Travel

My Fear of Flying

I’ve not always been scared of flying. If I ever do CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) I bet they would trace my fear back to when I was 18 and travelling around Brazil with my then boyfriend. We took an internal flight and the plane was so shaky and at one point it felt like it dropped so far and I freaked out and started crying. I don’t have any memories of feeling scared on planes before that.

I should mention that I’m specifically scared of turbulence. I don’t feel scared at airports, I don’t feel scared during take off or landing, I don’t feel scared on a smooth plane but if there’s turbulence I get panicky. My brain tricks me into thinking this is the end and I’m about to die in a horrific plane crash and my body gets sweaty, my heart starts racing, I can’t breath, sometimes I start crying. I’m not entirely sure but I think what I experience is similar to a panic or anxiety attack. And I don’t like it.

It’s not too severe that it stops me from travelling (thank god) but I do travel a lot and so it happensย a lot and it’s scary and tiring and I just want to be normal. I’ve had strangers hold my hands on planes before. On an empty flight once I lay down across three seats at the back of the plane sobbing and saying the words the flight attendant said to me in my head over and over again: “it’s perfectly safe”. That was a definite low point.

My fear has gotten worse and worse, I think partly because I started talking about it and then started expecting myself to get panicky and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But whatever reason I have this fear and whatever reason it’s not going away and it’s getting worse, I recently decided that I couldn’t handle the feeling anymore and I went to my doctors to get help.

I explained to my doctor about how I felt during turbulence and that because I travel a lot for my job it was not an ideal situation. They prescribed me some Diazepam (Valium) which is a strong AF sedative. This was to help the symptoms when I’m flying but then I was also referred to CBT. I answered some questions on the phone but they told me I was not eligible for CBT because my fear of flying was very specific and it wasn’t actually stopping me from flying or something. But they recommended a fear of flying course that’s offered by airlines.

I’m very lucky that I could afford to do this one-day course because damn it was pricey. But I’m very grateful I went on it. There was a pilot who gave us a ‘How Planes Work 101’ class which was extremely useful! Did you know turbulence is 100% safe!? (I always thought turbulence was like condoms and only like 98% safe but no! I am definitely more likely to get pregnant than die in a plane crash. Good to know). Also, did you know that planes only actually need one engine, the other is just there for uber extra safety!? And did you know that when a plane is descending it’s actually gliding!? What the…!? I am a strong believer in knowledge is power and all this information I learnt definitely helped me take some power back from my fear.

We also did a flight. An actual flight. From London Gatwick to London Gatwick. We just circled around in the air a bit with someone talking us through everything that was happening to the plane at each moment. Very cool. And there was also a therapist there who taught us different exercises we can do in order to relax us if we start feeling scared or anxious which I use every time I’m flying now. Not sure if they actually help but they’re definitely a good distraction!

Even though I learnt so much on this course and it’s helped me rationalise my fear somewhat it hasn’t stopped the panic attacks. I have all these tools now from my knowledge of planes, my relaxation exercises, mindfulness, the diazepam (and alcohol served on planes) and they all help in their little ways but if it’s a really bumpy ride none of these things will stop my body from freaking out. And by the way, I don’t take Diazepam on every flight – usually just long haul overnight flights so I can sleep too (the day time ones I just get drunk). I AM A ROLE MODEL.

Anyway, I’m working on it and I just thought I’d share my progress with you guys. I hope this helps anyone maybe going through a similar thing or if you know things that have worked for you I’d love to know them so please write them in the comments!

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12 Comments

  1. I’m not sure why but I always feel obliged to call you ‘WITTON!’
    Just wanted to comment to tell you to keep up the great work and that you never fail to put a smile on mine and many others faces.

    Thank you!

  2. Hi Hannah,

    This is classic phobia behaviour, there is actually a fairly simple process to overcome this kind of thing…

    Luckily it starts with a lot of what have already been through, which is an understanding of why we develop a phobia in the first place.

    Then we can start using a number of techniques to change the way your brain is reacting to the fear.

    I used to have a phobia of talking to girls, anyone who knows me now would be surprised by that, as I have no trouble at all now!

    For me the solution was NLP (time line therapy on particular) with a bit of CBT, backed up with practical experience (practice) and a touch of hypnosis!

    That’s why I am now a qualified NLP practitioner, as a direct result of my own personal recovery from depression, anxiety and my stress (phobia) about talking to girls!

    ๐Ÿ˜€

    PS happy to help you for free, if you want to blog about it!! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. I’m glad to hear you’ve received some useful help on how to deal with your fear of flying! I have suffered from panic attacks from time to time over the years; most recently I had several last year. I saw a therapist about them, and she gave me some breathing exercises that helped. A big part of freaking out for me was feeling like I couldn’t breathe, so the breathing exercises helped me the most.

    If you can pinpoint what your body is doing when you panic while flying and address that reaction specifically (like you feel your body shaking, or you can’t catch your breath, or you feel dizzy… whatever alerts you physically that something is wrong), it can help you to stop the panic before it stops. You can say Okay, I’m feeling dizzy. How do I combat dizziness? Put your head between your legs (get your head lower than your center of gravity) and wait for the dizziness to pass. Because you address the physical reaction triggering your panic, you stop yourself from spiraling into a full-blown panic attack. In my case, I stop myself before I hyperventilate, which causes me to lose it.

