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My Anxiety Toolkit For Flying

By Jennifer Barzey, LCSW

As a therapist, I am asking people to be vulnerable and share their challenges with me during session. I recognize that is not an easy thing to do! I am also a human with my own challenges and in the spirit of “walking the talk” I want to be vulnerable with you about a recent experience that brought up anxiety for me.

Last month an unexpected and urgent family situation occurred that meant I (and my partner) needed to fly to the East Coast. Fear of flying has been a challenge for me since I was little. While there are underlying reasons for this, there was no time to process them before this trip. My focus needed to be on managing my anxiety about the situation so that I could reach my destination quickly.

I help people with anxiety all the time, so that should be easy right? Think again. Yes, I am a therapist, but I am also very much a human!

While I only had a few days to prepare for the flight, I was still able to quickly assemble an “anxiety toolkit” to help me face this challenge. Here is what I did:

1. The Basics. It is always good to start with the basics of sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Author and psychiatrist, Phillip Stutz, refers to these elements as your “life force” reminding us that when unsure what to do, we can always return to these three things. Giving our body what it needs to function is essential if we hope to reduce stress and anxiety. In the few days before the flight, I tried to stay nourished, hydrated and get adequate sleep. If I could not sleep, I still made efforts to rest.

2. Distraction. Next was to prepare items for distraction during the flight. Distractions are best used when anxiety is high. During periods of intense emotion it can be difficult to access the thinking part of our brain. Healthy distraction can be a way to shift out of the fight/flight/freeze response and move back towards self-regulation. I purchased snacks, a crossword puzzle, picked out a novel and downloaded music to play on headphones.

3. Coping Techniques. When anxiety levels are in the middle range, it is ideal to employ coping skills. This is the window when we can have the biggest impact on rewiring our brain to learn how to respond differently to familiar triggers. A few of my favorite coping skills include breathing exercises, visualization, and sensory techniques. For the flight, I also developed a mantra that could be used to calm worried thoughts. (TIP: A key to effectively using coping techniques is to practice them ahead of time so they are already familiar when anxiety occurs.)

So How Did I Do?

Using a 1-10 scale, I would rate my anxiety before and during the experience as fluctuating between 4-8. While most of the flight was smooth, the last portion involved having to remain in a holding pattern then flying through heavy turbulence due to a storm. I tried using each of the distraction and coping techniques until I found the one that worked the best. Not perfect, but best. My honest conclusion is that I did not enjoy the flight but using my anxiety toolkit allowed me to avoid panic and get to my very important destination. I can feel good about that.

Facing situations that bring up anxiety is never easy. The desire to run, fight or shut down can be strong. However, by having pre-identified distraction and coping skills ready we have a better chance at successfully navigating them. The even better news is that with each success we gain confidence, and our brain starts learning that the perceived threat was not as dangerous as we originally thought.

I do not know when my next flight will be, but I am one step closer to becoming the relaxed traveler I would like to be!

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