How I Manage My Extreme Fear of Flying // A Toolkit for Anxious Fliers

Last weekend, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a surprise part of my best friend’s engagement.

It was probably the most elaborate covert mission I have ever participated in. It was also one of those reunions that reminds you who the hell you are because the people you’re with have loved you through so much that you feel seen and held in an indescribable way.

Not only was it a reunion with friends, it was a reunion with a part of myself I hadn’t connected to in a long time. Such a blessing.

During the period of time in our undergrad years when Abby, Erik and I were spending nearly every day together (third wheel and SO PROUD OF IT), I made it clear that I wanted to be a part of their engagement whenever it happened.

In my mind, Abby and Erik have always been a done deal. So, while that might have seemed like a joking stipulation all those years ago, I always knew this was coming.

It turns out Erik was paying attention. When I received a text from him last month that read, “Hey. I got a ring. But Abby doesn’t know,” I just about passed out from excitement and nervousness that I would be keeping a giant secret from my best friend for the foreseeable future.

But the next thing he said sparked more than just anxious excitement. It triggered real anxiety. He asked me to fly up the east coast – from Miami to New York – to surprise Abby on the day of their engagement.

My heart started to race. My palms started to sweat. I felt the sickeningly familiar pit in my stomach imagining myself boarding a plane for the first time since experiencing the worst flight panic of my life this past summer.

In July of 2019, my boyfriend and I were supposed to travel to China to spend three weeks visiting his mother and exploring the country’s best-known spots.

I have been an extremely anxious flier since my young childhood. I had my first panic attack on a plane at the age of 6 (interestingly and not coincidentally just a few months post-9/11) and never recovered.

Every flight since – with zero exception – has been horrifically nerve-wracking.

I’ve done a lot of wild stuff on planes as a result of my panic, including – but not limited to – begging my mom to ask the flight attendants to reopen the locked cabin door on the runway and violently grabbing the hand of a stranger. (Thankfully she was very kind and understanding. I’ll never forget you, Susan.)

I’ve gripped arm rests, I’ve shivered in cold sweats, I’ve gone through entire flights looking at nothing but the tiny illuminated signs above me just waiting for disaster to strike.

More recently, I’ve started to experience debilitating anticipatory anxiety as well. In the week leading up to a flight, I experience sleeplessness, dizziness, nausea, and constant malaise. I once explained it as hot spiders crawling under my skin.

Nasty, I know. But this is the reality of the anxiety I’ve lived with for 18 years.

When Beiyao and I booked our flight to China, I knew it would be my most challenging flight experience to date. But my stubbornness and determination to see the place where he spent the formative years of his life propelled me. I told myself it would be hard, but that I was strong and could grit my teeth and make it happen no matter what.

Fast forward to July, and I’m not sleeping at all. I’m sick every day, I’m crying every few hours, I’m reading every book and doing every meditation that I think might provide me with a magic solution. Nothing works.

My anxiety was heightened by the fact that during our two days of travel, Beiyao and I would essentially not be sleeping (sleeping on planes is NOT a thing for me). I could sense that my body was in for a real beating.

The emotional pain I was experiencing coupled with a sense of impending dread for my physical health gave me a sneaking suspicion that this trip was headed in a disastrous direction.

Somehow, in a blur of tears and sweaty palms and 4am Uber rides, we made it to Los Angeles. I suffered for all five hours of that flight. I had a brief burst of confidence when we landed, but once the reality of our looming 14-hour flight sunk in, I broke.

I broke mentally, physically, and emotionally. I will never forget that day.

Viscerally sobbing in the streets of Manhattan Beach, I felt my body giving way underneath me. My mind was screaming for relief from the thoughts and images of catastrophe.

I had reached my edge. I couldn’t go on.

Recovering in Manhattan Beach

To say that the decision not to fly to China that night was difficult would be an understatement. It was grueling for Beiyao to call his mother and let her know I would not be coming for the visit she had been excitedly anticipating for months. It was painful for him to make the decision to stay and help me through my recovery.

I felt shame and sorrow well within me.

This was the first time my fear had stopped me from doing something important to me. Feeling the full extent of my anxiety through this experience helped me see that I needed more than just crossed fingers and a few deep breaths to fly.

I needed serious help. Medical help, psychiatric help, emotional help. Help on a deep subconscious level. And I needed a set of tangible tools that I could reach for when preparing for future flights.

Like all challenging experiences handed to us in this life, this pain was an opportunity for real change. I could see so clearly that I was not okay, and I accepted that. I was proud of myself for recognizing my physical and emotional boundaries.