Over coming my fear of flying to get to South America

fear of flying meme

For years now South America has been on my agenda as a continent I had to travel. In the 3 years that I spent travelling without taking a flight, as my fear of flying began to take a tighter hold on my life, I looked at every other possibility I could for crossing that ocean without getting on a plane. I looked at cargo ships mostly, but also a variety of over-priced cruises to see if I could find a route. Every option I looked at always led to a dead end either by simply the amount it cost, the fact they didn’t take passengers, or they just didn’t travel that way across oceans. Eventually I realised my fear was beginning to impact hugely on my life and the things that I wanted to do. I knew deep down that I needed to find some way to get over it. I needed to take a flight. I also knew that this wouldn’t be something I could conquer over night

The start of beating this thing

I decided I needed to start small. A long haul flight still seemed like hours of prolonged hell that I just wasn’t ready to face. Instead I started off by booking a flight from Scotland to Spain. On 27th October 2011 I took my first flight from Glasgow to Malaga after 3 years of only flightless travel, and surprisingly it went ok. In fact, too ok. I felt such a huge sense of accomplishment after the flight. Inspired, and in true Runaway Jane style of setting over ambitious targets, I started booking flights regularly all over Europe. At one point I think I was flying an average of 6 flights per month in 2012. It was a huge step forward from where I was previously, but it didn’t come without its complications.

I still felt that same terror and fear I had always felt before about flying, except that I was now regularly forcing myself to live through it much more regularly. In the process I developed IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Every night before I was due to take a flight my IBS would play up. It rarely bothered me at any other time. It would start the night before a flight and only calm down after my arrival the next day. I had to become regimented in how I dealt with it. As those with IBS will know, it’s the kind of thing that can route you to your house during the entirety of an episode so trying to travel whilst experiencing that had its difficulties.

Realising my IBS was linked to my anxiety I would literally have to schedule in at least 6 to 7 toilet breaks over the course of the day when I knew I had a flight, predicting at which points my anxiety would play up most from past travel experience. I would go immediately before I left the house, immediately when I arrived at the airport, as soon as I was through security, before I got on the plane, immediately after take off, at least one more time mid-flight, and then as soon as I got off the plane. After this point I usually felt fine if maybe a little tired, but by enlarge my IBS would clear up completely as soon as I got to where I was going. It was becoming ridiculous, but I was determined that I couldn’t let this fear and anxiety rule my life. I was focused on the fact that eventually I’d be able to work myself up to a long haul flight, and in particular a long haul fight to South America. Always in the back of mind this was what I was training myself up to do. Like stepping stones to a larger goal.

Some shit I didn’t want to tell you

It wasn’t until during one particularly stressful flight in Europe – I can’t even remember where I was flying to exactly – but what I do remember is when I went to go to the toilet on board the flight, the attendant turned me away as the seatbelt sign had just come on. I panicked. I tried explaining that I desperately needed to go the toilet, that I was ill, that I just needed to go, but she wasn’t listening. I started to freak out. Eventually I sat back down in my seat, put on my seatbelt, and tried to calm myself. If the seatbelt sign was coming on then this meant we were landing soon. If we were landing soon then I would have access to a toilet soon. I just needed to hold on.

The descent seemed to take forever. I think we had to circle a few times before we landed which prolonged the whole event. I was doubled up with my head on my knees and in my hands, trying not to cry, and just trying to keep calm. I had my eyes clenched shut. When the bump eventually came as the plane landed it came as a surprise after all that waiting. I hadn’t even realised we were there yet, something which I’d usually be analysing minute by minute until the moment we and the plane touched the ground. Ironically I’d become so pre-occupied with not shitting myself in front of a plane full of people that hurtling towards the ground in a tiny tin can no longer seemed to be top of my worries! It’s funny that isn’t it? Irrational fears suddenly get put in their place when all you’re wishing for is to arrive at your destination without having shat yourself in public. Which thankfully I never, just so you know, but it didn’t make it any less distressing!

