Flying without Anxiety
Thinking of going away this summer but can't face the flight? Zoe suffered severe panic attacks and sleepless nights when having to fly but after a course, she learnt how to manage a little better.
“Turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous. Turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous”.
“I can’t hear you, all together now…”
“Turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous!”
I haven’t always been a nervous flyer. In my teenage years I loved travelling and went on many a long-haul flight. Even as I finished university and started working, my first job required me to travel down to London every fortnight, which I did with ease. At this point, the only discomfort in my trip was the pitiful selection of restaurants airside at Stansted (this was a few years ago now, I can’t say I’ve spent enough time commuting to assess the current offering).
But two years ago this all changed, and what had previously been simply a means of getting from A to B became an unconquerable task resulting in sleepless nights for days before a flight and panic attacks during take-off. We are always told that flying is statistically the safest form of travel, that every day thousands of commercial flights fly reach their destination safely, and that you’re more likely to be harmed in your taxi ride to the airport than on the flight. These facts fall to mere insignificance when the grip of anxiety takes over.
I’ve recently found that setting personal goals outside of work massively improves my mental health and wellbeing. In 2017, I signed up to run a half marathon, even though the furthest I had run before this was legging it across the road to catch a bus. Nevertheless, I trained hard for six months and completed the race emotional but uninjured.
What was important for me in this experience was not getting physically fitter, or raising money for charity, or bragging on social media. At the end of the race, I was overwhelmed with emotion because I had accomplished something I didn’t think it would be possible for me to do. Now I endeavour to set myself a goal every year, which I can only achieve if I commit to working at it and believe in myself.
This year, I chose to conquer my fear of flying. Or rather, a well-intentioned Christmas present from a loved one chose it for me. So on Saturday 17 March, I made the long journey to Heathrow to attend British Airways’ ‘Flying with Confidence’ course. The course has been running for over 30 years, with an impressive 98% of those attending the course overcoming their fears, so despite the early start I went into the day with an open mind.
The one-day course started with a morning session led by two pilots about how flying works, the significant amount of training pilots have to complete on a regular basis and a vast array of procedures and policies to prove their opening statement: aviation is the most regulated industry on the planet. In the afternoon, a leading psychiatrist hosted a workshop on coping with anxiety, and how to manage a panic attack when it’s happening. Finally, the course organisers are keen to get you in the sky as quickly as possible to prove there’s nothing to be afraid of and to allow you to practise the techniques you’ve been taught. So at the end of the day we were all (some reluctantly) led to Terminal 5 for 40 minute flight to Southampton and back.
I can honestly say that this was one of the best workshops I have ever attended, and the benefits of the course stretched far beyond addressing my fear of flying. In particular, a few aspects of the day really struck me:
How many people attended the course – I expected to walk into a room with about 20 other fear-stricken aerophobes, and instead was amazed to see over 100 people, gingerly taking their boarding pass from the friendly course assistants. I shouldn’t have been surprised - research shows that 1 in 4 people are afraid of flying – but what was so refreshing was that I wasn’t alone in acknowledging and facing my fear.
How many open conversations I had about anxiety – I’ve experienced anxiety since I was at university and have had so many conversations which have turned awkward and distant as soon as I mention the A word. Even if the conversation continues, it’s clear that you may have been labelled as ‘vulnerable’, ‘awkward’ or ‘weak’. This course was different – it was like a cloud had been lifted, and no mental health topic was off the table.
The atmosphere on the flight at the end of the day – over the course of the day people started to relax, openly discuss previous panic attacks with fellow course members and prepare for the flight. Heading down the walkway and into the aircraft cabin, the majority of passengers had grinning beams on their face, excited as the prospect of flying without the fear of a panic attack. During take-off, people who were only a few hours before complete strangers were holding hands tightly and breathing deeply together, reciting the course’s mantra over and over - ‘Turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous’. As soon as the seatbelt signs were turned off, the aisles were full of people walking around the cabin to congratulate their fellow passengers. There were laughs, disbelief, one woman said ‘I can’t believe I made it here!’
I couldn’t help but observe that the change in atmosphere during the day wasn’t to do with and overcome of fear of flying, but an overcome of fear of acceptance. The biggest and most powerful step I’ve taken in the last couple of years is to accept out loud: ‘I have anxiety. And I continue to learn how to cope with it’. What was so incredible was to see over 100 people ‘coming out’ about their anxiety to complete strangers, and for these people to be met with immediate acceptance.
Stigma is the single biggest obstacle to those experiencing mental health problems seeking the support they need. Watching those who were in the morning reluctant to share their fears, to then become completely open by lunchtime and discuss coping techniques with others, was incredibly powerful. It was also indicative of how much we could help others that are struggling if we continue to open up.
Surround yourself with supportive people. I am incredibly thankful to be surrounded by an incredible family, friends network and work team who may not fully understand why I sometimes feel how I do, but always ask how best they can support. We can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s head, but what we can do is ask if and how we can make the situation better.
In two months, I will be heading to Malaysia for a two-week fix of summer sun. A 14-hour flight isn’t something I would even entertain six months ago, and even when I booked the tickets in February I already started to feel anxious. Now, I’m excited for the trip and can’t wait to put my new coping techniques to the test. My fear of flying hasn’t disappeared in one day – but what has is my fear that it would never disappear.
Anxiety can affect people in different ways so the tips below may not work for you. However, these are the key points I remember when managing my anxiety during a flight:
- If you can make the decision to not let anxiety take hold of you, this can really change how you are feeling. Anxiety is normal, and it helps us survive. However sometimes, the ‘Fight or Flight’ response will be initiated when we don’t need it to be, for example during a flight. If I start to have anxious thoughts, I say to myself ‘I am in control, I am not in danger and I do not need to be anxious in this situation.’ This doesn’t always work, but when I am able to stop the oncoming of a panic attack at its inception it makes a huge difference to how I can cope.
- If you are feeling anxious, tell someone a member of the cabin crew. Your wellbeing is much more important than another passenger’s third gin & tonic, so if you hear a noise you don’t understand or start to feel worried do call the cabin crew.
- Reject the idea that anxiety is a weakness. It is sometimes tough and challenging to manage, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t manageable or something that we’ll have to deal with forever. With the right support, you can break the cycle of negative thoughts, substituting them for positive ones.
- Don’t give yourself a hard time about the fear. Understanding the experience of flight is built into the brain of birds – but not of humans! Accept that it is tough, and push through this.
- Whatever the source, how we manage our anxiety determines our outcome. Accept that a ‘fight or flight’ reaction is a legitimate response to a stressful situation, and this isn’t the right time for this response, and that we will overcome it.
British Airways Flying with Confidence course – if you have the same fear as me I’d highly recommend this course. It’s fundamentally changed the way I approach flying. There’s also a book to accompany the course, which is also great.
Transport for London Tunnels Map – if you are anxious about underground travel in London, this little map is amazing! It shows where all the tunnels are on the London Underground network. More than half of the stations in the Underground network are actually over ground, so if you are feeling anxious you can plan a journey that’s fully on street level.
Conversation starters – the Group Disability Programme have a variety of resources to help you and your team open up about mental health in the workplace.