Turbulent Thinking: facing up to a fear of flying

I haven’t always been afraid of flying. On my first international flight – to Greece, at 16 years old – I slept. I walked up and down the aisles as the plane cruised at 30,000 feet. I looked out the windows in wonder at continents far below.

Travelling has since become a huge part of my life. New Zealand, Borneo, Hong Kong. I became an expat in my early twenties, about six years ago. I taught English in South Korea, and I now live and work in Cambodia. For many of those years I was a calm flyer. I slept, I read. I even wrote on planes, late into the night, my tray-table pulled out, my little overhead light glowing.

I was about twenty-six when my feelings about flying started to change. It was on a completely uneventful flight from Phnom Penh to Shanghai. I was excited before leaving the apartment, and then slightly nervous at the airport. Midflight my fear was a niggling, back-of-the-mind worm. Not panic, but certainly stressful. I told my boyfriend that I was afraid. He said he thought it would be interesting to die in a plane crash (something about the chemicals your brain would release as the plane fell). Needless to say, that wasn’t helpful.

I’ve wondered a lot about why this fear has developed. It could be getting older, and becoming more aware of my mortality. It could be happiness – being in a stable relationship, more at ease with myself and my work, more to lose. It could be genetic – my Mum is also scared of flying, and my Dad is prone to claustrophobia (though he worked most of his life for the airlines, and even flew light aircraft himself). It could be thinking too much. It could be a desire for control – a reluctance to trust other people with my life.

It’s probably a combination of all of these things. Whatever the cause, the effect is that now flying is no longer exciting, or wonderful. It is something to avoid, something that fills me with dread. The joy of a holiday, or of going home to see my family, is eclipsed by having to get on a plane.

Now when I fly it goes like this: The night before I barely sleep. The morning of the flight I take a Valium, just to get me to the airport. Waiting to board I take another. While in-flight, another. My bowels clench up, my teeth grit, I’m a ball of anxiety and flight (ha ha) or fight hormones. My body is so tense that the Valium doesn’t take effect until I’m calm again, off the plane, safe on the other side (where I’m finally reduced to a nauseous, drowsy mess).

Midflight is the worst for me. I’m suspicious of the seeming tranquility, the mundane nature of food service and films. I’m waiting for us to crash at any moment; for someone to jump up with a weapon, or for a system to malfunction. I watch sitcom after sitcom, trying to pass the flight in thirty minute increments, trying to distract myself with quick scene changes and canned laughter and nothing too serious.

Right now I’m getting ready to fly home to Australia in early August. It’s the first overseas trip I’ve had to take since flight 370 went missing, and my fear of flying is now worse than it’s ever been. In the weeks following 370 I couldn’t imagine myself even going to an airport, let alone getting on a plane. I had dreams about preparing to board and then going to the ticket counter and handing back my boarding pass.

At this point I realised that my fear was getting out of control and if I wanted to keep travelling and living overseas I would have to do something about it. So I started Googling. I was surprised (and strangely relieved) to discover so many websites dedicated to helping people with their fear of flying. The most useful (for me) has been Captain Keith Godfrey’s website, flyingwithoutfear.com.

Captain Keith is a retired commercial pilot (he spent 27 years with British Airways) who now helps people with their fear of flying. He runs courses and has published a book (also titled Flying without Fear), but everything on his website is free. And there is a lot on his website.

Just reading the information on the site helped me begin to feel calmer. Below are some of the things I have found the most useful:

– Turbulence is uncomfortable, but not dangerous. It is not harder to fly a plane during turbulence.

– What’s abnormal, unusual, or unexpected to you is normal to the pilots and crew; there is nothing you can think of that hasn’t been thought of already.

– Flying is safe because of the laws of physics and gravity.

– An aircraft will glide if the engines stop. It will not fall out of the sky.

– Being struck by lightning will not hurt the plane.

– If your plane is late it doesn’t mean something’s wrong.

– Planes don’t care if they are flying in moving air or not, just like boats don’t care if water is moving or still.

– Bad weather has less influence on a plane than on road traffic.

My fear of flying makes me superstitious. Even as I write this I worry that it will contribute to my demise in a plane crash. I imagine people visiting this blog afterwards and saying “She knew; she had an inkling”. I do know – logically, rationally – that writing this or not has no bearing on whether my plane will fall from the sky. But this is the nature of phobias (or intense fears): they are not usually rational, so it is difficult to speak to them rationally. They refuse to be reasoned with.

I realise that overcoming this fear is going to take time, and won’t be as simple as memorising facts. I will need to use this information to change my way of thinking; to change my associations with flying to reasonable rather than fearful ones. It’s a kind of mindfulness, a practice almost like meditation. It’s work – changing your brain. When I think of flying my first thoughts are of fear and crashes and flight 370. I need to counter this with thoughts of safety, and the normalcy of noises, and how many planes are in the air all the time. I need to remember that even if the plane does crash worrying about it beforehand will not change anything (apart from making me uncomfortable for longer). My thoughts do not affect how an aircraft behaves; my thoughts only affect me (and, of course, the people around me).

On my next flight I will be a little calmer. A new way of thinking about flying (plus magazines, a tablet loaded up with Orange is the New Black, Valium, and sleeping pills) should do the trick. Hopefully one day I will get to a point where I won’t need any of these crutches. A point where I’ll be able to sleep and walk up and down the aisles. Where I’ll be able to sit and write, and look out the window without fear and with wonder, like I did when I was sixteen.

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