Travel, airplanes, airports…..my feelings towards these things have changed a lot over the years! Travel has always been an important part of my life. My family went on wonderful vacations and I loved exploring new places in the world! Airplanes and airports were just part of the experience. I don’t think I ever loved that part of travelling but I was okay with it. Then a had a few bad flights – an extremely turbulent landing, a woman throwing up close to me, an upset stomach that kept me in the tiny airport bathroom for most of the long flight back from Europe. None of these were horrific experiences that I couldn’t handle and I’m sure lots of people have had way worse experiences with flying but these experiences were enough to bring up a serious anxiety around flying for me. It didn’t help that all of this happened at the time when I was figuring out my celiac diagnosis and had a very unpredictable GI tract. My fear of flying has never been that fear that the plane is going to fall out of the sky, I feel comfortable with the fact that planes are fairly safe. My fear of flying is the fear of being trapped in the plane when either myself or someone around me is really sick. Fear of flying is extremely common and everybody has their own reasons that they are afraid. And for a lot of people it can be a crippling fear that keeps them from visiting friends and family and experiencing the world. I could see myself going down this path as my anxiety got worse and worse with each flight and I really didn’t want to let that happen. I decided it was time to ask for help. This is the hardest thing to do but it has helped me immensely.
When we feel anxious about something, the common reaction is to become hypervigilant. I check the weather obsessively to see if it will be windy or stormy, I panic at the smallest bumps, I pack pepto bismol, immodium, gravol, homeopathics, etc. in case of any possible illness, I think through every possible scenario that could happen on the plane, I watch everyone around me obsessively to see if anybody looks the least bit ill, I always choose an aisle seat for quick getaways, and I wear headphones the entire flight with music as loud as I can tolerate so I can’t hear anything going on around me. I do all these things to try and avoid the worst-case scenarios. But really it just feeds my anxiety because I can always find things that prove that the worst-case scenarios are possible and that all flights are scary and anxiety provoking.
As I sit at the airport today on my way to Alberta for one of my best friend’s weddings, I realize how much has changed! Don’t get me wrong, I still checked the weather this morning, packed lots of medical supplies, chose an aisle seat, and will likely wear noise-cancelling headphones for most of the flight. BUT I can sit here and focus on writing this blog post instead of eyeing up the other passengers waiting for my flight, I didn’t have a loose bowel movement caused by extreme anxiety this morning, I’m looking forward to studying/relaxing on the plane, and I’m not letting my anxiety cloud my excitement about this trip!!
It has taken me a lot of hard work to get to this point. I’ve been seeing a therapist and doing cognitive behavioural therapy with her. Some of it hasn’t been pleasant at all (i.e. listening to vomiting sounds over and over again until I know I can handle it – called exposure therapy) and sometimes I haven’t been sure if I can ever really get over my fear of flying. But today, I realize it was all worth it. Today, I’m still nervous and I realize I will always have some anxiety about flying but I’ve learned how to deal with it, how to notice it and understand it so that I can label it as anxiety and not get wrapped up in it. Today, I am paying attention to my breath to remind my body it is okay to feel relaxed about flying and there is no need to tense up. Today, I am just so excited about my trip!!!!! And if you have a fear of flying or another fear that is keeping you from doing fun things in your life, I really hope this post gives you some courage to ask for help and know it doesn’t have to be a crippling fear forever!