

I’ve always been a nervous person.

Throughout middle and high school, I had panic attacks. Chest-tightening, sweat-breaking, unpleasant tingling, heart beating a million miles a minute, gasping for breath panic attacks. For the first few months after I started having them, I could hardly leave my house. I hated meeting new people and avoided it whenever possible.

Eventually, through CBT therapy and a lot of journaling, I began to overcome them. I would only have an attack once a month, then once every six months, and then not at all for years – until I got on an airplane to San Antonio in 2010. I now know what I experienced on that flight was completely innocuous because I’ve flown so much since then, but at the time it felt incredibly dangerous and scary.

It was a completely routine flight in every way – until we were making our approach into the airport. The pilot banked the plane to align us with the runway, and right at that moment we caught a bit of wind that wasn’t aligned with our flightpath. The plane, wings and fuselage – tilted for the bank required to turn – swayed back and forth in the air as I stared at the approaching ground out the window.

(Not a photo from my scary flight; this is an approach into Greece, which was lovely.)

It was probably only a couple of inches of movement, but every twitch of the ailerons in a plane can feel massive. The man seated next to me, with whom I hadn’t interacted thus far at all, locked eyes with me and we stared at one another in mutual silent terror. The pilot corrected the slight bump and righted us again for our approach. The rest of the landing was turbulent but ultimately fine.

However, that moment of abject fear in midair – and the very physical realization that I had absolutely no control over anything when on an airplane – touched off six years of my life where I had a massive panic attack every single time I flew. I was the girl sobbing and crying and screaming every time we hit a little turbulence.

I clutched strangers’ hands, laid in their laps, cried on their shoulders. One time I tightly held the hand of a very sweet woman who had just gotten engaged to her fiance (who was seated on her other side) for the entire five hours of a plane ride from California to Washington, D.C. She was an angel. He wasn’t happy about it.

During these years I tried everything I could think of that might help: drowning my fear in alcohol, popping various anti-anxiety medications, reading all the books I could find on overcoming flight anxiety, trying meditation and breathing exercises. None of it helped. I still had panic attacks on every single flight. It was emotionally and physically exhausting and completely wiped me out, especially when I began to travel for work. I desperately needed a new solution.

I was searching online for anything that might help and I came across the name of a new book on a flight anxiety forum. I thought I’d give this whole thing actually-curing-yourself-instead-of-treating-the-symptoms thing one more try before I went back to the imperfect solution offered by anti-anxiety medication. This is when I read “Soar” by Tom Bunn, a retired airline captain turned psychologist, and it changed my life.

Bunn came up with a system specifically designed to combat flight anxiety. He uses your memories of a truly happy moment to induce a release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, in your body.

You project this moment onto various surfaces in the plane, and the release of the hormone prevents your vagus nerve (the thing that makes your heart start beating quickly when you’re scared) from overreacting to the amygdalae in your brain sending out “Warning: Unfamiliar feeling!” signals. He also gives you CBT-like mental exercises to perform when you feel yourself getting anxious. (I especially love the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise.)

Example of a place where you project your chosen image.

After completing the exercises in this book, I could fly completely sober without having a panic attack for the first time in six years. I went up in a tiny skydiving plane and actually liked it!

Bunn isn’t sponsoring this post. (Though if he’s reading: Thank you for this amazing gift of a book. I want to express how grateful I am and send you at least one bottle of wine.) I tell literally everyone who tells me they hate flying to read this book. If you hate flying and you’ve tried everything else, buy this book.

It’s $15 for a paperback version – I have the Kindle version, which is $9.99 on Amazon. It’s worth that price a million times over. I use the exercises in it when I feel myself getting anxious in my day-to-day life and they work just as well on the ground as they do at 36,000 feet.

Have you ever had flight anxiety? How did you overcome it? Tell me in the comments!

Cheers to overcoming fear! (And getting unexpectedly bumped up to first class. Tips on how to do that soon!)

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