“It is difficult, when faced with a situation you cannot control, to admit you can do nothing.”
~ Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid
I am not on a plane, over the ocean. It only looks that way.
I don’t know what unleashes it first, the need for control or the lack of control. It’s kind of a chicken/egg thing. Either way, I know that control is a major factor in my anxiety.
Take my fear of flying (please!). It combines my dislike for cramped spaces and playing what my overactive imagination likes to call The Life Lottery.
- You can’t get eaten by a shark if you don’t go in the ocean.
- You will not plunge 36,000 feet if you don’t fly.
- You will not get stuck in a crowded elevator if you don’t get on one.
Because life can be so freaking random. There are so many things I can’t control, that maybe when I feel like I can avoid something, like say the parachute not opening or the bungee cord snapping, then I feel like I should.
(Note: I can safely say there will not be any sky diving or bungee jumping posts from me in the future—not of me anyway.)
But what do you do when a fear or phobia is in the way of something you DO want to do?
“While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.”
~ Benjamin Franklin
Believe me, I try to rationalize my fear of flying, but it’s like trying to explain to my teenage daughter why I don’t want her to walk down the beach alone at night in a foreign country.
But I’m almost 18! Why not?
It makes sense to me, but not to her.
Like my husband the engineer trying to explain Bernoulli’s Principle regarding air flight to me:
As the speed of moving fluid (liquid or gas) increases, the pressure within the fluid decreases. The airplane wing is designed to split air as it travels through it, and adjust the air speed above and below the wing so that there’s low pressure on the top of the wing’s surface, and higher pressure on the bottom. This variance in air speed and pressure generates lift.
And generates great confusion. I don’t get it.
At the science museum in town, they have a beach ball floating atop a stream of blowing air to help demonstrate part of this principle.
Doesn’t help. Not when kid after kid walks up to that display to knock the ball out of the air stream.
I don’t even need to see that beach ball hit the ground to worry, my overactive imagination distorts airplane aerodynamics all on its own. Besides, as a writer I spend a lot of time thinking about the WHAT IF?
“Yeah. Calm down. Two of the most useless words in the English language.”
~ Lili St. Crow, Betrayals
On our flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt, the pilot introduced himself and then said, “I anticipate some bumps at take off and as we cross over Serbia.
Now I know some people like to know what they are getting into. I however, did not appreciate this knowledge because it made me then have to consider the definition of bumpy according to the
tyrant pilot about to fly our plane.
After all he’s a pilot and he’s used to turbulence. In fact, I often look at the pilot and the attendants before a flight, checking their faces for any stress or anxiety. I figure if they’re okay, I should be okay. (See? That’s me trying to be rational.) So if you’re a pilot, don’t mention bumpy unless you clarify it. Because bumpy could mean a range of things, from a gentle hiccup to your plastic cup of coke hitting the ceiling.
So after that announcement, I immediately called up the course map on my personal TV screen.
Where the heck is Serbia?? (I’m cleaning up my unfiltered, anxiety driven language here for you.)
I never found Serbia, but apparently it’s very large. The entire flight felt like we were making a trip up to Walton’s Mountain in an old Ford with blown shock absorbers.
Rationalizing wasn’t working, I needed a distraction.
So I tried to watch a movie, then a TV show, but the only thing I could get my screen to do (other than watch the excruciatingly slow progress that we were making even at a ground speed of 600 mph) was play a special Lufthansa meditation CD.
(I had my own iPod, but my headphones were no match for the jet engines which were apparently working very hard at doing what I have no clue. Don’t get me started on how the weight of engines and everything else can stay 36,000 feet in the air.)
So I started the meditation CD, and then proceeded to listen to a (German? Austrian?) psychologist talk me through visualizing Edelwiess meadows, lonely goatherds, and Heidi singing Do Re Me. Then Dr. von Trapp told me to envision jumping into the cool waters of a babbling brook while remembering to release anxiety by clenching and unclenching various muscles, including my buttocks.
Um, if you’re taking notes, this may be out of order—I should mention I also took a Xanax.
Mostly I jiggled my feet up and down for four hours, because my brother-in-law said it helps to make you feel like you are the one causing the bumpiness rather than Bernoulli pot holes (again with the control) I imagine I looked like Fred Flintstone pedaling his car. I was exhausted.
And the second we landed? I burst into tears of relief.
Yea, I was a hot mess.
But I had to think positive because we weren’t done. We had two more flights to go.
So I concentrated on the positive—avoiding all negativity. Especially thoughts of movies like Bridesmaids. As much as I love that movie, Kristen Wigg played a nervous flyer and ended up sitting next to another nervous flyer who said this:
“I had a dream last night . . . that the plane went down. Yup. It was terrible. You were in it.”
Instead of that, it’s helpful to focus on your travel destination and whatever fun things you are looking forward to. For me, my favorite positive, happy place is usually a white sandy beach next to clear blue water. I imagine the warmth of the sun, a cool sea breeze and hopefully relax.
Sometimes though I just imagine being finished with whatever is causing me stress. On the way home, during the third and last leg of our plane itinerary, I imagined walking out of the airport, going home, seeing my house, I even went so far as to imagine the warmth of the wood floors and the smell of the shampoo in my shower.
If that doesn’t work, other distractions help. I also did crossword puzzles—easy ones that didn’t require me to stop too long to think. For me that meant the puzzles in the People magazine. When desperate I used the airline magazine—and I wasn’t above flipping to the back for answers. After all it’s not the SATs. The point of this exercise was to keep my mind occupied in a positive way.
I have to say I’m pretty grateful that (crying aside) I managed to at least look mostly calm. At least my freak out did not involve a hallucination or the airplane’s PA system, like the character in Bridesmaids:
“I have an announcement too, there is a COLONIAL WOMAN ON THE WING. The woman on the wing, I saw her! There’s something they’re not telling us! There’s a Colonial woman. She was churning butter. She was churning butter on that wing; she’s out there right now! There is something they’re not telling us! Look out there, she is dressed in traditional Colonial garb!”
Really what you need to do is keep your anxiety in check long enough not to resort to using the PA system, but send off enough distress vibes that your name gets picked for the FIRST CLASS LOTTERY.
Yup. You heard that right. After that bumpy Lufthansa flight, we got another kind of bump on our overseas leg–an upgrade from coach to US Airway’s Envoy class. Not just myself and my husband, but our kids as well.
Sparkling water (or wine) with lemon, warm mixed nuts, a menu to choose your meal, a seat that reclines ALL THE WAY FLAT, noise (read: jet engine) reducing headphones, steamed wash clothes (I had no idea what I was missing there!), hot fudge sundaes and your very own kit of personal toiletries like lotion, chapstick, an eye mask, socks and toothbrush!.
Feeling especially rich and fancy, my son did his best impersonation of James William Bottomtooth III from Family Guy.
It was so much fun to see the excited looks on my kids faces. Plus I learned it’s still possible to impress my teenage daughter.
Thankfully I am the only nervous flyer in our family, but this perk got all of us grinning–even me. I was SO grateful. Gratitude can go a long way in reducing stress and anxiety (and so can the amenities of first class).
The proof? I actually slept for almost 5 hours.
So maybe first class won’t always be an option (one can always hope though), but if you can, treat yourself to a good pair of noise reducing headphones. They help maintain the cocoon of denial if all else fails.
“The ship of my life may or may not be sailing on calm and amiable seas. The challenging days of my existence may or may not be bright and promising. Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude. If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow. Today I am blessed.”
~ Maya Angelou
Are you cool as a cucumber or do you imagine Colonial women on the wing of the plane? How do you deal with anxiety?