Friday, April 6

From fear of flying to tranquility, via a little yellow pill (and some cute pilots)

I wasn’t always afraid of flying. Instead, like many people, I was ambivalent about the whole experience; I enjoyed the take-off but found the remainder, particularly long haul, tedious at best. Since I’m neither wealthy nor have a job that provides me with the opportunity, first or business class have always eluded me, and there just isn’t much enjoyment to be had in economy, especially since I appear cursed to always end up sitting either next to someone too large to comfortably fit in their own seat and so end up occupying part of mine, or an over-friendly, thick-skinned chatterbox who wants to share their life’s story as we cross the Atlantic.

But after being taken seriously ill whilst on holiday in the early 90s my fear of flying was conceived and delivered in an instant on board the flight back home. It appeared the illness had provided me with an uncomfortable insight into my own mortality, and so I spent the next 10 years avoid getting on a plane unless it was absolutely necessary. Of course with my entire family living in Sweden this wasn’t easy.

After I moved to the UK two things happened that improved things considerably. First my doctor kindly wrote a prescription for valium and told me to take one before flying, after I described how my fear of flying often ruined my holidays as I worried about the return flight as soon as I made it off the outbound flight in one piece. I normally hate taking pills of any kind, but valium was an exception and I gladly took it once I realised how it helped take the edge off the worst of my fear. I was still nervous and gripped the armrest at take-off, and spent a large part of the flight ensuring the plane remained in the air by concentrating really hard, believing that if I relaxed too much it would simply drop out of the sky.

The other discovery was much better and didn’t involve any pharmaceuticals. The cockpit. After informing a particularly friendly flight attendant of my concerns she asked if I wanted to have a chat with the pilot and see what it was like up front. And that was the beginning of a short but very sweet time. Sitting in the cockpit is simply awesome. I realised that in my imagination I had pictured the pilots manically pulling at the rudder, calling out “mayday, mayday” in desperation, their foreheads slick with perspiration, red lights flashing everywhere as the plane hurtled towards the ground. The truth was entirely different of course; they oozed calm and confidence and would swivel around in their chairs as I entered; invite me for a cup of tea, laughing and joking. Sometimes I was even lucky enough to be invited to stay for the landing. At no point did I ever experience fear. From then on I started exaggerating my worries just a little bit, so that I always got to sit up front. Unfortunately 9/11 put an immediate stop to these delightful visits, and so I found myself more or less forced to return to the chemical comfort provided by the pale yellow pills.

In recent months what may be a more long lasting relief has appeared from a completely unexpected angle. Mindfulness. Since I started meditating I have gradually become more able to focus on the moment as it happens, to live in the present. There is still a tendency to let the mind wander, in my case towards the future, and what’s going to happen, or more importantly what may happen; towards what ifs. But it happens less and less, and I also catch myself doing it more easily and can gently steer my mind back towards now. Once I started applying this awareness when flying things improved rapidly and dramatically. When I returned from Sweden just over a month ago I found myself sitting by the cabin window calmly looking out as the plane sped along the runway, and as we took off marvelling at the wondrous experience of flying, of the beautiful landscape spread out beneath me and I was overcome not by fear, but by tranquillity.

Photo from


Nicole said...

how wonderful that you are using your mindfulness to overcome your fear. i'm in the love with that idea.

i have always been fascinated with flying. it gives me a sense of freedom to be high in the sky, watching the tiny little world below. however, i have a hard time sitting still, so the stuck in your seat for hours feel is not one i adore.

anyway, wherever you've flown i hope you enjoy your time.


edvard moonke said...

I used to love flying too, and like you, I enjoyed the take-off most and got bored the rest of the journey. but my gf is terrified of flying, though not terrified enough to say no to holidays. I think that over time, some of her apprehension has rubbed off on me, and when I'm flying now I feel quite anxious, especially during turbulence. after all, it's not natural, is it, to be in a tube of metal hurtling at hundreds of miles per hour through the sky. I suppose what gets me through it is a kind of meditative state too, but more basic than yours: I just play the numbers, constantly reminding myself of the odds. hope you have a great easter break. :-)

BlueJude said...

Cool beans Wasp! Have a fantastic Easter day!!

Bearette24 said...

I used to be quite fearful of flying also. I went to, and this captain/social worker who runs the site sent me newsletters for a while. I realized that the odds of something happening are minuscule and I almost feel more relaxed in a plane than a car now. Another thing that helped: I used to panic when I heard a clunking sound shortly after takeoff and before landing. I learned it was just the wheels being retracted and lowered, respectively.

La Cubana Gringa said...

I've always loved flying...I love being above the's like a totally different world up there...a Carebear World. (Did you have that cartoon when you were a kid?) :)

Glad to hear that you are able to relax a little bit more these days by just using the power of your mind. If this ever fails you, just remember, statistically, you have more of a chance of something happening to you when you get behind the wheel of your car than you do getting onto a plane! (Hope this doesn't make you anxious about driving!!)

Hope you're enjoying yourself wherever you are!! xox

acumamakiki said...

I despise to fly and have been a fan of Xanax to fly but hate the stupor I find myself in. I have a flight tomorrow and while I'm terrified I'm also determined to not pill this flight - I took the one out here to California sans pill and even the puddle jump from SF to LA without. I can do this. But if you wanted to say a little prayer to get me back East I'd love that too.