Fear of Flying
Updated: Oct 23
A few years ago, something very strange happened to me. While being on a cross Atlantic flight from North America to Europe, I woke up from a short nap because my legs were crossed and my left leg had fallen asleep. I woke up feeling pins and needles from my knee down to my foot and in the midst of my confusion being half asleep, a major panic attack struck me.
As a North American expat living in Europe, I have crossed the Atlantic more times than I can count and for the longest time, flying, although not a pleasurable activity in my book, never bothered me. I had, until that flight, never experienced any fear of flying. But waking up mid-flight with pins and needles in my leg, my brain went into panic mode thinking I might have a blood clot and that if this was the case, I would probably die before landing.
For those of you who never experienced a panic attack or even the ones who have, I can’t stress enough how uncomfortable having one in a plane is. All I wanted to do was to exit the plane to get some air as my breathing felt congested and difficult. Airplane air doesn’t feel fresh nor natural and in the middle of my panic, all I wanted was some fresh cold air to help ground myself back into rationality. For what felt like the longest minutes, I tried to move my leg to get it to wake up. The pins and needles feeling was so pronounced that I couldn’t even put my foot on the ground without feeling excruciating pain… and as it took forever, my belief that a major blood clot had formed in my leg grew. Long story short, once my leg was half awake and the pain was bearable, I gathered the courage to get up and I went to the bathroom for some privacy where I collected my thoughts, did some breathing exercises and managed to overcome the panic attack. This wasn’t my first panic attack as I suffer from them frequently, so my experience managing my panic was very helpful that day. When that is said, I spent the remaining 4 hours in the plane in complete anxiety. Although I had managed to convince myself that I did not have a blood clot, I was left with such high anxiety that every bump, turbulence or strange noise scared me and I was on the constant lookout for a possible crash.
After this experience, my relationship with flying changed completely and I became terribly scared of flying. At the time, I traveled for work often and as an expat, I went back home a couple of times a year. My fear grew so big that I started wondering if I would have to quit my job and tell my family that I wouldn’t be able to visit them again. But as I didn’t want to do either, I decided to tackle my fear and for the following 2 years, every flight I took was pure torture and I was scared from take off to landing.
Fear of flying is a common fear, or so I have learned over the years since my mid-Atlantic panic attack. Many people fear flying and yet, many of us suffering from this phobia don’t talk about it and do our best to mask this as we ride the clouds thousands of feet up in the sky.
While I battled the fear of flying for two years, I continued to cross the Atlantic and travel for work. And as I do for everything, I did massive research on the topic (fear of flying) to understand and find ways to tackle this issue or learn to manage it to an acceptable level. I won’t bother you with all that I read about but at the end of the day, two books helped me get rid of my fear of flying.
The first book is called Flying without Fear and it explains everything there is to know about planes including engines, automatic pilot, weather, air traffic control, emergencies, etc. This book helped my rational brain understand how flying works and allowed me to stop guessing what each noise could be.
The second book called The Easy Way To Enjoy Flying was a desperate attempt to get rid of my irrational fears. This book was written by Allen Carr, the man who wrote The Easy Way to Stop Smoking and I had major doubts that his repurposed “stop smoking” technique could be applied to flying. But I stand here grateful for this book which completely allowed me to board planes with confidence.
Saying that today I fly without apprehension would be a lie. Today, my main fear when I fly is that I might have a panic attack and that the spiral down the fear of flying starts all over. This apprehension used to be so strong that for a long time, I flew with both books mentioned above in my backpack so I would have them on hand if I felt bad mid-flight. Today I no longer carry them with me, but I know where they are on my bookshelf if I ever need them again.
I conclude this article with an important message I want to share with everyone. Many of us travel for work and many of us fear flying. Yet, fearing to fly is something most people hide in fear of appearing silly, irrational, weak, not committed to their jobs or not fit for the next steps in their career where traveling might be required. Personally, I didn't tell anyone for years that I was afraid of flying as I didn't want to be judged for it. But I think that all of this masking and pretending to be strong is not necessary, instead, we should openly talk about our fears and learn from each other about how to tackle them.