fear of flying

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High Anxiety: How I (Sort Of) Overcame My Fear Of Flying

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Imagine this tense scene at Logan International Airport’s Terminal E earlier this summer:

A woman with two young children rummages through her medication bag while awaiting an overnight flight to Europe. She pulls out a bottle of pills, then grabs her phone to text her therapist:

Woman: How early can I take half a Xanax? Flight at 8:20. Getting shaky.

Therapist’s response: You can take it now. You can do this!!!!

The scene, sadly, is all too real; that frantic woman is me.

I hate flying. Just writing the word ‘flying’ gives me a pang of dread, twinges of imminent diarrhea and the feeling that I might choke on my own fear.

I’m like Woody Allen on the plane in “To Rome With Love,” a death-grip on Judy Davis’ arm when turbulence hits. “I can’t unclench when there’s turbulence,” he says. “I don’t like this, the plane is bumpy, it’s bumpy… I don’t like when the plane does that… I get a bad feeling.”

In my case, to avoid this excruciating feeling, I have cancelled family trips at the last minute, pretended to be ill, and dragged my children on a 30-hour train ride from Boston to Orlando.

This summer, I’d finally had enough of my fear and its invasive grip on my life. But could I overcome it? I honestly wasn’t sure.

(Before I go on, let me say clearly that mine is definitely a “first-world problem.” There’s no poverty, abuse or major life-threatening illness going on here — just a “problem bred of privilege,” as one friend put it. Still, it’s fairly widespread, and worse since 9/11. Though precise prevalence numbers don’t exist, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders says fear of flying is “estimated to affect 25 million adults in the United States and nearly 10–40% of the adults in industrialized countries.” Similarly, a 2007 New York Times report quotes an NIH estimate that about 6.5 percent of Americans fear flying so intensely that it qualifies as a phobia or anxiety disorder.)

woowoowoo/flickr

woowoowoo/flickr

Russian Planes With Duct Tape

It wasn’t always this way for me. As a single, childless reporter, I flew all over: to Africa and Vietnam, to Cuba on a Russian-made plane lined with duct tape and in China on a domestic flight on which the pilot told everyone to move to the left side of the plane for “balance.” I flew in tiny, private planes across Washington state in bad weather, and to Provincetown on a little 9-seater.

Then, while walking to work across the Brooklyn Bridge on September 11, 2001, I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.  A year later, when I was pregnant with my first child, my flying anxiety suddenly took hold.  When the baby was six months old, I rescheduled a family trip abroad to avoid heavy rain. After that, for the next 10 years, I never took a flight more than three hours long.

I said “no” to weddings, work trips and excursions with my husband to romantic locales. I always had a good excuse not to travel, but in reality, avoiding these trips was all about my fear.

Flying Coffins And Familial Anxiety

There are likely genetics at play here: anxiety is a family trait, and several of us have suffered with flying fears. Years ago, a close relative freaked out on a flight from D.C. to San Francisco and, after a scheduled layover in the midwest, refused to get back on the plane. Instead, he took a train home. For a while, my father called planes “flying coffins,” and took a heavy dose of Klonapin, usually prescribed for seizures and panic attacks, before flights. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Reduce Your Anxiety

Exercise for fear of flying? Yes!

I hate flying.

It wasn’t always this way. As a young, single reporter, I flew around Africa, Vietnam, Cuba (on a Russian plane with torn up seats held together with duct tape) and China (once, on a domestic China Air flight, the captain requested that everyone move to the left side of the aircraft to “balance” the plane.)

Then, I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on 9/11. And I had kids.

Suddenly, my flying anxiety soared: I have cancelled flights at the last minute for fear of crashes, talked to various therapists about my problem and for the past three years, stayed off planes altogether.

But this year we decided to go to Puerto Rico for five days — we yearned to be warm, and figured, at least if the plane went down, we’d all die together.

Flying out of town last week turned out to be perfect: a beautiful clear day, and great weather in San Juan. My kids were happy, the trip was just over three hours, and we didn’t hit a bump.

But yesterday, when we were scheduled to return home, great dark storm clouds loomed over the San Juan airport and, as I obsessively checked and rechecked the Boston weather, I saw that snow was falling. The forecast sent my heart racing and a wave of nausea overwhelmed me. I started expressing my fears to my husband as soon as I woke up and looked out the window. He told me to focus on the kids. I started to panic.

But instead, I took a long run on the beach, forcing myself to go further than usual. Then I jumped into the rough surf and swam in the waves until an odd calm took hold and my mood changed. I know I didn’t imagine this transformation. Many studies show that exercise helps to reduce anxiety and depression.

So, while our flight hit a fair amount of turbulence, and my older daughter had a fever and bad cough all the way, and we had to circle around Logan for awhile, I managed to breathe and remain stable.

Running took me out of my fear at the right moment, and at least for one day, my workout was more therapeutic than a dose of Ativan or Xanax, and it helped to get me home.