[This is a completely personal post written as a sort of catharsis and a last-resort thing after a rather smooth flight back from Munich which left me crippled with anxiety, unable to sleep, triggered some dormant health conditions and generally made no sense to my friends.]
LATER EDIT: If you suffer from flight anxiety this may not help. I re-read it and basically it’s had the opposite effect of making me not want to get on my next flight
I suffer from chronic anxiety with acute episodes triggered by things like exhaustion but particularly flying. I simply cannot get on a flight without the impending sense of catastrophe [that anxiety sufferers know so well] being blown up to a billion proportion. I call it a phobia because there is no rational explanation to my situation and because I am a rational, balanced human being otherwise.
I though about writing this post as I was “clinging for dear life” on my flight back to London from a client meeting in Munich. The flight was smooth, people were asleep. I was the only one sitting up in my seat, trying to ensure (like another flight anxiety suffered aptly put it in an article) that I keep the plane level through sheer power of fear. I thought at that very moment that maybe people would get a better sense of what this feels like and maybe, just maybe, stop trying to fix it with statistics.
To start off, I am “well-read” in air travel. I know the basic statistics, I understand how the plane works, I know the stages of take-off and landing and understand some basic engineering concepts and technicalities (I am not going to freak out that the wings “are broken” when I see flaps move). I also know the websites that track weather, turbulence and some forums where real-life pilots provide advice. I have tried alcohol, exhaustion-induced sleep, some mild forms of medication and habituation therapy. I am, by all accounts, not a “flight moron”.
And yet, bear with me as I tell you how flying feels.
It starts with sleeping the night just before the flight. Deep sleep is impossible so I wake up every 30–40 minutes wondering what time it is and whether I might have missed the plane. I sleep poorly, dreaming heavily, usually not pleasant dreams, snippets of the previous days when I felt stressed (mostly known as REM dreaming which is the worst kind). My body temperature drops and I start feeling sluggish because I have not eaten in a while (I try to keep my stomach empty because nausea is a common occurrence otherwise; I have, meanwhile, learnt to keep hydrated, I used to avoid drinking water too). I wake up shivering and need to put extra layers on when I get dressed. If I’ve had a particularly busy week and I am tired, I get small moments of depersonalisation where I feel I am outside my head. Back in the days, dehydration made these into small panic attacks, now I just reach for a glass of water.
The trip to the airport is normally a daze. I try to “enjoy” my time outside the plane itself, basically telling myself “two more hours before you need to be onboard”. I am so tense I sometimes find myself tearing up. I cannot distract myself with anything on my phone, sometimes I manage to listen to a particular song on repeat.
Just before boarding I get a panic attack. My hands start to sweat profusely, I get a sense of terrible fear and my heart starts jumping. I keep telling myself I don’t need to get on the plane to keep the full fledged attack at bay. I’ve taught myself to breathe and do some pressopuncture on myself. I also have taught myself to move. Back in the days, I would not be able to stand up so my muscles would tense until they twitched. I automatically walk onboard shivering and trying to prevent myself from bursting into tears.
Once seated I try to find my comfort points: a flight assistant who looks particularly relaxed, a fixed point in front of me I can stare at and the flight path screen where I will check altitude and speed every 1–2 minutes to make sure we’re not tumbling to the ground. I watch the security film with intense attention every time and hate all my co-passengers for not paying attention. Although I know handheld devices are now allowed, every phone beep triggers me and I feel like moaning. Why are they not being careful?? Changes in cabin air flow and temperature I feel with what I can only assume is the sensitivity of a hound: by this time, with three sweaters on, I’ve started to overheat although my hands are still ice cold so I can feel the cold air pushed through the vents. I can also smell the coffee being heated for first class.
Take off is when everything peaks. I feel the short comfort of being pressed back into my seat so my knees get a bit of time off (I am too tall for normal seats but exit seats are too far back for my taste so I’m normally huddled up in an isle seat) but then the texture of the cabin changes. Fumes from the engines hit the vents and my tastebuds register the new smell before my nose does. What does it mean? I know what it means but i’m already panicking. That weightless feeling once the wheels lift from the runway sends my stomach into a frenzy. I get nauseous, I get panicky I might throw up, I get dizzy, all at the same time. If we’re also turning left or right I need to keep my eyes on the back of the seat in front of me because my inner ear has gone berserk too and I’m getting … I don’t know, car sick?
By the time we’re level in the air, I get my second panic attack when I realise there’s no turning back. Whatever happens I need to make it through the flight now, they cannot stop for me. If I close my eyes, every change in cabin “situation” — air flow, smell, sound, etc, hits me with the force of a bullet. What’s wrong!??? I open my eyes an check the flight path screen. Same altitude, same speed, nothing different. Close my eyes again but a luggage shifts and I’m startled back into alertness. What’s wrong??!! The guy next to me shifts, I can feel the movement in the seat handle and the floor. What’s wrong?!!!!!!!!!
I relax for 1 second and then the bustle of meals begins. I am particularly stressed when the cart blocks my exit. I hate the smells and the sound of the cart as it rolls down the isle. I cannot order anything because it would interfere with my “survival kit” — mint wet tissue, dry tissues, water bottle, chapstick, barf bag (never used this one), headphones, extra sweater. I use them to provide me with temporary comforts: sometimes the nausea is so powerful I have to breathe through the wet tissue. I remember this one flight where the fumes from the engine were so strong, I spent the entire flight breathing through a wet tissue. When we landed my nostrils were red and raw and my lips completely cracked. I now bring chapstick.
It’s 20 minutes into the flight now and some turbulence happens. Minimal. Belt lights stay off. I get a third panic attack. Checking the flight path monitor prevents it from blowing up. I start doing my pressopuncture exercise, massaging the points on my wrist I learned about. By this time my back and my feet are so tight from the stress I am starting to get pangs of pain. If I’m lucky, I’ll get no twitching because that really freaks out people who notice.
The guy in front of me is either a Parkinson’s sufferer or just like me. He shakes throughout the flight making the back of his seat hit me in the knees with a maddening cadence. Is he going to freak out? What should I do? I check the flight attendants’ faces. They seem oblivious so I relax. For a minute.
The captain does not come on the intercom for an hour. I hate it when they do that. I want to hear the voice of the person “driving” this plane. The more bored they are, the more reassured I am. When he comes on I perk up. If he mentions turbulence I sink back down into my pit of despair.
We’re starting our descent. This is a short flight. On longer flights (long for me is 3 h, I’ve never flown longer in the past 10 years) I would go into repeated panic attacks and sometimes would have to crawl to the flight attendant and ask them to talk to me so I can keep calm. I cannot drink or eat anything. I take sips of water from time to time. With every 100 meters drop (because it feels like a drop to me), i feel my stomach hitting my diaphragm and my lungs squeeze out. Sometimes I go into a series of panic attacks so strong I feel like I’m going to pass out. When I see the ground I relax but if the descent is a lengthy one (flying into London means you “descend” for almost 35 minutes) I am in a constant state of depersonalisation, fog cluttering my brain and gag reflex activated.
It only stops when the wheels his the runway. By that time I am exhausted beyond words. I can barely stand up to walk out of the plane but I am also filled with exhilaration that I made it. I will ride the adrenaline wave for about 4 hours before I can collapse in the nearest bed and sleep for 12 hours.