That last bit was a surprise, and I must admit that it made a potentially horrendous anxiety-provoking flight both comfortable and pleasant... and, I dare say, almost enjoyable.
Well over a decade ago, I suffered a full-blown panic attack on a flight somewhere a mile high between Arizona and Florida. I was traveling with a friend to Miami for a cruise to the Bahamas. We were seniors at the University of Arizona, both engaged, and we were heading to the aqua waters for a final (and, sadly, my first) "girl trip" before both of us walked down the aisle.
I'm not sure what triggered the racing heart, the ants crawling up my spine and the back of my neck, my chest squeezing with pain, and the horrible shaking that I tried to suppress as to not draw attention to myself, but once it started it seemed to open the floodgates for mid-flight anxiety attacks thereafter.
Logically, I am not afraid to fly. I know it's safe, and about half the time I can get through a flight with just a touch of nervous energy that eventually passes once I get used to being up in the air. Unfortunately, though, a very primitive-seeming part of my brain occasionally gets triggered for no apparent reason, and I suddenly feel trapped in a claustrophobic metal tube, victim to the bumping turbulence and weird pressure changes.
When I flew home from Arizona a couple weeks ago after the Tucson Half Marathon, I started feeling the anxiety creep up about ten minutes after takeoff. The flight was somewhat smooth, but I suddenly felt like I couldn't breathe. I swallowed my pride and did the one thing I knew could help: I looked at the cute, dark-eyed young guy next to me wearing a black cloth face mask and earbuds, cleared my throat, and asked, "Would you mind talking to me? I'm a bit of a nervous flier and it would really help distract me if you wouldn't mind chatting for a little while."
He took off his face mask, told me he didn't mind at all, and asked what bothered me about flying. More than three hours later full of chatter and laughter about music, running, my kids, and ice cream, I thanked him for humoring the weird stranger suffering from anxiety, and he thanked me for not being too terrified of the scary-looking face mask to initiate a conversation. I didn't ask his name, but people like him restore my faith in humanity just when I feel like I'm about to lose myself to a three-hour panic attack that I may or may not recover from gracefully. And to clarify about the face mask... he was a frequent flyer who found wearing the mask helped him stay healthy during his travels.
I have had many discussions with my therapist about how to cure my flight anxiety, and I'd like to share a list of things that usually help me cope because watching a movie, reading a good book, and listening to my favorite tunes don't always do the trick. They don't all work every time, and nothing seems to cure the terror when we hit a bout of particularly bad turbulence (except for maybe the last thing on the list), but this bag of tricks works quite well most of the time.
- Make your neighbor a flight buddy, even if they're wearing a face mask. Seriously, a good conversation with a stranger is an excellent distraction.
- Take a beta-blocker. While I do not take any medications on a regular basis, I do sometimes take a low-dose of Propranolol to keep my heart rate from getting out of control when I fly. Heart palpitations cause increased panic for me, so my doctor recommended that I pop a pill one hour before I fly. It does keep my heart rate from going crazy when I take it, and that helps me feel calm.
- Pull out a coloring book and colored pencils. Yeah, I know it sounds a little weird, and I definitely get a few curious glances from people when I whip out my Prismacolors, but it's quite soothing and meditative and can really ease anxiety.
- Pretend you do this all the time and that you're completely at ease with flying. When you hear a noise, explain to yourself with snobbish delight exactly what that sound is. Imagine yourself laughing with the pilots in the cockpit, completely at ease with being 30,000 feet above the ground. Turbulence doesn't bother you because you know it's just the aircraft responding to wind or the hot air rising from the desert. You are too busy reading your Runner's World magazine and drinking your coffee to be concerned about anything around you. If I'm having a really good flying day, I can fake it so well that I actually believe myself.
- Meditate. Not just during the flight, but regularly and definitely before the flight. Meditation decreases anxiety and is an extremely powerful method for replacing fear with peace.
- Read "Soar - The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying" and practice the methods described. I'm only halfway through the book, but I wish I'd found it sooner. The Strengthening Exercise explained in the book really helps, and I only just began learning it. I feel cautiously optimistic that once I have the chance to practice the method in its entirety there is a possibility that my flight anxiety will become a rare occurrence.
- Upgrade to first class. I'm not a frequent first-class flyer. It's expensive, and let's be honest, I'd rather spend the money on INKnBURN and good food. However, in addition to the unexpected upgrade yesterday, I did upgrade one time earlier this year as I checked into my flight just after I had a root canal. My face was swollen and my ear was hurting, and I was so stinking miserable I wanted to cry when I realized I was about to spend three hours on a plane the next day. It didn't cost that much to upgrade, so I treated myself. It was so worth it. The seat was huge and comfortable, which kept the claustrophobia away, the food was actually good, and I probably went through an entire bottle of wine because the flight attendant just kept refilling my glass. I didn't have even a touch of anxiety, even during the few bumpy parts.
- When all else fails, drink wine. I know it's not recommended, but darn it, it works. I try not to use alcohol too often for this purpose, but it has the ability to turn a miserable several hours into something fun, especially if you're watching a comedy and squeezing your husband's hand so hard your fingers are turning white.
If you have any cures for flight anxiety I haven't mentioned, I'd love to hear them.