Coping with a fear of flying: the secret rituals of aviophobics

fear of flyingMy name is Laurel, and I have aviophobia. I, like millions of Americans, am scared shitless of flying. Aviophobia can manifest for a variety of reasons: a traumatic experience on a previous flight; claustrophobia; fear of heights; fear of loss of control (ding, ding, ding!), even a fear of motion sickness. After years of researching the subject, I’ve learned that I fit the classic profile of an aviophobic: female, with sudden onset in my early twenties.

In my situation, there was nothing to precipitate my phobia; I actually loved to fly as a kid. But over a period of 10 years, it progressed until I was not only having anxiety attacks on flights, but suffering frequent nightmares about crashes in the weeks before a trip, no matter how anticipated. The final straw came when, in December of 1999, I was about to embark on a five-week solo backpacking trip of Southeast Asia. It was days before my departure, and I was so terrified by the thought of 21 hours in the air, I was ready to bail on the entire thing.

Fortunately, I got a grip, called my doctor, and explained the situation. He immediately wrote me a prescription for Xanax and my life as a traveler has been the better for it ever since. Why it took me so long is a mystery, but Xanax quells (but not eliminates) my anxiety and enables me to fall into slumber that renders me drooling and pleasantly out of it during flight, but alert enough to awaken should it be necessary.

I know Xanax is a crutch, and that’s okay. I’m not advocating taking drugs to solve all of one’s problems, but in this instance, it’s what worked for me after other methods (including therapy) failed. I know people who no longer fly because of their phobia, and to me, that’s sad. The world becomes a smaller place–literally and figuratively–when you let fear control you.

I still don’t enjoy flying, although my phobia has lessened. There are even the rare flights where I don’t take Xanax. But there’s one thing I must always do before departure that’s far more important than popping a pharmaceutical. I must perform My Ritual.

[Photo credit: Flickr user runningclouds]

fear of flyingEvery aviophobic I’ve talked to (for some reason, most of my friends suffer from it) has a secret mantra they utter, or small ceremony they perform before flight that, in their minds, assures them the Gods of Aviation or whoever will ensure safe passage.

Admittedly, most of my friends are depraved lushes who drink themselves senseless before they fly (another used to rely upon “bong hits,”) but that’s not what I’m referring to. And, for the record, I strongly recommend you not get hammered before departure, especially if you’re taking sleeping pills or other prescription drugs related to your flight. I also recommend you see your doctor and get a prescription, rather than take meds or sleep aids from friends or purchase them in a foreign pharmacy.

For those of you who grapple with a fear of flying, I know you have your little pre-flight ritual. Whenever I board an aircraft I have to touch the outside of the plane with my right hand, and utter a specific phrase to myself. I’m not going to say what it is, because I don’t want to doom my next flight.

I asked my fellow Gadling contributors, AOL Huffington Post Media Group editors, and flight-phobic friends what they do for solace before taking to the skies, and they were very forthcoming. Touching the outside of the plane while boarding was by far the most common response. What a bunch of freaks.

Rebecca Dolan: “I won’t fly without a St. Christopher medal.”
fear of flying
Laurel’s friend L: “Despite not being religious, the act of saying the words to the Hail Mary and Lord’s Prayer before take-off is just something I have to do. I also can’t step on any metal on the jetway. This means I have to take a big, stretched-out step while boarding the plane.”

Annemarie Dooling: “This is all the Catholic school that was beaten into me as a child: I pray the rosary. I recite the Hail Mary and Our Father on succession; this way if I die, I’ll go to heaven, right? Right?”

Melanie Renzulli: “When I lived in India, I got into this habit of praying to Ganesha when taking off. Now I do a quick little prayer to Buddha, Ganesha, Allah, and Jesus just to cover most of my bases. Cheesy, I know. I mentioned this to a flying enthusiast friend of mine and he said, “I pray to the gods of certification, engineering, manufacturing, and most importantly physics.”

