Fear of Flying (Or Is It?)

by Glynnis McDonnell, M.A.

I had to take a flight this past weekend. While I was pretty calm about this flight, it brought back memories about previous experiences with anxiety about flying. Specifically, I was thinking about a cross-country flight to a conference about two years ago that was pretty bumpy the whole way. During that flight, I found myself shaking with each patch of rough air we hit. I tried deep breathing, which was only mildly helpful (likely because it felt as though we hit another big bump every time I started to relax). I also tried to adjust my thinking by reminding myself that tons of planes hit turbulence every day and it is very rare for a plane to actually crash. No luck…despite my valiant attempt to change my thinking, I still found myself shaking like a leaf the entire way to California.

Being a future psychologist (and, admittedly, a bit of a perfectionist), I was very frustrated that I had not been able to successfully calm myself down during a stressful situation. Therefore, I set out to try to figure out where my efforts went wrong. Why hadn’t I been able to reason away my anxiety?! As I thought about this question, I realized that my reframe about the low likelihood of being in a plane crash hadn’t helped me because it didn’t target my actual feared consequence. I hadn’t been sitting in my window seat picturing myself dying in a horrific crash; I was picturing myself being stuck on the plane in turbulence for hours. I pictured possibly getting sick to my stomach from all the bouncing, or being trapped next to someone who got sick. I imagined desperately having to use the bathroom and not being allowed to get up. I was thinking that I couldn’t stand being trapped on that plane in those conditions with no way out. Clearly, I was experiencing a SERIOUS case of frustration intolerance.

Once I accurately identified the real source of my anxiety, I was better able to dispute my irrational thinking that was getting me into trouble. I realized that while it would be unpleasant to be stuck on an uncomfortable flight for several hours (and REALLY unpleasant if I got sick to my stomach or was sitting in close proximity to someone else who got sick), I could handle it. I have been stuck in uncomfortable situations before, I have gotten sick to my stomach, and I’ve even been trapped in close proximity to someone who was vomiting….and I survived every single time. Now when I fly, I still get a little jittery in bad turbulence, but I no longer find myself shaking like a leaf because I remind myself that I can handle the discomfort. It turns out, my fear of flying was really a fear of discomfort!

Glynnis McDonnell, M.A.

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