“Do you want the window seat?”
“No, that’s OK – I’m fine in the middle seat,” I say, knowing that I’m simply avoiding the view.
“It’s OK, my husband is right there,” my row-mate said, gesturing to the man with the aisle seat.
Politeness takes over. “Oh, sure. Thanks so much,” I say, stepping over her to take my new seat, already feeling a rapid thud in my chest.
Decades ago, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer with certainty. “A pilot,” I’d quickly say. “I’m going to go to the Air Force Academy.”
But as I sit next to the window with my shade drawn, opening it only to look out at the scenery when I feel a bump, I’m a far cry from that fearless, young prospective pilot.
NBC News describes the behaviors of a fearful flier this way: “wide-eyes, clenched fists, profuse sweating, and rocking motions are among its symptoms.” Sounds about right.
What happened between my childhood and my adulthood to cause the surge of adrenaline I feel from #wheelsup to #wheelsdown?
According to Psych Central “the causes of a fear of flying are disputed,” but “the way a person cognitively processes threatening stimuli may help determine whether a flight phobia develops. For example, someone may experience turbulence, loud noises and at times pain (due to pressure changes) during a flight. All of these factors may act as stimuli that elicit anxiety and promote association of other aspects of flying with fear.”
A few turbulent flights on small planes, I must admit, chipped away at my inner Amelia Earhart, leaving me a white-knuckled version of myself. The stress of flying, I’m convinced, is going to give me a set of deep wrinkles. As I caught myself massaging my forehead to rub the worry out of my brow, I calculated the cost of Botox and made a mental note to move some funds around and make an appointment.
According to the Anxiety Coach, when a person experiences those sights, sounds and feelings, they may process fear as danger, which it calls the “anxiety trick.” You “come to believe that your fear is an accurate sign of danger. You get tricked by the assumption, ‘If I feel afraid, then I’m in danger.’”
So other than repeating the sentence, “The pilot is knowledgable and flying is very safe,” how does one overcome such a fear?
Psych central goes on to recommend treatment from a trained professional. I can get down with therapy, but this is fear in real time. As I sit on an airplane, I can’t very well get therapy. Has anyone ever shouted, “Is there a therapist on the airplane?”
I’ll do the next best thing: use the in-flight Wi-Fi to search for a quick-hit solution to my problem.
In a Travel section piece in the Washington Post, I found a similarly afflicted writer in Paul Abercrombie who “loves to travel, but hates to fly.” He set out to conquer his fear after a “sweat soaked” and fearful experience on a flight. I get you, Paul.
He sought the help of professionals, while I generally just listen to the electronic tones of the repetitive deep sleep track on my favorite meditation app, Omvana. Sadly the carry on limit that I’m constantly trying to skirt caught up with me as my suitcase, which now holds my purse, is eight rows back in the overhead bin where I smooshed all of my worldly belongings. The purse: a third personal item when counted alongside my backpack and my suitcase. Within the third bag are the headphones that I use to sooth my mind back into a holding pattern of, “this is awesome and I love to fly.”
Abercrombie found solace in another app: VALK. VALK coaches fearful fliers through difficult flying moments, for example, an unprecedented takeoff move that my pilot employed during which it sounded as though the engines were powered down. I found myself clutching my heart as my wide-eyes darted about the cabin.
Cool-flyer cover: blown.
With the app, I could have accessed tools like relaxation techniques, facts about flying and a “panic button” that a very fearful flier can push when he or she is having a very fearful flying moment to receive a soothing message from a therapist.
But truly, the one thing that did calm my nerves was starting the research that unfolded into this post. Although my Google queries of “what causes a fear of flying” and “what happens during takeoff” may not have set my aisle-mates’ minds at ease, understanding what I was experiencing started to take the blood out of my cheeks, allowing me to glance down and enjoy the view of the red rocks and snow-capped mountains below.
If you experience your own mile-high jitters, you can find resources to conquer this fear from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.