Fear of Flying and GAD

I love travelling  and seeing the world. It is my one true passion in life. However, it is also a source of great anxiety for me, which, those who know me always seem surprised by. You see, I have a very intense fear of flying.

I haven’t always been scared of flying, I used to be able to get on a plane without giving it a second thought however, around 7 years ago, I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Order (GAD). I have only recently started to speak up about this and I suffered in silence for many years, with only my doctor and therapist knowing. It has taken a lot for me to write this post but I feel like I am in a good place now to open up about it. Plus, as we are nearing the end of the year and looking to a new one, it is a good time for reflection.

My GAD stems from a need for control, and when I feel like that control has been taken away from me, I suffer from anxiety to the point of panic. Once day to day tasks became more like impassable mountains. A key trigger of my anxiety was public transport, including flying, because of the lack of control I felt I had in those situations. Every time I get on a plane now, it is a mental battle. It has taken many years of hard work and pushing through the panic to get where I am today.

I have found that it is not so much a fear of flying itself, but more the fact that when I step onto the plane, my life is immediately in a total strangers hands. If anything goes wrong, there is nothing I can do about it. I also suffer from increased panic when the plane is delayed. Again, this is due to the fact I have no control over when we depart. I get the same feelings of panic when using a train or a bus, but the feelings are amplified when flying due to the fact you cannot escape the situation. On a train or bus, if it gets too much, I can just get off at the next stop, but on a plane, that is not an option.

I have never let my anxiety stop me flying, although there have been times when it has taken all my strength to push myself onto the plane. My way of coping, and to ensure I actually get on the plane, is to take the whole process in a series of smaller steps. First, I leave plenty of time to get to the airport. This can be annoying for others who fly with me, particularly as many didn’t actually know why I was the way I was. I was ashamed to be honest and didn’t think people would understand. I have found that once they know what you are going through though, it automatically makes these situations much easier. It also surprised me just how many other people have the same problem. You can feel quite isolated when going through an anxiety disorder but when you start to speak up, it encourages others to open up, and it is very reassuring to know others feel the same.

Once I arrive at the airport I then check in. This is step 2. I do not think of step 3 until step 2 is complete. I find thinking ahead tends to overwhelm me and trigger more intense anxiety. Step 3 is to then get through security. I tend to calm a bit once I am through security because I know I cannot back out now. I can’t just walk back out of the airport.

Once I am in the airport I tend to wander around the shops and try to pretend I am just in a shopping mall, rather than an airport. I throw myself into trying the perfumes and looking through the make up to try and distract myself. I always have a small drink, either a glass of prosecco or a gin and tonic to calm me a bit. I know many people advise against alcohol if you have anxiety, but I have found just one glass of something does help, and makes you focus more on the holiday element, rather than just the flight.

The nerves start kicking into overdrive when ‘go to gate’ appears on the boards. This is the hardest part for me and I find myself making many trips to the toilet prior to boarding! At this point it is all about deep, slow breathing and ‘fighting talk’. I repeat to myself over and over ‘you can do this, it is just a plane’ or ‘it is only 8/10/12 hours out of your life and then you will be experiencing an amazing new place’. I also dab some lavender oil on my sleeves to breathe in and spray my rescue remedy to help keep me calm (or rather as a calm as can be!).

It is a constant mental battle to make it onto the plane, but I have always managed it. Whilst in the air I go through faces of calm (ish) and panic but the more I fly, the more the calmer phases last. When I start to panic I sip some water, concentrate on my breathing and listen to some calming music. I also try to visualise what I am going to do once we land. It is all a case of distraction. Anything you can do to distract your mind from the oncoming panic will help to keep you calm.

These are just techniques I have found to help me to cope and they may not work for you but you just need to keep trying different options and whatever happens, never give in to the fear, because once you land safely, the amazing experiences you have whilst exploring a new country really does make the 10 or so hours of pure panic almost worth it!

7 years and numerous flights later, I am still anxious  whenever it comes to flying but I am nowhere near the state of panic I used to be. By pushing myself through the worst panic at the start and establishing a good routine for managing those feelings, I have begun to retrain my brain and give it positive re-enforcements to counteract the negative thoughts I have. My panic may be telling me I cant, but my experiences tell me otherwise.

I am very proud of how far I have come, I used to see my anxiety as a weakness but as I look back and realise what I have achieved, I have come to realise that actually, I am incredibly strong. Everyone suffers from anxiety at some point, mine was just disproportionate to the situations I was in. My challenges may be nothing to someone else, but to me they genuinely seem near impossible and yet, I have managed to push through and achieve them.

I have learnt that anxiety does not control me and it is not who I am. It is a small element of my life at the moment and I am working hard to resolve this daily. It is a long process and some days it can get me down but when I look back at the past 7 years and how much I have achieved, I realise that  I can beat it. And I will beat it. And you can to.

I hope this helps anyone suffering with the same problems. Sometimes it is just knowing that you are not the only one feeling that way that can really help. Just remember, anxiety is a feeling and it cannot hurt you. You are stronger than you think and you can push through and come out the other side. Don’t let it get in the way of experiencing your passions in life.

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