If you’ve had a look at my travel list, you might notice that over the last few years, I’ve been traveling fairly regularly and to some relatively far-flung places. This in itself is not especially remarkable except that I used to be almost phobic with my fear of flying, to the point of having a physical reaction if I even thought about an upcoming flight.
I have never liked to fly but after 911, I became borderline phobic about it. Part of that, I think, was just imagining the final moments of the people aboard those flights, especially some of the families. I could not stomach the thought of going through something like that with my kids. The media reports of thwarted attacks in the years immediately following certainly didn’t help.
Add to that general anxiety the fact that I had not flown much before 911 and I didn’t fly at all for years after it (mostly due to having small children, which makes air travel much more expensive and potentially unpleasant for everyone). The longer I didn’t fly, the scarier it became.
But in general, I think my biggest fear factor with flying is that just about nothing is within my control. And yes, I know the stats and how safe air travel is, but logic in the face of fear is almost useless.
When I had to take a trip to Washington DC in 2008 for my previous job, we decided it would be fun to turn it into a family vacation. I was looking forward to it, except for the flight. The closer I got to the date, the more anxious I became to the point that I almost could not force myself to board the plane. I believe that the only reasons why I didn’t leave the airport and go home were that it would have ruined a trip my family was looking forward to and that I would have had some ‘splaining to do with my employer. It was almost as bad the next year when I had to fly to Chicago for another conference-turned-family-vacation.
Between that flight to Chicago in 2009 and 2013, I took two more flights: one to Colorado and one to Virginia. Each flight got a little easier, but anxiety still ruled me, particularly during take-off and landing. Once I was at cruising altitude, I could put it out of my mind that I was flying.
From aviophobic to frequent flyer
Now, I fly typically at least 3 times a year and this year, it’s looking like I’ll end up with about 4 times that.
In 2013, I started working for Automattic, a fully distributed company (which means my co-workers are spread across the globe). I knew that travel was required for the job before I accepted the offer and that was definitely something I considered. I have always wanted to see the world and the only things standing in my way were fear and opportunity. This job cleared the latter obstacle, which left just one thing: fear.
I decided I wasn’t going to let a little thing like fear deprive me of a bigger life with the richness of experience that travel provides, but I’ll tell you that it’s easier said than done.
Tactics for fearless flying or just flying with less fear
I won’t say I’ve quite gotten to being a fearless flyer, but I definitely fly with less fear now than I used to. Since my first work trip in September 2013, I’ve been to various parts of the US, Canada, and Europe with my farthest trip so far being to Cyprus. I won’t lie – flying over miles and miles of empty ocean was another mental hurdle I had to overcome. My tactic: don’t think about it and distract myself when I do. Simple, yes. But so far, pretty effective.
I took this shot recently as I took off from Lisbon, headed out over open water back home to the US. Fearless!
So how did I go from barely being able to board a plane to boarding them comfortably every month? To be completely honest, I don’t really know other than it being a combination of will power and frequency of flights – and healthy doses of Dramamine before and during flight.
I am determined to overcome my fears and I believe that not giving in to my fears has helped me to reduce them. This is not to suggest that anyone with a legitimate phobia can just “will power” their way out of it. But for someone like me whose fear and anxiety haven’t quite become a full-blown phobia, it’s worth a try.
Frequency helps too – the more I fly, the more routine it feels to me and routine dispels anxiety. I also lean heavily on Dramamine to take the edge off a bit by making me feel sleepy and to reduce the physical effects of turbulence. Turbulence is a double-whammy: physically and mentally disturbing and the two feed on each other. I once had to descend through a nasty thunderstorm for a landing and was pretty close to puking on my co-worker since there were no sick bags in the seat pocket – since then, I take a preventative dose of Dramamine. My future seatmates should thank me. 🙂
Distractions are a must – I bring a loaded kindle, movies or TV shows downloaded to my phone, and a journal to write in. Sometimes, I chat with my seatmate – some light conversation helps to pass the time, occupy my mind, and makes it slightly less unpleasant to be pressed up against a stranger for hours on end. And finally, I pray for help staying calm and peaceful, especially during take-off and landing. This helped during an aborted landing at JFK in which the plane suddenly dropped, then just as quickly ascended and sharply banked. From what a lady by the window said, it looked like we just didn’t have enough runway to make the landing on the first try. Outwardly, I was just as calm as everyone else but inwardly…not so much. Still I count it as a victory that I didn’t freak out.
I also try to pick a seat over the wing or near it – the view out of the window isn’t great, but this is the most stable place on the plane and is the least prone to the effects of turbulence.
So now I have frequent flyer accounts with several major carriers and according to Tripit, I’ve flown almost 100,000 miles to or through 35 cities in 7 countries since 2014. Not too shabby for someone who almost could not force herself to board a plane back in 2008.
I hope that if you have a fear of flying, that this post has inspired you to try to move past that if travel is something you’re interested in. To see the world, you have to get on a plane. If I can do it, there’s hope for you too!