I don't consider myself to be an overly anxious person—but when I travel, I turn into somebody I don’t even recognize.

By Anthea Levi
March 13, 2018

My body is numb. My heart strikes the inside of my chest so fast I wonder if it’s trying to get out. My palms? Clammy at best. This is me on an airplane, the one place my anxiety soars no matter how many mantras I repeat or ocean sounds I listen to. Breathing exercises are useless too.

To be fair, I was once on a flight that skidded off the runway while landing in a snowstorm. Luckily we were saved by a flimsy fence that separated the tarmac from an icy body of water. But part of the plane’s ceiling fell on a fellow passenger’s head and we were forced to climb out of the emergency exit. Two firefighters lifted me off the aircraft and into the snow. My luggage—and any trace of comfort I ever had with air travel—were left behind on the aircraft.

All that happened three years ago. When I tell people about the incident now, their response is usually something like, “If that happened to you once, it definitely won’t happen again!” I’m no probability pundit, but I’d like to think they’re right. Still, I can’t seem to shake the fear that mishap stirred in me.

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You might be wondering if I’m just a generally anxious human. The answer is not entirely. Sure, I’m guilty of catastrophizing here and there. Sometimes I feel antsy on an overcrowded subway car (you would too if your face was squished against a stranger’s chest). But anxiety doesn’t interfere with my daily life, one of the hallmarks of a full-blown anxiety disorder.

Yet flying turns me into someone I don't even recognize, particularly during takeoff, landing, and any time in between if there's turbulence. Every time I hear the pilot tell "folks" that the seatbelt sign has been turned on, I shrink. If beverage service is discontinued so flight attendants can take their seats while we "experience unexpected rough air," well, just forget about it.

Even worse, I’ve tried all the the tips and tricks. Inhale for three seconds, then exhale for six to calm the nervous system. Think about the tens of thousands of planes that also took off today. Distract yourself with soothing music. Listen to a guided meditation. Count up to 100, then back to zero. I do it all—and I feel no better.

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If you’re waiting to hear about the one solution that saved me from my crippling fear of flying, you’re about to be disappointed. That’s because I actually have no fix for it. But I do have a way to cope with it: I basically just endure the discomfort and anxiety and remind myself that vacation (or home) is waiting for me on the other side. 

Part of me does wonder if just sharing my story with like-minded travelers might quell my anxiety at least a bit. Maybe it will make me feel less alone the next time I’m scrunching my eyes during takeoff. Or rocking back and forth in my seat while we land. If you happen to catch me doing any of those things, I promise I’ll be okay. That is, once we reach our final destination.