Getting Help for My Fears About Flying

Getting Help for My Fears About Flying

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It isn't every day that you can say you have lived a life-altering transformative experience. I experienced one last Sunday, and I am finally ready to share my story. This is the story of how I faced flying phobia, or to put it another way, my fear of flying.

I've intentionally waited a few days to write this post. I didn't want my perspective to be skewed by the enormous euphoria of that moment. I wanted to settle, reflect and come down out of the clouds. A fitting analogy for a woman who took huge strides in facing her flying phobia. Indeed, this is my truth: I've been a chronic aerophobic of varying degrees for the past 20 years. Four years ago my fear intensified a lot. It prevented me from boarding an airplane for my best friend's wedding. I hadn't taken a plane trip since, up until my graduation flight this past Sunday. I was part of a two-week clinic I participated in offered by the Fear of Flying Clinic, a non-profit organization in San Mateo, CA, that holds classes at San Francisco International Airport.

Even though I have had a flying phobia throughout the past 20 years, I have still flown, some trips being easier than others. My last flight was a cross-country vacation to New York City in the summer of 2009. Up until the very last minute of arriving at the gate I didn't know if I'd actually muster the courage to board the plane. The Hubs had flown ahead so I was really on my own. I did get on the plane but thinking back, I still don't know how I did it. The flights there and back were equally emotionally difficult and fear inducing. But I just did my usual in-flight routine, sitting in my seat, quietly listening to my music, trying to stay in my mental “happy place” and praying we would arrive safely.

Admitting I needed help wasn't easy

Admitting my fear of flying hasn't been easy for me to talk about. It is easier now that I have been through the class. Mostly because I understand it better and have met others who can relate to my experience. But prior to that, in casual conversations with even my closest friends, I would only refer to myself as a "nervous" flyer, who could "do it" but "didn't like" it. I would significantly downplay and diminish the actual fear and aversion I felt about being on an airplane.

What I felt was shame, not because I care what people think about me-- I've given up those hang-ups long ago. But rather my shame stemmed from embarrassment and frustration about being afraid of something that millions of people do with ease every day. Intellectually I knew my fear was so irrational. I felt paralyzed by my emotions. It was all just so much easier to keep buried. And so I did.

As a fellow passenger you probably wouldn't know I was a fearful flyer. In fact, statistics say that as many as one in eight people have a flying phobia, even though most still fly fairly occasionally. Some seek liquid courage by consuming alcohol prior to boarding. Others take prescription anti-anxiety medication. Many just sit tensely gripping their arm wrests, "white knuckling" their way through a flight. They are silenced by the same shame I described above. Admitting you need help is hard.

So yes, I remained in my own perpetual mental and emotional “no fly zone” until sometime in February of this year. It was when something not actually related to flying that got me to realize I was experiencing an anxiety issue that was spreading beyond a fear of flying.

It was after dinner out one evening in February, however, when we had time after sharing a meal with friends to go and be "spontaneous." In that moment of indecision, I had a thought pattern of irrational fear. I thought maybe there was something wrong with the house and we should just go home. Quickly I realized how irrational I was thinking (there was no proof that anything was wrong with the house) so we stayed out. We saw a movie. I loved it. It was a great night. I share this story only to illustrate how I felt my anxiety was spreading into other areas of my life. And that this was not a good thing.

The other motivating factor was our upcoming trip to Washington D.C. to attend the annual Little People of America conference. Every summer approximately 2,000 Little People gather in a large city somewhere in the country for a week of networking, advocacy and just plain fun. I've been to D.C. years ago and I loved it. In spite of the impending flight, I’ve been looking forward to this trip for at least two years. Having not flown since New York City I knew I had to do something to at least try to get over my fear of flying. Not only for D.C., but also for every other place I want to go. For me, going to D.C. was really just the next step in my recovery.

Enter the Fear of Flying Clinic

I started the process of facing my fear of flying weeks ago with small steps by simply Googling "fear of flying." Online I found resources that answered some of my questions about the mechanics and safety of flight. I even looked at some YouTube videos of passengers experiencing moderate to heavy turbulence during flight. One of the best realizations I made in my cursory online search for help is that I am not alone in my fear. This was a great comfort and relief and indeed, this helped me feel less afraid over the course of the next few weeks. But when I went to actually book our plane tickets, that familiar paralyzing feeling-- tightness in my chest and a sinking in my stomach-- returned with as strong intensity as ever before.

Tired of feeling afraid and helpless, I Googled the Fear of Flying Clinic again. I asked myself, "How could I not try this clinic?" The location is perfect, practically in my backyard. And the timing is perfect, just three weeks before my D.C. trip. I really felt like I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. I am so thankful for the airline staff who volunteered their time to educate our class of 14 people about the mechanics and safety of flight. As well as the staff of Fear of Flying, all volunteers, who taught us how to tackle our anxieties in rational and constructive ways. The love and support of my family and friends has been awesome as well. Including most definitely the new friendships I formed while attending the Fear of Flying Clinic. I'm so glad I participated and started down the road of recovery.

There is no 'cure'

Yes, I say recovery. I don't like the word conquer or cure. At least not in this context. One of the key take-aways of the clinic from our instructors and past graduates of the program is that I have to keep flying. A fear of flying is inherently hard to treat because the most successful methods of exposure therapy or systemic desensitization are a logistical challenge. It's not like I can go sit inside of an airplane whenever I want. And since 9/11, airports have limited the restricted areas where only ticketed passengers can go.

Additionally, it is hard emotional work. I have to be willing to ask myself the scary questions, and deconstruct my anxiety triggers. Working to rewire my brain away from my old belief habits and into new ones that are based in fact and reality. Through the supportive leadership of the clinic and their use of cognitive behavior therapy, I learned about how to get specific about my fears, Understanding what my fears were based on, and learn the facts that would prove the fears to be unfounded.

There are different theories about why some people are prone to anxiety and others are not. Anxiety itself is simply a fear. People have varying degrees of anxiety they can tolerate before they become phobic.

Science also has proven that there is a physiological link between anxiety, stress hormones, and neuron pathways. If left unchecked or untreated, the "re-wiring" of my brain that I referred to earlier just isn't hyperbole. It is for real. I am having to teach myself that what has before felt like an unsafe place or condition, actually is safe, and that in reality I have nothing to fear. This understanding this brings me comfort. In short, it makes me know that I'm just not losing my mind. There are actual physiological and biological factors at play. It's not just all in my imagination.

Flying friendlier skies

Since taking the course with the Fear of Flying Clinic, my world has opened up. Far away places are no longer fantasies. Destinations requiring flight are no longer conjuring intense feelings of fear. I know I have many hours to log on my itinerary before I really am a more confident flyer. But until that time I know I just have to keep fakin’ it till I make it. As I learned in class, tackling a phobia, even a flying phobia, requires changing a belief, and then backing it up with action. And then repeating that until the new belief becomes real, and the behavior (flying) feels more natural. I am committed to this process. And I am excited about the new travel adventures that are ahead.

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