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.
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.
I understood – maybe for the first time ever – that it’s okay not to always charge headlong into our fears. It’s okay to honor our humanness and give ourselves permission not to play the hero all the time.
I made a deal with myself. Before my next flight, I’d make a game plan. I’d build my toolkit.
Seeing the world in this lifetime is a huge priority for me. The few times that I’ve traveled abroad have transformed me to my core, given me confidence in myself and indescribable love for the beauty of nature and humanity.
Being there for my loved ones in the big moments of life is also a huge priority for me. I knew I could not allow this anxiety to fester to the point of my total inability to experience milestones with friends and family. I was not willing to give those up.
I had to get this sorted out.
Fast forward to December, and it’s time to book my flight to New York. Though my body was reeling with nerves and uncertainty that I’d even be able to physically board another plane after the China disaster, something inside me bought those tickets without hesitation.
Before I could even fully process the situation, I was texting Erik a screenshot of my itinerary. This was happening.
In typical Universe fashion, I was presented with a perfect example of the kind of life event I was not willing to miss. What better motivation than to be there for two of my favorite people on this planet?
It was time to begin the process of overcoming this fear.
I knew in my bones that this trip was meant to be, and that it was my opportunity to begin working towards recovery. It was an opportunity to find solutions that really work for me. It was an opportunity to stop allowing this fear to define me. It was an opportunity to start defining myself by the love I feel for the people in my life.
In the week leading up to my flight, I began to experience my signature debilitating anxiety. But instead of passively suffering, I sprung into action.
I booked appointment after appointment. I scheduled calls with people I knew would have helpful insights to offer. I read flight anxiety resources that are proven to provide real relief. I flooded my body with nutrients to keep myself feeling the best I possibly could.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of the tools that REALLY worked for me.
Know that this was not a fluke and I didn’t just get lucky. Because of these tools, I went from someone who literally couldn’t close her eyes on a plane because she had to watch the flight attendants’ faces every moment to someone who watched TV, meditated, and put makeup on in flight.
That difference may seem small – even insignificant – to the relaxed flier. But for me, this was a world of difference. This was the sweet exhale of relief after a lifetime of not being able to breathe.
If you experience debilitating anxiety - flight related or otherwise - may these tools reach you when you need them.
I recognize and honor that each person's battle with anxiety is individual, and what worked for me may not resonate with you. My intention is simply to connect you with my personal journey that it may spark hope for your own healing.
With that said, it's important to remember that the impetus to heal comes from within. Have faith that you will heal on your own perfect timeline. Your soul is incredibly wise and will know when it is ready.
Leading up to the flight, I…
· Kept up with all my vitamins and supplements. To ensure that I felt well physically, I was extra vigilant about my vitamin and supplement regimen. This includes TrueHope EMPower Plus (an incredible mood-regulating multivitamin), turmeric capsules, SilverFern probiotics (the only one on the market that stays completely alive before it hits your gut!), and a hair, skin & nail supplement.
· Used Cured Nutrition CBD oil at nighttime. Taking approximately 10 drops of CBD sublingually before bed helped me sleep during the week leading up to the flight. The night before I flew, I got a shocking 5 hours of sleep! That was a MAJOR accomplishment for me.
· Did EFT tapping meditations. I used this meditation from reiki healer Kelsey Patel, and this meditation from tapping expert Nick Ortner. Both are catered specifically to anxious fliers. I know the tapping method accessed and healed something in my subconscious because the moment I uttered the first phrase of the Kelsey Patel meditation (“Even though I have all this fear of flying, I deeply trust myself”), I started sobbing.
· Started reading SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying. While I wasn’t able to get through the entire book in time, I learned a technique that helped a TON. This technique redirects anxious thoughts and stops the vicious cycle in the brain that leads to panic attacks. Focusing your gaze on a single object, mentally list five things you can see in your peripheral vision, five things you can hear, and five things you can physically feel.
· Started my Insight Timer free trial so that I could download meditations to listen to offline. More on this below.
· Downloaded several shows, podcasts and Kindle books. I had my arsenal of entertainment at the ready.
· Talked to a flight attendant. I had a FaceTime conversation with a flight attendant friend! She was able to answer all of my questions and assure me that there is nothing that could cause a plane to randomly fall out of the sky (one of my irrational fears). I also learned that the worst thing that could realistically happen during turbulence is that you bump your head on something. Lastly, she taught me what each of the plane’s “chime” sounds means! Hint: it's nothing bad.
· Obtained Xanax. I had to bite the bullet on this one. Growing up treating things mostly holistically, I’ve always avoided taking medication for anxiety. But this was part of accepting the help that I needed. My psychiatrist prescribed me the smallest possible dosage of Xanax, and just having it with me made me feel more confident and in control.
During the flight, I…
· Took Xanax. With the tiny dosage I was prescribed, I felt no drowsiness or dizziness. I simply felt my anxiety subside to the point that I could settle in to a meditation before takeoff.
· Used noise-blocking headphones. This was HUGE for me! Going into my own personal bubble during boarding, taxi, and takeoff, helped me to disconnect from many of the visual and auditory stimuli that add to my anxiety. Muffling the noise of the plane’s engines was especially helpful, as I tend to overanalyze that sound.
· Used an essential oil blend. During taxiing, I applied a few drops of my Young Living Peace & Calming II blend. Because I typically use this blend at home, it made me feel safe.
· Meditated during takeoff. Using my noise-blocking headphones and a meditation I had downloaded from Insight Timer, I settled in to a calming meditation during takeoff. Though I wasn’t able to focus as deeply as I would during a typical meditation, turning my focus inward set me up VERY well. Instead of worrying about every external sight and sound, I was in my body, focused on my breath.
· Did a breathing exercise. I used a technique I learned from Yoga With Adriene. You inhale as deeply as possible, hold your breath for 5-10 seconds, and then empty everything out with control. Something about that long exhale after holding the breath makes me feel like a wave of calm is enveloping me.
· Snapped a rubber band on my wrist when it got bumpy. My psychiatrist suggested that to distract my mind during triggering events like turbulence, I snap a rubber band on my wrist. This gave me something to do and physically feel other than worry.
· Engaged in tactile activities. The physical movements of putting my makeup on during flight were another welcome distraction. Also, this might be TMI and sound silly, but bathroom breaks helped a lot too! I had a little one-woman Lizzo-themed dance party in the lavatory (before I sat down to pee of course, hah). It was awesome.
· Used the mantra “I am safe.” I repeated this in the back of my mind for nearly the entire flight. It reminded me that loving consciousness is always with me. I am eternally guided and never alone.
Utilizing these tools resulted in two of my most successful flying experiences to date.
I want to be clear that I am by no means cured of my fear, and I experienced anxiety on both flights. But I was able to calm myself in a new way. I was empowered by the knowledge, tricks, and exercises I sought out.
I affirmed that I am my own healer, my own teacher, my own guide. We all possess the power to heal within.
The reward on the other side was beyond sweet. Abby's tears of joy when I popped out of her guest room to surprise her are forever imprinted on my heart. Our weekend of sweatpants, family, SoulCycle (duh), laughter and champagne is a treasure that no one can ever take away from me.
I believe now more than ever that our dark nights of the soul are matched with the sweetest sunlight. The more darkness we experience, the greater our ability to appreciate and bask in the light.
My darkness is not over. But the glimpse of light I received will forever be worth the difficult journey I have endured.
I don't know if I will ever fully overcome my fear of flying. But I know one thing for certain: I will never again allow my anxiety to stomp out my light, and I will never stop fighting this battle.
The love, family, soul-expanding experiences, and transcendent joy are unquestionably worth it.