Laurel’s friend J: “I have no rituals except vigilance. Every time I try to nod off, that’s when the Captain comes on to tell us we’ve blown a tire, or that little dip was one of the engines going out, or we’re about to encounter some strong turbulence and the attendants had better strap in….so no distractions for me, just watching and waiting.” [I should add that this particular friend–a strapping fellow–has endured two emergency landings, so I applaud him for flying at all].

Kyle Ellison: “My wife has to take Xanax, pee twice, and snap her hand with a rubber band to calm down. Why? Who knows. I always touch the side of the aircraft with my right palm when walking through the front door. Done it since I was five.”

Laurel’s friend A: Her ritual is taking the train.

[Photo credits: pills, Flickr user Keturah Stickann; rosary, Flickr user miqui]

Deepak Chopra on How to Overcome Fear of Flying

Video of the Day: CarSik Bib vomit demonstration

Whether you’re flying or driving, when you have to worry about a child, things are much more complicated. As adults, we can respond to our own bodies’ needs and act accordingly. Kids, sadly, need our help going to the bathroom, feeding themselves, and, all too often, being sick. Motion sickness is horrible for kids. They don’t know why they feel sick, they get scared and throwing up is a mess. Thankfully, one clever entrepreneur decided to address that issue by creating the CarSik Bib, a reverse feedbag for your child. Check out the video above for a demo. Things get pretty awesome around the 30-second mark. Trust me.

For adults and older kids, they also make the Hurl-e. The product isn’t that exciting, but it’s nice to see our vomit dummy getting such steady work.

The travel illness that never goes away

travel illnessIt’s called Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (MDDS) and is a disorder of perceived movement that develops following plane flights, an ocean cruise, or train travel. It can persist for months or years. Despite references to MDDS that date back as far as 1796, little is known about the rare and annoying though non-life-threatening condition.

Common symptoms of the odd disorder include a persistent sensation of motion such as rocking, swaying, tumbling, and/or bobbing. This sensation of motion is often associated with anxiety, fatigue, difficulty maintaining balance, unsteadiness, and difficulty concentrating (impaired cognitive function). Often, the motion sensation seems to disappear when riding in the car or participating in other motion experiences.

Basically, it’s like the feeling one might get when they first get off a cruise ship or long flight as they adjust to not living on something that is moving.
Patty Boyd of Spokane, Washington was a U.S. Air Force medic, so her diagnosis of mal de debarquement seemed especially strange after cruise vacations in 2003 and 2005 left her rocking reports News-Leader.com

“I did all kinds of traveling while I was in the Air Force, with no problems whatsoever,” Boyd says.

The rocking and bobbing lasted more than a year after the second cruise. Her third and current episode was triggered in spring 2010 by a flight to Hawaii.

In addition to motion, patients report episodes of feeling heavy heads, often described as “excess gravity”, and sensitivity to light and noise.

“It’s a difficult thing to diagnose. It’s rare, so it’s not the first thing you think of,” says neurologist Rodney Quinn, whose practice has less than half a dozen MDDS patients.

Normally diagnosed by excluding other illnesses, if you feel a constant rocking sensation which started immediately after a period of prolonged motion exposure and remains for days, yet everything else appears to be normal then it’s possible that you have MDDS.

There is no known cure for it. As a self-limiting illness, it eventually goes away on its own. Prevention is tough too. Valium and Ativan have been suggested as pre-trip medications to prevent recurrences of MDDS but then there’s the whole addiction thing to worry about.

Flickr photo by mio_pls

Related Stories


Learn about Motion Sickness and Mosquitoes

Gadling Take Five: Week of June 14-June 20

Food was once again on our minds here at Gadling. Actually, a lot was on our minds, but almost everyone had something to say about food.

  • Grant wanted to know if you could eat what Andrew Zimmern eats on Bizarre Foods. Grant couldn’t. I’m not particularly fond of intestines either.
  • Matthew told us what foods to avoid in Japan.
  • Erik told us how to not lose food because of motion-sickness.
  • Iva told us how the Chinese are renaming their food so we don’t get sick from the names.
  • And, Kelsey reminded us to ask for the bill in a restaurant in Mexico so after you’ve eaten, you can pay.

Oh, and one more. If you’re around Heather in the galley of an airplane, keep your hands out of those lemons!