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Fear of flying

I wanted to use the opportunity of the World’s Mental Health Day to share a bit about what has been my fear of flying over the years and the techniques I have used to be able to fly. It’s a bit comical in one way since I am an aviation fan and particularly I have a passion towards the Concorde, the flying duchess.

I fly quite a lot, my lifestyle over the years, with living in Asia, in Germany, in Poland and in France made me travel by plane quite a lot. Yet, I have been suffering from the fear of flying since a flight I had when I was 13yo where I had my first even panic attack on a place. I still remember this event as if it was yesterday. I would say that before this one flight, I was innocent enough to not be stressed about the idea of flying and that I was always so excited to take the plane to go somewhere.
There has even been some years, where I would find the best reasons of the World to not take the place or avoid it, even if it meant days of traveling by plane or car. I am the good example of the fact that you can aways overcome this fear and still enjoy flying from time to time.

The origins of my fear

It’s not so clear why this particular flight from Dublin, Ireland to Paris, CDG is for me the starting point of years of problems with flying. I just remember that it was a rather old Aer Lingus Boeing 737 at the time, and that there was a strong kerosene smell inside the cabin from the moment the engines started in Dublin airport. This flight was the return flight after 10 days with my school mates in Ireland, and there was no particular stress or reason while I could be worried about anything. The way to Ireland had been great, and I even have no remembrance whatsoever of the flight to Ireland.

What happened that day of 2004, was that at some point during the flight, I started having an incredibly fast heart rate, starting to have a weird feeling in the face and my hands, like when you can’t feel it anymore and I remember that I had difficulties to breath with a sore throat. At the time I had no idea what was happening to me and the reflex was to ask for help. And I remember that, they even asked me if I was afraid of flying, and I do remember saying that it never happened to me before. I just remember that the crew was trying to help me with bringing in water and food but nothing would make me feel better that day. We ended up the flight by landing pretty fast in CDG, probably with a special clearance because of my state at this point, and I was among the first one out of the plane, with the emergency services even giving me oxygen outside of the plane.

I have never told that story before, I am not ashamed I made a plane land in probably a sort of emergency, I am more thinking about the fact I did not know what was going on and that from that day, it has always been difficult to fly.

Avoiding flying or suffering

For years, I kind of felt powerless against this fear I was having. The best answer my parents would give me at the time, was either mocking that one event that happened, saying it was in my head and ridiculous; or telling me that it’s nothing and that I should fly again. I was during the next 4 years, doing everything I could to never have to fly, and I remember that every flight was a difficult challenge.

The worst has always been take off, I think there a few things that people who have the same fear has me have during this phase, I will try to list them as best as possible :

  • the fact that you are in an enclosed space, with not possibility to open a window or a door
  • the fact that it’s pressurized and recycled air, often going through the engine and therefore there is often a smell of kerosene in the air at engine start
  • the fact that you have no control over what’s happening
  • the fact that you accelerate brutally to take-off
  • the sensation of lifting from the ground, with the G effect
  • a noisy cabin, and I mean the engines and the flow of air not the passengers
  • the fact that you are among a large group of strangers

On a physical stand point, the symptoms I mostly have are a very fast heart rate, some stranger feeling in the extremities, I feel agitated and I am sweating so much. Then I would have trouble to regulate my breathing, and would be extra sensitive, or feeling in an extreme way the changes of state, I mean by that the take off lift itself and would over interpreting any movement of the plane. What I mean by fast heart rate is in the range of 160-180 BPM with no reasons.

Technics and ways I found useful

I am still quite a lot today, and the last flight I took was just a week ago. I am the best example of the fact that you can find ways to still fly and make it an almost seamless experience.

The ideal situation for flying is to fly in the morning, with day light because night flights are in my opinion even more stressful. I say in the morning, because I noticed that when I fly later, first of all flights tends to be late and it’s adding some unnecessary extra-stress, and second of all, feeling already tired before flying doesn’t help at all with being more zen. The worst is to fly like after a big day at work, on an evening where it’s already dark outside.

I would recommend to have some airports rituals, I personally arrive at the airport pretty early so that I can just take it slow to cross security, go to check-in and just like enjoy some time walking around before boarding the airplane. I find it always interesting to walk a bit around in detax zone and eat something or buy some (overly expensive) stuff.
Some of my “rituals” include, and don’t laugh, spending some time in the bathroom like if it was home, buying a bottle of water (after you had to trash the one you had during security check) and eating a little bit. The reason for that is that I am totally unable to eat in planes, even during very long flights. Another thing is to go alone to the airport, I always find it more difficult and even tragic to say goodbye to your loved one in the airport.

It’s not ideal but I would often take a pill 10 minutes before boarding to make sure that I would be relaxed enough during the flight. Over the last 30 flights, I would say I took something 80% of the time, the best is by far Xanax because it works pretty fast and that it’s not giving you too crazy headaches the day after, the bad side of it is that you can’t drink alcohol (and it’s good in a way, because it often makes it worst on planes), and that you won’t be able to think much the next 8 hours or so. This allows me to be quite relaxed before boarding and makes it just a much easier and enjoyable experience overall, a bit like if you were flying into the cabin…

But it’s not always working as well as I would, and sometimes depending on my fatigue, it would not have the desired effect. I tried over the years a bunch of techniques to make you feel better during take off or the flight when you start panicking. I will try to list them and explain it as clearly as possible :

One thing that in my opinion is the key goal here, is to distract your brain & mind from the situation and this is not easy but it is doable.

  • thinking and representing yourself of a multi-colored donkey ; this technic might sound stupid to you but this was given to me by a famous practitioner in Paris and had proofed it’s way
  • writing about things that you feel and that are happening , putting them on paper or your phone/tablet helps seeing that the situation is not that bad
  • fully untie and retie your shoelaces, it’s a long task which will make you concentrate on something very basic and it really a nice technic.
  • listening to a podcast, to zen music or sometimes even to brutal music with headphones / the best IMO is to wear earplugs and add headphones over them or have a very good noise cancelling headphone
  • look at the seat in front of you and do a breathing exercice following with your eyes the sides of the seat
  • walk to the most distant bathroom and make sure to clean your hands with water and soap there
  • chose a seat with extra space, in the middle or front of the plane to reduce noise and the feeling of the lift (it’s a lot noisier in the rear than at the front)
  • order a coffee and another drink and take your time adding a little milk
  • watch a movie you like on your tablet
  • keep your seatbelt fastened
  • wear sunglasses the whole way, panic makes light annoying and it will help you sleep, best is to even have a sleeping mask
  • if you have air vents over your head I would recommend having a big flow of cold air toward your face

I tried to be as exhaustive as possible but these are the things I would do in most flights, no matter how long they are.

Another thing, I have done over the year is taking flight lessons, I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of planes and also spend time flying on or even in simulators. I guess I can’t control what going on, but knowing what might be happening helps me to realize that it’s alright. The bad side is that I can tell when it’s gonna be tough as well.

Living with it, but not getting rid of it

I have been in trouble to fly since 2004, so it has been for the last 18 years. I had moments where it was easier to fly than over ones, I am not that sure why but I would say that the more you fly regularly the easier it is, like you get use to the sensations, the length etc..

I am not sure I will ever overcome this fear, but in the end it works for me. I have enough flight hours to figure out most of the situations, and moments I would feel overwhelmed are pretty rare. On my last flight, I was really stressed and yet I still managed to calm myself during the ascent, by managing to write down some thoughts about what was going on, and this article today is part of the paper I started to write during that one last take-off!

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