    I also had specific thoughts that could upset me and trigger my panic attacks, so I learned to stop thinking that way. I typically deal with problems by avoiding them. So when something would happen that I couldn’t get away from, I’d feel trapped, and those thoughts that I couldn’t escape would escalate into breathing problems, and that would then trigger panic. So stopping those thoughts stopped the whole process. The help you got learning that turbulence isn’t dangerous the way you imagined it to be will help you stop your thought processes that send you spiraling towards panic. You know it’s safe, so all those thoughts that follow from that misunderstanding can be argued against now. Like me, some of your reaction may be because you feel trapped when the turbulence happens (you’re on a plane and there’s no way to escape it), so in the classic fight-or-flight response, you’re trying to flee. Switch to fighting instead. Fight the panic, fight the thoughts you’re having, and fight to maintain your self-control. Get angry if necessary; it helps! It’s more empowering to feel angry about a bad situation than helpless and scared. Take a stress ball with you and squeeze it as hard as you can, and take your anger out on it. While it won’t change your situation, it will make you feel better about what’s happening.

    I hope this helps! Congrats on taking more control of your fear of flying! : )

  4. It sounds more like you have a fear of death.
    Try telling that to your CBT counsellor.

    I think it’s stupid that you weren’t eligible.
    I have the same thoughts, but it doesn’t cause me a panic attack because I’m not afraid of dying. Or I don’t have [all] the same thoughts as you. You need to discover these thoughts and change them. That’s what CBT is for (UGH).

    Ok, bye. Thanks for reading.
    If you need some help on your fear of death, I can help…

  5. Think of it like this: how many times have you been afraid of turbulence? Every time since you were 18. How many times have you made it safely and had a good time when you got to your destination? Every time! Each time you were so sure of your fear, but it didn’t come to pass. So what makes you think that any other time is going to be different? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Hi Hannah, I’m glad you’ve received some help (though shame about not being allowed to take CBT), and I hope things continue to improve for you!

    I have also recently developed a fear of flying. I’m 19 now, and before February I’d never really had that much of a fear of it. I’d occasionally get a little bit worried, but I would get over it during the flight. Unlike you, however, it’s a fear of the entire experience for me, not just turbulence. I now get nervous in the airport, at take-off, throughout the flight, and during landing too.

    I’m not entirely sure why it came about, but I guess it’s because February was the first time I’d flown without my parents coming too. I booked a trip to Bucharest in March too, but ended up bailing because I was so worried about the flight (that would have been my first flight alone). It’s a very irritating phobia to develop because I want to travel more, and I’m severely limited if I’m going to spend entire flights worrying, especially flights outside of Europe.

    So yeah, I probably ought to do something about it too.

  7. Hannah, meds will not hold up as the answer. They MAY help a bit when you first use them, but each time you use them, they do less until they don’t help at all.

    CBT is of limited effectiveness. I tried for years to get CBT to work, but it never was adequate. But while doing so, I stumbled on a method that does work. Please sample my book on this at http://a.co/0n0P5v2

    It was chosen Amazon Editors 2014 Favorite Book. Read the reviews and you’ll see why.

    Also, get the free app at http://www.fearofflying.com that measures turbulence and proves it is not a threat to the plane.

  8. I know a lot of people who have a fear of flying and a lot of the time I just cannot understand why because to me it’s the most fun way of going travelling in the world. It’s such an adventure and so unique an experience. It feels special and has a sense of occasion which means you’re going somewhere great and you’re gonna have a good time. I also love airplane food so I may be bonkers.

    That being said I can understand why you would be scared given the experience you went through and I definitely identify with the whole self fulfilling prophecy thing where you make yourself worse by thinking of your fear, I get that with trips to the dentist and public speaking and job interviews etc.. If your course doesn’t help you I have heard of people being hypnotised to help with fear of flying so maybe that is an option for you.

  9. Iโ€™m extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the
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  10. I can’t believe you just literally described what I feel every time I fly. The fear of turbulence is something I have been struggling with for a long time. Sometimes, people don’t even believe me when I tell them I get scared on planes because they only experience me on a quiet flight. I’m perfectly fine on those. But whenever there’s turbulence, there’s nothing that can distract me from it. I can’t even watch movies. All I do is crawl up in my seat, head between knees, classical fetus position. I don’t know why it helps, but it does, a little.

    Also, listening to music helps me. I have realised that all the noises and sounds of the airplane make me very anxious. During turbulences, I get scared by every crack or bumpy noise. So, loud music in my ears help.

    I’ve tried some calming meds before. It felt very weird. Almost as though my body knew that it was scared but it didn’t get through to my brain. Have you experienced that?

    Thank you for sharing Hannah. The part where you talk about how safe turbulences are already make me feel a bit calmer.
    I love reading your blog ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Great website you have here but I was curious if you knew of any forums
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