Anxiety about flying has threatened to ruin holidays. Picture: Istock
Anxiety about flying has threatened to ruin holidays. Picture: Istock

How I cured my fear of flying

I didn't fly until I was nearly 20.

I stayed awake all night in anticipation. It was only a two hour flight but I can still remember every bump felt like I was going to drop out of the sky, and every noise was so foreign.

People were watching movies like it was no big deal, but I was wondering how could they be so calm when we were in so much danger. I was sweating and hyper-alert. Touching down, I was so thankful we were back on the ground.

For the rest of the holiday it was in the back of my mind that I had to get back on the plane, and my stomach was doing flip flops.

My fear of flying comes from a combination of things. I remember watching footage from 9/11 over and over again, and thinking how terrified those people on the plane must have been. I still think about it every time I get on a plane. My lack of exposure to flying when I was young, coupled with a fear of heights and a general feeling of not being in control when I'm on a plane are all triggers for me.

A year later I was due to fly to the US alone. The fear of getting on the plane completely overshadowed my excitement about the trip, to the point where I didn't want to go.

My fear of flying completely overshadowed my excitement about a trip to the US. Picture: Istock
My fear of flying completely overshadowed my excitement about a trip to the US. Picture: Istock

Sick of feeling impending doom, I went to see a hypnotherapist. I was expecting to look into a spinning pattern and wake up feeling cured. It didn't quite work that way; I was conscious for it all and remember everything. The hypnotherapist was saying things like "I no longer have a fear of flying" in a soothing voice. She also gave me breathing exercises and mantras to repeat to myself, which I think were most helpful. Even still, right up until take off I had an urge to run off the plane.

I cried as we ascended, and then decided to get roaring drunk to calm my nerves (this later would become my only coping mechanism for getting on a plane).

As soon as I landed in the US, I felt such a sense of accomplishment, but yet again it turned to dread when I thought about the journey home. The flight back was really turbulent and I cried for four hours, vowing to never put myself in that situation again.

After that trip, I totally avoided flying. Even the idea induced anxiety, but I was envious looking at my friends amazing travel pictures on social media. Growing up I always pictured myself travelling the world.

Then my best friend called. Her boyfriend couldn't go with her to New Zealand and she asked if I wanted to join her instead.

I arrived in New Zealand after drinking on the flight to calm my nerves. Picture: Supplied
I arrived in New Zealand after drinking on the flight to calm my nerves. Picture: Supplied

The trip was coming up soon, so I didn't have time to think much about it, and I really wanted to go, so I just said yes. Again, I was nervous but I had my bestie and we got drunk on the plane. I was convinced I was over my fear of flying.

But I was flying home alone, and just after take off I had a panic attack. Turbulence didn't help either. I was so angry at myself; I thought I was over this.

I went into the bathroom, splashed water on my face then we hit an air pocket I gripped the sink and started crying.

Again, I vowed to avoid flying even though I wanted to travel.

But after a lot of reading on the subject, I discovered I'm not alone. Aviophobia (fear of flying) affects millions of people around the world. I also realised that people telling me to get over it and that flying was the safest form of travel wasn't going to cut it. Neither was getting blind drunk on flights.

A podcast I discovered, Fear of Flying School, suggests learning about planes and how they work. I can now tell you about why every noise from take off to wheels down is happening. It helped give me a sense of control over the situation, and a mental checklist which is a distraction from horrible thoughts.

Finding out more about how planes work and visiting a cockpit have helped conquer my fear of flying. Picture: Supplied
Finding out more about how planes work and visiting a cockpit have helped conquer my fear of flying. Picture: Supplied

Virgin Australia are adding a mindfulness meditation program from Smiling Mind to their in-flight entertainment, and there are fear of flying courses for extreme cases too.

Now I ask flight attendants about flying conditions when I board, and explain I am a nervous flyer. It means they tell me when turbulence is coming, and if it hits unexpectedly they will give a look of reassurance, and talk to me, which calms me down. One Qantas attendant spoke to the pilot, who let me go into the cockpit before takeoff and let me ask questions about flying. I also keep my mind busy - Tetris gets a real workout.

I'm now proud to say that this year marks the most flights I've ever taken. I've even flown between Singapore, Australia and Hawaii in 24 hours. I still get nervous, but I've managed to practise mindfulness, and change negative thoughts into positive ones. I'm looking forward to future travel. For other nervous flyers, find what works for you, because there is help out there.

And it's worth finding what will make you feel comfortable in the skies, because you can land in some pretty amazing places.

Carly Portch is a Hit FM Cairns announcer.



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