I don’t often publicly talk about it, but I suffer from a fairly heavy dose of flight anxiety.
It’s a thing that’s always been present in my life, but it really came to a head my final year of university when I had a panic attack after boarding a flight heading from Boston to Denver to go home for Christmas. The doors to the flight hadn’t shut yet, so after a brief panic-stricken phone call to my step-mother, I removed myself from the flight (fun side note, the moment I decided to run off the plane, a flight attendant asked if anyone would be willing to give up their seat to a person’s spouse who was on standby. I got to cover up my escape with a good deed and ended up receiving a free upgrade to 1st class on my rebooked flight).
I had never had a panic attack before. My entire body was shaking, my chest was tight, and I couldn’t think straight – it took me almost an hour of sitting in the waiting area before I could get myself to leave the airport to go back home. I talked to the gate agent for a while after composing myself, where he admitted that he also suffers from a fear of flying, and that his fear was one of the main reasons he sought out a job in the airport. Though his position doesn’t require flying, he explained to me that he gets to watch hundreds of airplanes every single day take off and land successfully, and being able to put his personal flights into that perspective was comforting. I think of that conversation almost every time I get onto a flight now, because it’s true. I know that flying is statistically the safest form of travel. I know that hundreds and thousands of flights successfully complete their journey every day. I know all of that. Unfortunately, my brain just sort of refuses to accept that as truth.
I go through waves with the anxiety. There was a time a few years ago, after a huge life change, where I just sort of stopped being afraid of flying for a year. It simply vanished, and I could fly whenever I wanted without feeling the days-long shadow of doom that always preceded a trip for me. The fear slowly crept back in though, which culminated in another panic attack on a flight from the Netherlands to Moscow. This one, unfortunately, hit mid-flight, which meant that I had to ride it out (no lucky escape for me that time!). Since then, the fear has resurfaced much as it was before.
The one consistent life factor that seems to control the anxiety is how comfortable I am with where I am in life. Basically, my flight anxieties rise exponentially with how unsatisfied I feel with my accomplishments. A lot of it boils down to a fear of not being able to live up to my potential. If I’m feeling bad about the progress I’m making in life, the fear of my life ending in a tragic accident goes up. I know it sounds morbid, but that’s where my mind immediately jumps to.
When I begin feeling anxious about a flight, I become obsessed with irony and ritual. I won’t do anything in the days leading up to a flight that could be seen as “ironic” if something were to go wrong, I don’t make jokes about the bad things that could happen, and I don’t post any sappy things to social media that could be seen as a ironically prophetic after the fact. I obsess over whether “the universe” is telling me to not get on a flight, and take every slight mishap on my way to an airport as a sign that I should just go home. I even have a long-standing unspoken rule with myself (that I’ve, thankfully, never needed to act on), where if I hear Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” on the way to an airport, I just won’t fly (because, come on, how ironic would it be to hear a song about irony and plane crashes to then get on a plane where something goes terribly wrong?).
Once I’m on the flight, it’s all about the rituals. I constantly trace my fingers along my phone in square patterns (I’m not sure why squares are so comforting here), I refuse to finish any book I’m reading mid flight, and I almost exclusively listen to Sigur Rós the entire time (seriously fantastic anti-anxiety music, btw). I listen to every sound, I become extra sensitive to every slight movement adjustment, and I make sure to recite in my head where every turbulence will probably occur in an effort to brace myself (I’m looking at you, Rocky Mountains). I’m also usually overwhelmingly nauseous for the lead up to and the beginning of a flight.
By the time a flight ends, I’m exhausted. Did you know that heightening your senses and panicking for 5 hours straight really wears you out? I can usually power through the rest of my day (unless I’ve had a full on panic attack), but it’s tiring.
I’ve gotten really good over the years at hiding the inner monologue of my fear from those around me. I express concerns to the people I trust the most, but it’s generally a fraction of what’s going on in my head. I spend a lot of time thinking about how my loved ones would react if something were to go wrong, making up wills in my head, and trying to figure out any conceivable way that I can wriggle out of my upcoming flight. I obsess over death, my accomplishments, and whether anyone would still miss me after 6 months. I think about the futility of life and how large the universe and how nothing I do matters anyway as we will all be forgotten eventually.
What I’m trying to say is that this flying anxiety consumes a lot of my brain space for many days surrounding a flight.
If you follow my adventures at all, you’ll notice that I fly a lot. Not as many as some people in this industry (*cough* Rami *cough*), but definitely a lot more than the average person. There’s hardly ever a month where I’m not flying somewhere, and when I’m at the height of my travel mode, I fly a few times a week. “So wait-“, you must be thinking, “-if you fly a few times a week, how is it possible to claim that you suffer from a days long obsessive anxiety leading up to every flight? That would mean you would be in a constant state of anxiousness and fear when traveling!”. Why yes, yes that is what it means! Some days are better than others and some trips are better than others, but for the most part, traveling takes a big toll on my mental energy.
It sucks being a frequent flier with flight anxiety. Traveling is a core component of who I am- it allows me to do amazing things, brings me to all sorts of exciting places, and allows me to meet new people and experience new cultures. All of these things impact my creativity in various ways and motivate me to keep doing what I’m doing. However, I know I get less done while dealing with the the obsessive thoughts and overwhelming fear, and I’m assuming that forcing myself through this much regular anxiety can’t be the healthiest thing for me to do. As with everything though, it’s a compromise. Do the things that I learn and experience through travel outweigh the toll that the fear takes on my body? Absolutely. Maybe in the future there will come a day where that is no longer true, but every time I get myself onto a flight (despite being absolutely, 100% convinced that it will be the ultimate cause of my untimely demise), I push that day a little further away.
I don’t actually know where I’m going with this post. I didn’t start it with any thesis, and a thesis never evolved out of writing it, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to put out there for a while. Having a deep-seated fear of one of the core parts of you life is a hard thing to deal with.
I’m afraid flying, I’m afraid of the day when I can’t push that fear down anymore, and I’m afraid of what aspects of life I’ll lose if that day ever does come.
For now, I know things are improving. I wrote this from an altitude of 35k somewhere over eastern Colorado, which is a pretty scary place to write about being afraid of flying, and something that I know I wouldn’t have been able to do just a few years ago.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that things can be illogically scary. Like I said before, I know that this is the safest way to travel, but there’s something deep inside of me that fights that fact with every fiber of its body. I feel pathetic every time I cry during turbulence, I feel useless when I obsess death for days, and I feel defeated when I give in and let myself feel afraid. However, I feel inspired every time I go to a new place, I feel happy and loved when I see my friends and family, and I feel grateful every time I think about all of the things traveling has allowed me to do with my life.