How many people here are terrified of flying, raise your hands! (My hand shoots into the air!) Now, granted, I’m not afraid of the stuff that normal people are afraid of. I trust the plane, I trust the pilot, I’m not afraid of crashing, or of turbulence, or of the whole thing spontaneously combusting in mid-air… Whoops, probably scared some of you more there… sorry… Anyways, I’m not afraid of crashes. I’m afraid of being stuck inside a big flying cylinder with 200 people, and having an unexpected panic attack. Why? Because honestly? People judge. I don’t care what you say, when I’m next to a stranger on an airplane, and I’m sitting there sweating, and shaking, and freaking out, they look at me and 9 time out of 10, they’re thinking “What the heck is wrong with this woman!?!”
So when I moved to Tennessee and realized I would be flying a lot more than once every couple of years, and often by myself, I went into panic mode. We are talking, full on, called my mom, sitting on the bathroom floor, wailing, Panic. But then my always helpful good friend and counselor, Nancy Olsen, got ahold of me. See, the cool thing about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, (The type of therapy I’m in) is that it is based on evidence and training. So off on a grand adventure I went!
In counseling, Nancy and I came up with a plan for when I would fly. We created back-up plans to my back-up plans, and practiced seeing tiny improvements as successes. And that’s the important part. We decided that each time, I would set a small goal, and if I accomplished that goal, I would choose to see the whole trip as a success. To help me with these successes, I needed a few things; Zipper, Dramamine, prescription anti-anxiety meds, and my trusty flying backpack kit.
First, Zipper. Having Zipper flying with me gives me something to focus on besides my anxiety. I have to focus on taking care of him, and making sure his needs are met. I also have to make sure that I’m protecting him from evil rolling suitcases and those little club car things that race around everywhere in the terminal. Zipper is also trained to help me in a panic attack, by getting on my lap and laying on my chest. His weight is calming and helps me come down from an attack much faster. Also, if I get stranded somewhere, I don’t panic because I’m alone, since I have Zipper with me. Trust me, he’s worth his weight in Gold during layovers and delays.
Second, Meds. Now, I wrote a piece a few months back talking about medication, and how I’m not a huge fan, but I’m taking it now to help me through a rough patch in my life. Well, I consider planes to be an exception to the rule. Whatever will help me get through a plane ride without and anxiety attack is something to use. I don’t drink alcohol so meds are the next best thing. Obviously, all of these medications have been approved by my doctor, and you should always talk to a doctor before taking new medications. I get motion sick on top of having anxiety, so I usually take one dramamine about an hour before my flight is scheduled to depart. Then I have my prescription on hand to take if I feel an attack starting to come on.
Third, My trusty flying backpack kit. What is in my flying backpack kit you may ask? All of the distraction and entertainment I could ask for. Movies and puzzle games downloaded onto my ipad, actual physical puzzle games, headphones, a good book, a journal and pen, my favorite stuffed animal, and usually some kind of bready, salty, snack. This way no matter what, I have something fun to do.
Which leads me to the final piece of my plan. I get to do things on the plane that I never allow myself to do on the ground. I have one particular jigsaw puzzle game that I LOVE. It’s called Magic Puzzles and its soooo addicting. But to help myself look forward to flying, I’m only allowed to play that game when I’m on the plane. This is a great mind trick to play with yourself and I truly recommend it!
The first task that I had to complete was to get myself into the airport and onto a plane where I could practice. I highly recommend avoiding practicing completely by yourself like I did, but I was kind of forced into a situation where I had to fly alone on my first big trip. I was headed back to Tennessee, by myself. I got to the airport early, so that I could make sure nothing would go wrong enough to prevent me from boarding. I was determined to make this work, so into the airport I walked, with my head held high and Zipper prancing along beside me, like we owned the place. I truly believe confidence is everything, and if I believe I can do it, then I can.
I’m not going to say that it was easy, in fact my first solo trip was interrupted partway by an unexpected 13 hour layover in San Francisco, by myself, with no one to help me stay sane, so it was FAR FROM EASY. But I like to say that even though I cried my way through almost the whole 24 hours, it was a success. Why? Because I accomplished my small goal, of “Getting on the Plane.” Once I did that, it didn’t matter because I had chosen to set that goal as my measure for success. I also learned so much about Flying and airports on that trip that I didn’t know before. For example, don’t run for a flight if you only have 5 minutes, because the boarding doors will be closed already. Just find a ticket counter and have someone help you book a new flight.
I’m also very grateful for the Flight Staff on almost all of my flights. On that first flight, the attendant let me sit with her on her jump seat for most of the flight and talked to me because I was so nervous. They are also very helpful when it comes to getting Zipper where he needs to be and with stowing my luggage. They fly for a living, so if you are nervous, TELL THEM. They are usually really good about checking in with you and making sure you’re doing okay.
Finally, Practice makes perfect. Try to go on as many flights as you can, and see some incredible new places. Exposure therapy truly works, and the more you expose yourself to things that make you uncomfortable, the more you will find that they don’t scare you as much anymore.
I’m still nervous when flying, but I don’t cry as we take off anymore, and once I even fell asleep during the flight! So yay! It’s all about putting in the work and reaping the rewards!