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Flying Anxiety

It’s a thing. This is not the same as fear of flying.  In this episode of The Anxious Truth we’re talking about flying anxiety – being afraid to fly because of your anxiety issues.  This is a topic I’ve been asked to cover for quite some time, so let’s get to it!

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The Highlights

Flying Anxiety vs. Fear Of Flying

Everyone knows about the fear of flying. Many many people in the general population are afraid to fly.  The two most common themes when it comes to the fear of flying are being out of control in an aircraft, and being afraid that the aircraft may crash. But we’re not talking about that today.  We’re talking about being afraid to fly because you are worried that your anxiety might get you into a situation that you can’t handle. That’s flying anxiety.

You can have both flying anxiety and a fear of flying.  I had both!

As in most cases, flying anxiety comes down to being afraid that you will experience anxiety, fear, discomfort, symptoms, sensations or thoughts that you will not be able to handle.  This is the situation you are in while shopping, driving, staying home alone, in social situations, at a doctor appointment and also ….while flying.  This means that flying anxiety is not special anxiety in any way.  Remember, all your fear is one fear when it comes to disordered anxiety.

So why does flying seem so much more difficult, scary, or impossible?  Simply because flying represents a situation in which you are truly “trapped” with no way to escape to safety.  You are afraid that something bad will happen on that flight and that you will be unable to run from it, return to your safe zone, or engage in your usual soothing and safety rituals.  In an airport, waiting in a terminal, or on an aircraft 35,000 feet in the air, you are left with no options but to allow all of those things because you will be truly unable to run, no matter how much you want to.

Common catastrophic thoughts that fuel flying anxiety:

  • What if I panic on the plane?
  • What if I need medical attention while we’re in the air?
  • What if it gets so bad that I lose control or have a psychotic break of some kind?
  • What if I make a scene on the flight?
  • What if I can’t handle it and I ruin everything for my friends, family, or other travel companions?

What Can I Do About This?

In the end, it all comes down to the belief that you will be overwhelmed and unable to cope or handle what happens.  So what can you do about that?  As always, this is all about learning through experience that we can handle the things we think we can’t handle.  We’ve always handled them, even when the way we handled them didn’t feel great. So if you want to be able to get on a plane, you’ll have to practice being anxious, being afraid, being uncomfortable, and or even experiencing panic, in many other situations.  Drive.  Stay home alone. Shop. Walk. Go to dinner.  Go to the movies. Wait in line at a bank.

The more we practice navigating through anxiety and fear, the more we learn that we can do that ANYWHERE.  Even in a plane. When it came time for me to fly again, I was nervous and apprehensive about it!  I wondered if I really was fully recovered like I thought I was.  It’s OK to be nervous!  In the end, all the practice and experiences I had in so many other situations and contexts put me on very firm ground.  I had moments where I was anxious and afraid, but I worked through those like I did so many times before. Experience mattered.

But I Have To Fly Next Week!  What Can I Do?

There is literally nothing wrong at all with using tools like medication to get through a flight.  If you’re stuck, or in the very early stages of recovery, and you have no choice but to take a flight in the very near future, you are not failing, doing it wrong, or ruining your recovery if you take a xanax (for example) to get through the flight.  Do the best you can to prepare, even on short notice, but nobody has the right to judge you negatively if you use whatever tools are available to you to meet this kind of one-off challenge.

I Also Hate To Fly In General.  What Can I Do?

I was also a nervous, fearful flyer.  I still am to some degree.  But I managed to help myself by taking the time to educate myself as to the procedure of a flight. I learned the sounds and and why they happen.  I learned how the pilots operate the aircraft. I started understanding why things happened in the air the way they do. Instead of always assuming that every sound or bump was the end, I took the time to expose myself to those things using video and sound and other tools. Did that stop me from being afraid?  Not entirely, but it sure helped me not pile more fear onto what was already a bit of an apprehensive situation for me. Knowing to expect the engines to throttle down at 10,000 feet meant I did not jump through the roof of the aircraft when that happened.

I know that flying anxiety might feel like an impossible challenge.  You can’t do incremental flying exposures.  You really are “trapped” for hours in the air.  You might panic or “feel like” something is totally wrong during the flight.  All true. But this is still not an impossible challenge.  The secret sauce lies in working on building that new relationship with anxiety and fear in ALL areas.  Work on everything. Remember that all the fear is one fear. The more you practice everywhere else, the more you’ll be able to tackle the challenge of flying when you have to … or want to.

 

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Drew

Drew

Founder and host of The Anxious Truth Podcast. Former anxiety disorder sufferer. Now fully recovered and dedicated to providing no-nonsense, straight-forward, actionable advice on how to overcome anxiety problems.