Flight Anxiety? Me Too

I always loved flying. Taking your seat on a plane, feeling the hum of the engine as you take off, staring out the window at the landscape way below you–it was so cool to me! But one day, all of a sudden, that changed in a major way.

Suddenly, I was gripped by fear. I was having what I now recognize as my first full panic attack, and I was mid-air and had no idea what to do about it.

It started with a pretty significant car accident I’d been involved in back in June 2017. Long story short, I developed a lot of anxiety about being in moving vehicles. I’d feel uneasy, shaky. Like I had no control over what was happening. This was all new to me–I’d never really experienced this kind of anxiety that could physically exert control over your body. I didn’t know what to call it or what to do about it. Not too long after that, I had my first flight since the car accident. Everything seemed pretty normal right up until we were racing down the runway for takeoff. Suddenly, I was gripped by fear. I was having what I now recognize as my first full panic attack, and I was mid-air and had no idea what to do about it.

How can I describe this–it sort of felt like my body was separating itself from my mind. In my head, I knew everything was fine: the plane was flying smoothly, I wasn’t in any pain, no one was attacking me. Everything was as it should’ve been. My body just didn’t believe that. My breaths were quick and heavy, my heart was pounding, my limbs were shaking, and my hands were sweating like crazy. As much as I was telling myself, “You’re fine, just relax. Nothing’s wrong,” I couldn’t regain control. And all of this was happening silently–the person next to me didn’t realize what was going on with me. I got off that plane with a brand new fear of flying.

After that experience, I realized I had two options: 1) I find a way to address this problem and get it under control, or 2) no more flying. Option 2 was immediately out. Bring on the therapist and meditation! I started talking to a therapist, and while we talked about other things as well, talking about the panic and anxiety I’d been experiencing wound up being good for me. Just talking about it out loud to another person was helpful, especially because my therapist was able to help me understand it better and develop new ways to think about it.

The meditation was super helpful. I started using apps like Insight Timer and Headspace. Both are really good, but a lot of Insight Timer’s stuff is free (and if it’s free, it’s for me!). Meditation taught me about presence, awareness, and focus in mind and body. I started meditating before flights, on flights, on my couch, before bed, watching tv, walking to the store. The more I did it, the easier it became. It’s something you kind of have to work at. And slowly but surely, my fear of flying started to shrink, which is great because I was still flying throughout this process. 

I’m telling this story for a couple reasons. First, I personally know people who are afraid of flying, and I know there are many more whose travel dreams are stifled because of that fear. For those of you who fall into that category, just know you don’t have to kill your fear in order to manage and control it. You can conquer that anxiety by developing ways to relegate it to the back seat of the car instead of the driver’s seat. Succeeding at that is possible.

Second, I want to see mental health be more of a conversation in the black community, so I wanted to share my experience with mental health challenges in hopes of humanizing the topic. Yes, therapy and meditation are for us, too! I recognize that there are barriers to accessing certain services, but I think it’s a good thing to tap into our mental and emotional health. Go see a therapist if you can. I mean that in the most sincere and non facetious way.

To be clear, I’m not “cured” of flight anxiety. I still feel it, but I have tools to help me manage it now, including drawing. When I feel it creeping up, I know what to do to help mitigate it, even if only a little, and I’m super grateful for that. I like flying again.

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