Most of my adult life, fear of flying would be the antagonist of my life’s story. It was vaster than my adventure and would rob me of broadening my worldview.
At 33, having accepted an offer to travel to Brazil with a group of friends, I lamented to a colleague about my biggest fear: flying. She listened attentively to how I could not turn down this opportunity. My friend looked me straight in the eyes and spoke without judgment: “You know you can get medicine from your doctor for that?” That moment set up a 15-year love affair with traveling the world.
In 2018, in the most haphazard way and on another continent, that shifted. After fifteen years of medicated boarding and landings, I would ultimately overcome my fear of flying.
The Root Of My Fear
When I took my first flight at 23, I was plagued with thoughts of the airplane crashing. I have never enjoyed being high off the ground, the feeling of dropping, or roller coasters. My fear probably started from watching a movie that involved a plane crash as a child. I recall the scene of the plane crashing and a burned baby doll of the little girl passenger being discovered amongst the debris. I remember being so distressed by that scene as a kid myself.
I was confined by my fear of flying for years. Only having taken a handful of flights since my initial one, I went through the panic at the highway sign to the airport. I could never fall asleep, my palms became sweaty, and once on the aircraft, I never left my seat no matter how long the trip. In 2004, I did not attend an annual conference being held in Las Vegas that year because the flight was going to be exceptionally long. At that stage, it would have been the longest flight I’d ever considered. I did not register despite having attended the bi-annual conference regularly since 1998. Those flights were painful, as well, but often shorter. It would turn into the biggest regret of my travel life.
In 2005, when the opportunity to go to Brazil presented itself, I couldn’t refuse. I’d never traveled out of the country at this point and did not even own a passport. I couldn’t endure the same regret with this trip as I had the year prior. I accepted the advice of my friend and made an appointment with a psychiatrist. I felt apprehensive about the appointment because I had attached a stigma to seeking help in this manner.
The first question the doctor asked was about my symptoms. What did I feel when I was on the airplane? When I told her, she informed me that my symptoms showed I had a phobia of flying and the symptoms helped her to decide the best medication to prescribe. She assured me it was not an issue of not being strong, or being dramatic, but a diagnosable condition that could be treated with medication. I was prescribed Alprazolam in a low dose and instructed to take it for flights. It worked! I would take the medication 30 minutes exactly before boarding. Taking it after boarding the plane did not ease the anxiety before taking off, which I needed. I began to go to sleep, endure flights longer than 3 hours, and even walk around and head to the bathroom. Taking the medication opened the world to me. I booked trips everywhere. I would have an annual appointment with my prescribing physician and be prescribed a month’s supply that would last the entire year with pills left over. This went on from 2005 to 2018 without incident. I would embrace my adventure and travel several times a month by airplane.
In 2018, I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal for a solo vacation. I’d grown into a solo traveler and a freelance writer. My flight was not direct and consisted of a layover. During the first flight, I had taken my medication 30 minutes before boarding and drifted into a wonderful nap. A flight attendant woke me as it was time to deplane. I woke up abruptly, grabbed my bag under the seat, and rushed off the plane. What I didn’t realize is that I had left behind my small pouch containing my phone charger and my medication in the seat pocket in front of me. In my rush, I forgot the most important luggage of all. After several hours of hysteria because I was on the flight to Lisbon, not the return, I told myself there was no choice. I had to fly without the assistance. I could fly without the medicine.
To my surprise, I hopped on my next flight and every flight after without taking medication. Flying became a routine. I’d flown so often at this point that every nuance-noise, feeling of take-off and landing was rote. I recognized turbulence to be compatible with the potholes we feel in the road when driving, and rough air no longer sent me into an alarm. I picked up another prescription upon my arrival home but never took it again. I brought it just in case, but ultimately I quit doing that.
It surprised me in a good way that after all the years of regiment surrounding taking the medication, I didn’t need it. I was no longer frightened of flying. It surprised me in a bad way that I had never questioned my ability to do it sooner. I have flown to the continents of Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa armed with only replacement headphones to ensure I could watch the inflight movies — which is now my system for getting through long flights. I overcame my fear of flying by seeking and accepting professional help. Removing the stigma provided me the experiences that would teach me to let go and enjoy the ride.
Tips For Overcoming Your Fear Of Flying
If you are facing a fear of flying that is blocking you from traveling, here are five tips I suggest to get you out there.
- Speak with a medical professional about your symptoms. Fear of flying is a condition that can be treated. You don’t need to deprive yourself of experiencing travel.
- Arrive at the airport early enough to board your plane in a calm manner. Give yourself time, relax, and mentally prepare for the flight. The uneasiness of rushing for a flight can add to feeling overwhelmed.
- Develop positive self-talk phrases to replace negative thoughts.
- Learn to breathe. Breathing techniques can help you remain relaxed before and during the flight.
- Fly often! The more you fly, the more comfortable you may become with the overall experience.