How to Manage Flight Anxiety When You're an Adventurer
Alright, raise your hand if you've ever felt anxiety being suspended in a metal tube 35,000 feet above land. I know I'm not the only one.
This post is one I've been toying with writing for at least a year - ever since my last trip back home. And it's a vulnerable share, too, because this is something I've been working with - and through - since mid-2019. I'll get into that in a second. But since I'm leaving tomorrow morning for my second annual trip to the United States, it weighs heavily on my mind... and I have to write from where I am. So, here we are.
I didn't use to have this issue.
Photo: Jason Leung
I was a frequent flyer my whole life, a happy flyer, absolutely in awe of the miracle of flight. That last piece has been the central throughline of my last three years, keeping me in gratitude and acting as an anchor.
But in mid-2019, I was deep in the heart of immense trauma and grief; it was all-encompassing for a while. Concurrently, I was just starting to process this pain via EMDR when I hopped on a plane to visit my sister. That's when the turbulence hit. Typically, I would have freaked out for a second and moved along pretty quickly, but not this time. Nope. Something in my body loudly said, "you're already in overwhelming pain with this grief, and by the way, THIS, TOO, IS ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING." I had a full-blown panic attack, the first ever in my life. And during numerous subsequent plane rides, my fight-or-flight response continued to go into overdrive - more panic attacks, white-hot fear, crying, and feeling deeply out of control.
So yes, this means that I was having - or close to having - panic attacks on flights to my honeymoon, to Hawaii, to visit family, to Colorado, to move to the other side of the world - everywhere. Honestly, I was annoying the crap out of myself once I got off the plane; I fully recognized how irrational it was and how easily I'd flown previously. The nerve!
Luckily, I have multiple social worker and therapist friends who all 1) understood the intensity of my grief experience, just by proxy of being my friend, and 2) provided feedback on how to cope - one moment at a time. And, they assured me that flight anxiety isn't as uncommon as I'd think: between 33% and 40% of people experience some amount of flight anxiety.
One friend, in particular, shared that she'd just learned about trauma hopping, wherein a trauma or grief can be so immensely large that it psychosomatically - psychically? - leaks over into other areas of your life... including creating irrational fears. You know, like fear of flying.
This share gave me an intellectual context with which to have compassion for myself and slowly climb my way out of panic and anxiety attacks - back to the peace of mind and excitement I'd so easily attained before. I've done a lot of work on myself these last few years to get to a place where I can finally say that I'm not feeling super terrified by tomorrow's plane rides. Uncomfortable? Yes, of course - but not terrified.
These tips may not work for everyone, but they've been hugely informative for me in my journey to the other side of fear, so I'd love to share them. Starting with...
EFT and Affirmations - This might initially sound a bit out there, but it's actually quite practical. Before I even step into the airport, I'm surrounding myself with affirmations that keep me focused, like "I am okay. I am safe. I am loved." And of course, "this too shall pass; each bump gets me closer to my destination; the potential for danger and actual danger are not the same." If I'm feeling really desperate on the plane, I'll start tapping via EFT - Emotional Freedom Technique - and repeat these or similar affirmations. This is the equivalent of a Catholic's Hail Mary or making the motion of the cross, so I'd suggest whatever reminds you you're not alone in this experience.
Expect Turbulence - Ugh, I hate this one because I'm still working through that feeling of being out of control, but... I've learned that I have to expect turbulence during a flight, especially a longer one. The smallest amount of shaking could get my hands sweaty, praying to whatever gracious spirits I could think of. I'd look around and see that, even in more obvious turbulence, no one else seemed to pay attention - especially my husband. That should have calmed me down, but no. And then I'd remember that I used to be just like them - and that's where breathing and surrender come in. Sometimes you just have to surrender, to try to surrender bit by bit, while your husband is dreaming about imminent maple syrup. Once I even told a flight attendant that I was experiencing flight anxiety immediately after some turbulence, and he gave me the sweetest pep talk. (Thanks, Lufthansa flight attendant!) I've also been watching daily trackers for this specific flight for the past two weeks, and guess what? Every single one of them has made it safely to the States, even with turbulence. I can't compete with that cold, hard, reassuring data.
Have Something to Hold Onto - This same therapist friend - seriously, a treasure in my life! - also gave me a beaded fidget to play with for the long plane ride to move to Lithuania. It helps to have something to hold; it could be a stone, a fidget toy, or anything that simultaneously creates awareness and distracts your brain. Honestly, mindfulness and awareness, in general, are extremely helpful: naming the colors around you, silently stating gratitude, focusing on your breath. The breath one can be extremely difficult in the middle of an anxiety attack, so at that point, I just try to feel my body and remember that I'm safe. That part can take a while to feel in my bones, but eventually, I get so tired of my fear - exhausted, even - that I have a few moments to chill out.
Seat Selection - I won't have this available to me tomorrow, but on flights where I can choose my seat, I'm glad to pay a bit more for a window seat. Window seats help me feel more grounded in my body - and most importantly, safer. But when I don't have this option (or choose to test myself without it, as I've been attempting recently!), I have to turn up the dial on my other tools - full blast. You can bet I'll be doing that tomorrow and on my way back to Lithuania. It helps. A lot.
Pre-Select Media Distractions - For obvious reasons, I've had a hard time focusing on plane movies over the last few years, but I do try to select music, movies, and shows that will distract me... as long as possible. Your music tastes may vary, but I have a lot of luck listening to music about gratitude since it keeps me high and reminds me why and how I'm in the plane in the first place. If I'm already going to be in a hyper-aware, intensified space, I'd like to find a way to rise above my fear as frequently as possible.
Think About Your Destination with Excitement - This one seems obvious, but it's so easy to get stuck in the anxiety loop, so I try to count down from 5 and feel into why I'm so excited to being going where I'm going. I was practicing this one today, and laughed at myself when I realized nearly all of my excitements related to food destinations. Hey, whatever it takes! But this one is really important, because similar to the gratitude music, it snaps me back into my purpose.
If I'm honest, I could keep going with tips, but these are the main ones that have assisted me. I can't even believe in this moment of writing that I'm not feeling insane tugging in my stomach about my upcoming flights - a little, but it isn't overwhelming. And while I can most likely expect some variation of nerves tomorrow (and tonight, I'll be real!), my goal is to acknowledge them and try to remember that nervousness and anxiety are actually opposite ends of the same sensation.
And I really am excited to get my fix of corn tortillas, so I'll sit through some turbulence in order to get there.
If you struggle with flight anxiety and you're an adventurer like me, it would be easy to push it away but I don't give myself that option. I keep hopping on planes and doing my best to feel peace when on them, because I know that new experiences can require getting out of my comfort zone. Even in my recent travels to Heidelberg and Vienna, I was utilizing these tips and I'll keep doing so until perhaps one day, I'm back to my pre-2019 self. And even if it takes a long time to get there, at least I'm challenging myself and going for it.
So if you struggle with panic attacks and anxiety, it'll get better. It's getting better for me with every flight I dare myself to go on. You can do this! Got any tips and tricks of your own? Success stories? I'd love to hear them.
Expect a new post in early December, since I'll be making the most of my time with family and friends, but if you're subscribed to my email list, you may receive a message or two. ;) Feel free to subscribe at the bottom of this page for that bi-weekly email, and as always, I'll see you next time here at Into the Forests I Go - iki pasimatymo - see you soon! Be well!