Flight Anxiety-Calming Turbulence

Myth: Some people don’t experience the feeling of anxiety.

Fact: We all experience anxiety, because this feeling is what has kept us alive.

At first, I was nervous to write a blog about anxiety. If I shared part of my story with you, that means I would have admitted to feeling anxious in the first place. Those were my first thoughts. 

My second thoughts were…screw it. We all have anxiety! Let’s talk about it! Avoiding the topic completely and/or the triggers for anxiety will not minimize the frantic-I’m-going-to-die-irrational panic that is associated with anxiety. In fact, not talking about your anxiety multiples your anxiety. It’s a monster that you feed with avoidance.

So here I am. Talking about it. I’m calling my anxiety out. 

I get anxious when I am flying. 

There, I said it. 

I used to love rollercoasters. I was the first one on anything fast and dangerous and so, naturally, the turbulence on a plane used to be thrilling. The sporadic drops were fun! It made the flight exciting. All that changed over two years ago. 

I was on a flight from Helena, MT to Seattle when we encountered nasty weather. People on the flight were holding the ceiling. There was yelling. I thought I had to call my husband to say goodbye (maybe not that dramatic, but… close). We were told we would have to re-route to Portland to land safely but finally got the clear to land in Seattle with the pilot saying the flight “would continue to be moderately turbulent and to fasten our belts tightly”. We landed in Seattle safely; yet, the damage had already been done. I was terrified to fly again. 

Despite the anxiety that simmers to the surface of me when I think of flying, I still have to fly. There is no way around it. Besides, do I really want my feelings of anxiety to cripple me? Sometimes, the only way to overcome something is to face it. 

I enlisted the insight of my younger sister, who is a therapist, to learn more about anxiety. I wanted to know what the heck was happening in my mind and body. Then we discussed specific ways to manage feelings of anxiety before and while in the air.

According to my younger sister (the therapist) anxiety is a good thing. Without anxiety, we would all be dead. The human brain is developed bottom-up, which means the base of our skull near our cervical spine is the first part of the brain to be developed, and for good reason. This part of our brain is called the reptilian brain and functions as our danger detector. It’s the oldest, most primitive part of our brain (and one we share with other organisms and/or reptilians) that has a very important job: to signal the fight-flight-freeze response. 

What would a lion do if another lion was chasing it? Fight.

What would a zebra do if a lion was chasing it? Run. 

What would a stick bug do if a snake was coming close? Freeze.

Our bodies do what they have to do to stay safe and there is absolutely no cognitive way out of it. The fight-flight-freeze response is our bodies primal instinct to keep us alive and without this instinct, we would be dead.  

I suppose we should be thanking our anxiety, but not so fast. Here’s where it gets interesting. 

I was scared during that flight from Helena to Seattle, and my body was doing its job by getting anxious. My body was warning me. I was in danger. I needed to fight, run, or freeze. It was as if a real tiger was chasing me and my body was prepping me to fight for my life. 

Unfortunately, our bodies don’t forget the scary situations that turned on the danger detector, so now, every time I prepare for a flight, my body feels what it felt then. Even if it’s safe. Even if the weather is good. 

There is not a real tiger chasing me, but a paper tiger. For example, a person may be scared of the sound of a gunshot (real tiger) and think that every firework (paper tiger) is a real gunshot. Having a flight attendant tell me to “brace myself” is a real tiger. Stepping onto a plane is a paper tiger. Paper tigers impersonate real tigers and they give you the lingering anxiety after a scary event takes place. 

Do you want to know what I love about paper tigers? You can smash them with your fist. You have the power. 

Notice how I didn’t say, “You have the control,” because control (as I have learned from my therapist sister) is an illusion. Anxiety is a feeling. Feelings are temporary. They change. Saying we have control is like saying we can control change, the one inevitable in life. But how do we control our innate danger detector when it’s engrained in our nervous system? How do we control the changing of seasons? How do we control the weather? We can’t. 

So, what do we do? We manage. Here is how I cope with my feelings of anxiety while flying. 

  • Reduce pre-flying stress by packing early and uploading my boarding pass onto my phone.

  • Decide what seat you feel most comfortable in. Do you like the aisle? Middle? Window? Do you like to sit closer to the front or near the back? Figure out what feels safe and pick your seat ahead of time. I prefer sitting in the aisle (I don’t like bothering people to get up and use the bathroom, that alone gives me anxiety. What if they’re sleepIng?) Also, it’s proven you feel less of the turbulence sitting closer to the front of the aircraft.

  • Get TSA pre-check if you can. This way you avoid wait time and large crowds, both which can be stressful.

  • Use quality headphones that cancel out the engine noise. I use these.

  • Essential oils. My favorite stress relief blend is found here.

  • I take Boiron Ignatia Amara tablets 30 minutes before a flight. Found here.

  • Wear comfortable clothing! There is nothing worse than wearing constricting jeans on a flight. I’m fortunate that I get to wear scrubs, which basically feel like pajamas.

  • Be sure you’re warm enough. I always pack an extra wrap found here. And this Vinyasa Scarf found here.

  • Distract yourself. Movies don’t quite distract me enough, but I do take my laptop. Answering emails and working helps me get my mind off of flying (and/or paper tigers).

  • Positive self-talk. If I tell myself I am going to die, I am not necessarily managing my anxiety to the best of my ability. Instead, I admit to myself that flying makes me feel anxious (labeling your feelings means you are not avoiding them, and if you’re not avoiding them than they cannot grow into monsters). Then, I tell myself that I am safe, because more than likely I am.

  • Breathe. Inhale for two and exhale for four. The exhales are longer because exhales are what calms your parasympathetic system down. When this system calms down, your body calms down. When your body is calm, your survival detector is off. When your survival detector is off, there is no need for anxiety. You see how exhales are important here, right?

The truth is, everyone that is living has anxiety. They are living because of their anxiety. Some people just feel it less because they are better at rationalizing when it comes to paper tigers. As far as me and my paper tigers… I am conquering them one takeoff and landing at a time.

I’m curious, what are some of your favorite ways to crush anxiety?

Shine on beauties. 

Shine on.