How my fear of flying taught me to stand up for myself

My imagination has always been rich with a fantasy travel life. How many days I would spend on a beach in the south of France before hopping off to Tuscany and finishing up in Switzerland. I’d stroll through airports in a fashionable outfit (maybe a hat to complete the look) wheeling my sleek black luggage, onto my next destination without a care in the world. Aside from the fact that in real life my budget doesn’t allow such extravagant travel, there has always been a much bigger factor at play.

My fear of flying.

In my fantasies, I don’t get tense or panicky on these fabulous jaunts. I’m cool, collected and look forward to boarding a plane. In reality, the stress I feel from outwardly pretending that I’m fine turns me into a quiet sweaty mess, white knuckled at the slightest touch of turbulence and feeling the need to call everyone I love before the wheels go up. I suffered through this anxiety for years, nodding when people told me to calm down and that “flying is safer than driving.” I pretended that I found my fear as ridiculous as everyone else seemed to.

After one particularly rough flight, when I was shakily yet safely back on solid ground, all the anxiety, tension and stress I had felt for the past few hours was replaced with anger. I almost felt the urge to start yelling at everyone who had ever told me to calm down and that flying was no big deal. I wanted to say “it IS a big deal and I’m terrified and stop telling me it’s statistically stupid to be afraid.”

Instead? I decided to make some changes.

I went to my doctor and explained how debilitating my fear made me feel. Rendering me unable to sleep leading up to a trip, the complete emotional breakdown that could happen because of turbulence or irrational panicky thoughts, and how the enjoyment of any trip was overshadowed by this anxiety. He listened, asked me lots of questions and prescribed me a mild anti anxiety medication.

Next I took it upon myself to inform the gate attendant when boarding and flight attendants that I was prone to anxiety attacks while flying. For the most part I was met with understanding and kindness by these employees at my admission and also checked on periodically during a flight to see how I was doing. If need be, I also gave a heads up to my seatmates that I was potentially conducive to some erratic breathing, potential crying and shared armrest gripping.

Finally and most importantly I stopped nodding and smiling politely when someone thought they were doing me a favor by scoffing at my fear with cold hard statistics. Anxiety of any kind isn’t something rational that can easily be dismissed, no matter what explanations exist. I had spoken up for myself to ask for help from my doctor, from complete strangers working on my flights, and now it was time to do the same with some of the people closest to me.

The first time a friend tried to counter the way I felt about flying with a “don’t be silly” comment, I interrupted by saying “you don’t understand how anxiety works. You can throw every explanation in the book at me but it’s not that simple. Don’t you think if it was that easy for me not to be afraid, I wouldn’t be by now?”

Being able to say that instead of hiding my irritation or pretending someone’s preaching about airplane safety completely allayed my fears made a world of difference. Friends stopped saying it to me and it further emboldened me to speak up for myself and others anytime anyone was dismissive of any type of anxiety. Considering anxiety disorders affects 40 million adults in the United States aged eighteen or older, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to shrug it off. And if you’re someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety but want to learn to be more understanding, here are some great tips on how to do just that.

My fear of flying is not ideal for my travel dreams, but over time I’ve figured out that my best tools for coping with it are medication, focusing on my breathing and unabashedly announcing it’s part of me. You can’t talk me out of it, but just know I am always going to speak up for myself if you try.

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