After that flight I decided to take a break. I spent 5 months at home doing nothing but rest and work. My IBS began to disappear, and while it is something in nature which could return at any moment, it hasn’t come back in over 8 months. When Spring began I started travelling again and taking flights. I found that as long as I didn’t take too many flights close together, spaced them all out, that I no longer got so ill with it. In fact, the flights I’ve took recently this summer in Europe have become filled more with boredom than anything else. In a weird way the illness that I developed from my anxieties with flying ended up being the thing that put it all into perspective for me, that helped eradicate the major terror induced part of my fear. This may sound stupid, but how can you be scared of having a plane crash when your immediate concern is whether or not you have swift access to a toilet? How can you be scared when you know that when it comes down to it, you’d rather take the option of plummeting to your death than crapping yourself in front of the cute guy in isle 3?

So why exactly I am telling you about all this personal stuff (and in particular the pooping part???)

Trust me, telling you about a time I nearly shat myself on a plane full of people was not really something I wanted to tell you – just in case you were wondering! But I guess what I was trying to convey was A) just how much I really wanted to make it to South America, and B) detail the difficulties that serious fears and phobias can sometimes have on people.

Often when I tell people about my fear of flying I get dismissed or even laughed at for being silly. To someone who is genuinely terrified of something this reaction really doesn’t help. I get that logically my fear of flying makes no sense when you look at the statistics of flight crashes versus other things. I understand that there are many more car accidents for example than plane crashes, yet I would quite happily get into a car without a second thought for the things which plague my mind mid-flight. The thing about irrational fears and anxiety though is that it doesn’t really work like that. It’s a lot less to do with logic and sensible thinking, and a lot more to do with chemicals in the brain or an incident in your life which may have triggered such profound fear. It’s not as simple as just ‘pulling yourself together’ or ‘getting over it’ as some people may say, even if you’d very much like to do just that. It takes time, a lot of mind distraction techniques, and talking yourself through it before, during, and after. The good thing though is that it is beatable. Everyone who feels this way about flying can get over it. My case is a prime example of that.

On Monday I will take my first long haul flight in several years. I’ll be making my way to South America, spending 5 months travelling the continent, starting off in Buenos Aires. I haven’t been more excited about a trip since I first started travelling in 2006! For once my excitement far outweighs any feelings of anxiousness I may feel in regards to a flight. Anyway, I guess I just wanted to share that with you. I know for some people it probably seems like a very small mountain to climb, to get on a flight, but for me it’s been a pretty big deal. And this time, if the air hostess doesn’t let me access the loo, well, lets just say she may have a rather smelly seat to go back to because I sure as hell won’t be doing it in MY seat! 😉

6 Responses to “Over coming my fear of flying to get to South America”

  1. John says:

    Great story Jane! I don’t have a fear of flying myself but I know some who do and I think they would take inspiration from your journey.

  2. Roni Faida says:

    It’s not silly at all. I totally get it because for years I was afraid. I was helped when I sat next to a pilot and his wife at a cafe in Paris and we struck up a conversation and he explained how planes were made and how safe they were. Something about that conversation really helped me.

    And now I work for an airline and I understand how safe they are. I just decided that I had to let go of the fear since I wasn’t in control and I wasn’t going to stop traveling. Have you thought about taking a sleeping pill for the ride? Some people find that helpful.

  3. Andrew says:

    Good description. It really is something different to be afflicted by one of these irrational fears. And to try to talk rationally does not always work. It is like using logic to put out a fire, they are kind of different.

    I had such a bad fear of flight that I moved to Europe on a boat and did not fly for 10years. Then I really wanted to get to Greece and was “ok” flying for a bit. I did a bunch of flights including a lot of long haul ones. Then we did Turkey on some short haul flights and we had one bad one. Now I feel unhappy about the idea of flying again. I defintely will as there are things I want to see, but ugh I had hoped I had beat the fear. It seems fear is something I will have to deal with in some form for the rest of my life.

    Thanks for sharing. It is always nice to know we are not alone.


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