I’m not sure when I started to hate flying.
I don’t mean the endless queuing at airports, being confined in close quarters with ill-smelling strangers, or the boredom of flying long haul. I mean the crippling panic I experience every time I part company with the ground.
Let’s skip over the part where I tell you that statistics and engineering facts do not help. I can tell you what every strange aircraft noise is, why my stomach drops as the plane levels out, exactly what causes turbulence and how pilots deal with it. I can tell you all this, but it entirely depends on whether I can breathe at the time and how sweaty my palms are.
For our flight out to San Francisco, I decided enough was enough. I was done being afraid of something so trivial. Of course, saying this and making this happen are two very different things!
I’m pretty sure that no one really likes airports. They’re boring halls of doom designed to extract as much cash from you as possible before shunting you onto an airborne metal tube. Of doom. I usually spend my airport time fretting, getting annoyed, getting anxious, and crying. This time I planned a detailed distraction involving the one redeeming feature of Heathrow Terminal 3: the Jo Malone store.
Now I’m not saying that stupefying yourself with duty free perfume and bath products is the solution to aviophobia, but knowing that a lime, basil and mandarin scented bath was waiting for me at the other end of a eleven hour ordeal (even if it was in an airport motel bathroom) was very comforting.
My second least favourite part of any flight. Second only to turbulence, which I’ll cover later. It’s the point of no return, the final goodbye to terra firma, and usually a pretty white knuckle ride for me and my unfortunate neighbours. This time I decided to try something a bit mad.
Firstly, I forced myself to smile. A big, fat, Christmas Day excitement smile at the prospect of going to San Francisco. Secondly (and this is the most bonkers) I focussed on hearing the Indiana Jones theme music in my head. Over and over again, like this was the thrilling beginning to Indy’s latest adventure. Or that awesome scene in the beginning of Raiders with the sea plane and the native warriors and the gold monkey head and the snake. While this approach didn’t completely dispel my fear, it did distract me long enough for the plane to get above the clouds and for the seatbelt light to go out.
The crux of my fear. That completely innocuous ‘bing’ as the fasten seatbelt sign illuminates might as well be a clarion call for all hands to brace for impact. There’s nothing like a good bounce around at 37,000 feet to reduce me to a state of abject terror. For dealing with this I have no magic craziness, only some good old fashioned cognitive behavioural therapy. Earlier this year I found that my usual cooping mechanisms – grabbing armrests, grabbing Chris’s hands, shredding paper napkins – were really only enhancing my fear. So when the bouncing begins, instead of tensing up I try to relax every muscle in my body. I place both feet flat on the floor, my palms flat on my knees (where the cold sweat can soak into my trousers), and rather than becoming hyper alert and ready to flee, I close my eyes and try to focus on breathing really slowly. I try to focus on what I can hear, what I can smell, and if I’m feeling really brave I try to focus on the turbulence itself and try to associate those movements with being calm and relaxed rather than being afraid.
This all sounds terribly zen, and sometimes it even works. During the flight to San Francisco I did have a fearful moment, during a short bout of turbulence. But for the most part I was able to stay calm, and not to give in to my panic. I even got up for a walk around, which is something I will normally avoid like the plague (because obviously that is the safer option).
I think one of the main things I have had to do is accept that I will never be 100% at ease in the air. And every now and again I will have an epic panic attack. One of the most memorable took place on a flight from London to Geneva that was completely turbulence-free. It was the smoothest flight I have ever been on, and somewhere over northern France I completely lost it. When I came out of the panic haze I had air staff telling me how brave I was, and that they had once had to help Barbara Windsor off a plane before it took off because she was so afraid.
I don’t have a magical cure for being afraid of flying. But what I have found is that being prepared for mid-air freak outs, knowing what my triggers are and being prepared to handle them really helps me to stay calm when I am loosing my shite with terror.
Plus it means I end up with a large supply of Jo Malone!
What are your tips for stress-free flying?