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After the First Flight

by Steve M.

I’m writing this little reflection for those who have a phobia about air travel and have managed to fly for the first time in awhile, perhaps through a course like the one offered by the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center, but still have lingering anxiety. I’m doing this because most books and materials seem geared to people who are still in the “avoidance mode” and have either not yet flown or are just making their way back.

If you have that “comeback” flight under your belt, you might ask, “now what?” Most people in this situation will continue to have fears. I speak from experience. I successfully completed the Free to Fly program at the center last May, but knew there was more work to be done if I wanted to achieve my objective, which is being able to fly comfortably-permanently. I had been already chipping away at this phobia for quite some time (by reading and listening to tapes and otherwise thinking about flying), and I knew that once I graduated, I would have to make a commitment to fly frequently in order to “lock in” my gains.

Throughout the course I greatly appreciated Program Leader Dr. Marty Seif’s anxiety one-liners and practical tips; one of those I took to heart was the advice: if one can manage to fly at least once per month for around two years, then flying can “become yours.” With that in mind, I resolved to do as he had recommended. So far it’s going well because I’ve stayed the course-but it hasn’t been easy. The main reason is anticipatory anxiety, which, as Dr. Seif and other experts in the field of phobias have indicated, has a life of its own.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still not totally calm on a plane, even though I’ve recently completed a total of eight trips (see the table at the end of the story). It’s now January, and I’m looking forward to scheduling something this month, then, in February there’s an industry conference I need to attend in Scottsdale, Arizona, and in March there’s another event in Las Vegas. So I’m gearing up for some long jaunts. In the meantime what I hope to do is track my progress, with the goal of perhaps helping others in the future.

After my first two flights, both with groups, I discovered the exhilaration of success that one gets immediately after facing a fear. I usually felt ready to “go again right away,” which explains why I have tended to make my next reservation soon after my last flight, to take advantage of this energy and optimism, which sometimes doesn’t last (for this reason, I did two trips last May).

What I realized was anticipatory anxiety seems to lie in the subconscious, and the longer I’ve waited after the last flight, I’ve noticed a nagging desire to avoid making the next reservation–a feeling of dread that’s not based on my actual experience, which, as we know, has been rather good!

Purchasing my tickets used to be quite difficult. The old familiar tightness began in my left chest, a little lightness in the breathing, a little projection of myself into the future flight situation (through imagination). After the ticket was bought, there was still the flutter. Then it would go away for a while, only to re-emerge a week or so before the flight.

But, most importantly, these sensations have reduced with each successful trip. For instance, I’ve gone from semi-intense worry starting three or more weeks before a flight, to the point where the anxiety begins only a few days before a flight. I can tell you that when you take steps to address anticipatory anxiety, its duration generally shortens. What you end up doing is simply thinking about other things again, going about your daily business, and staying in the moment.

But in the early going, for me, the time right before a flight was marked by headaches, lack of sleep, imagining myself in the plane over and over again, and a tendency to get stomach upset; the latter is a queasy, acidic sensation, and quite often I would find it difficult to eat. I’d also get irritable and impatient with life’s everyday disappointments, injustices and trials-more than I normally do, anyway.

The real “acid test” (pun intended) was my third trip in the progression, when I went by myself to Washington D.C. That was a real mixture of sensations. The amount of time I spent worrying and having “levels” gradually reduced, except for the week before leaving. The night before was especially difficult; I couldn’t sleep and very seriously thought of canceling. In fact I really had to push myself to drive to LaGuardia. I called my counselor, Judy Shaw, from my car and somehow I managed to make it to the terminal. Actually, I thought it was nothing short of miraculous!

Once I touched down in D.C., what a feeling of accomplishment! A wave of relief hit me, and I spent the night in a hotel-fully able to sleep and to eat. It was a true breakthrough, and I suspect that many people will have the same thing happen if they keep on flying. There will be one flight where a really excruciating bout of anticipatory anxiety will sneak up on you and will be hard to move through. It’s a wall that, if overcome, may be an even greater triumph than the graduation flight. My anxiety on my third trip was greater than what it was on the graduation flight. I assume the feelings needed time to “settle in.”

Which brings up the question: what if I had cancelled? Indeed, I was worried that if I allowed myself the luxury of opting out, it might be that much more difficult later. My thought was that I’d have to go back to flying with other people-or perhaps work through the other progressions in my recovery: tall buildings, the tram, copters, until I was ready to go up again.

Fortunately, my monthly jet travel has continued unbroken and it has gotten much easier. In between my plane trips I have done some desensitization work with Judy-including peering over the railing from the top floor of the Trump Tower atrium on Fifth Avenue-to deal with my core fear of heights. Our talking through the issues has helped immensely; I must express my thanks to her for her insights.

Another major tool for me has been to link flying with pleasurable activities, one of which is an appreciation of art and music. I have to thank Carol and Herb Gross of the Fly Without Fear support group at LaGuardia Airport for helping reawaken my appreciation of fine arts. First, I must say that I appreciate Carol and Herb’s enthusiasm, sense of humor and optimism about helping people, which has come thanks to over 30 years of holding meetings at the airport. Secondly, I took a conditioning flight with the group to Washington, where we visited the Hirschhorn Museum of Modern Art. At the gift shop I purchased a small but colorful book about the life and work of Marc Chagall, which sparked remembrances of my youthful days when I used to draw and daydream (probably a little too often, but that’s another story …).

From there, I continued work on a “memory book” I developed, using a large artist’s pad. In it I’ve pasted tickets, luggage tags, photos, receipts and other mementos from my flights and, naturally, I’ve done some journalizing in it too. Since going to the Hirschhorn I’ve purchased two sets of colored pens, and while “up in the air” (a very appropriate image if you know the work of Chagall) I’ve used them to sketch-an activity that truly focuses and relaxes my mind.

As I’ve been filling the book I’ve noticed that I am writing and drawing more freely on each trip. When I started out I was too tense to do any scribbling. Now I wouldn’t think of taking a flight without this portfolio of sorts. So, for those who are endeavoring to build a true habit of flying, I suggest you find some way to connect the flight experience with your creative side. Find something that you can immerse yourself in while on the plane that keeps you awake and aware of your surroundings.

Finally, what I’ve tried to do is proceed slowly and systematically, which is why I have done short to medium-range flights for the time being, with the goal of building up to longer ones. If for any reason I have a setback, I may have to return to a more comfortable stage in the progression, and start again. We’ll see how it goes. What I’ve tried to avoid was the classic “all or nothing” mentality. No matter what, I’m determined to maintain my program.

Based upon my experience thus far, I want to tell those folks who are still working on this phobia that “you can do it,” you can become a flyer, with patience, practice, fortitude, and a positive attitude. I wish you all the best.

My flights thus far: May – Graduation flight to Boston with the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center group; May – Fly Without Fear trip to Washington, D.C.; June – First “solo” trip to Washington, D.C.; July – “Discovery Flight” with American Flyers (where I actually flew the plane!); August – Week-long vacation to Myrtle Beach, S.C. ; September – A day in Washington, D.C.; October – Business trip to Boston; November – Visit to relatives in Chicago; December – Weekend trip to Boston.

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