A few days before my flight and after many supportive texts between my Anxiety Girls, this beautiful collage showed up on my doorstep with a note that said, “Just a reminder of how lovely and strong you are!” Another morning this week, a friend left a bouquet of daffodils after hearing that my Grandma had passed away. Messages of love and support and strength came pinging in all week, in fact. Even though I blog about anxiety, I don’t share it with everyone in my day to day life. But the friends & family who knew I was struggling this week came out in force and I couldn’t be more grateful. Spoiler alert – I made it home safe & sound after two good flights! Worst part- the anticipation. More to come soon.
So, my sweet 97 year old Grandma just passed away on Sunday and I’ll be boarding a plane tomorrow to fly to her funeral service. She was a strong and gentle soul who gave the best hugs and loved us all unconditionally. Flying kinda terrifies me. But I loved my Grandma & it’s important that I show up to support my Dad and family so I’m doing it anyways.
If you’re someone who experiences anxiety/panic, especially around flying, you know that I’ve been a hot mess of anticipatory anxiety this week. Upset stomach, waves of adrenaline, moments of sheer terror as I imagine being up 35,000 feet in the air.
What’s frustrating is that, just like any anxiety producing situation, it will all be fine no matter what. “Good gracious”, I tell my brain – “All this fuss and distress over a 2 hour plane ride is ridiculous!”
What terrible thing has happened in the past? Sure, I’ve felt waves of panic while on a plane before. The feelings and thoughts are scary when you can’t leave the situation, but they pass. And, really, what are you going to do? To the best of my ability, I ride the waves of adrenaline – I work on allowing the feelings as much as possible – and sometimes I even get bold & ask for more (paradox). After that, I return to what I was doing before. Sometimes I have to do this over and over until the sensations go away, but they always do. Promise. And honestly, on every flight I have a moment where I love looking out the window, admiring the beautiful clouds.
I’ve also felt super anxious before a flight only to feel fairly calm during the whole ride. But in both cases, I’ve lived to tell the tale and the worst thing that happened was I felt scared. I have never gone all Ricky Bobby on a plane or impersonated Kristen Wig in Bridesmaids.
So what am I doing to prepare & cope? I’m not a big meds person, but I always take a little xanax when I fly. My doctor prescribes me just enough to get me there & back. It’s not perfect, but does help relax my body. Maybe someday I’ll choose to fly without meds, but for now I’m totally ok with it.
I’m also watching flight videos to try and quickly desensitize and have skimmed Capt. Tom Bunn’s book about flying without fear. In between I may have sent out a few prayers to God that I wake up with an on/off switch for my amygdala. I just think that was an error in our design.
Maybe the biggest thing I’m doing to cope, however, is committing to showing up tomorrow. When my sweet brother (who loves to fly) picks me up to go to the airport I will get in the car. He’ll drive & I’ll be shaky for a few hours as we head to DC. But along the way we’ll sing, play the license plate game and together we’ll board that damn airplane.
Here’s what I’m carrying on board for some healthy distraction tomorrow. And following are some videos I’ve watched this week to get ready.
My carry on bag of goodies:
*Journal and pen -inside the journal I’ll write myself some reminder notes about how to handle anxiety when it shows up
*Grown up coloring book and pretty pencils
*Laptop with a few movies downloaded, plus Harry Potter on Audible.
*Magazines with pretty pictures
*Knitting – I may knit something mindless or start another one of these cute hats.
*Some homemade Cowgirl Cookies, plus other snacks, gum & mints
*A picture of my family
Some games I like to play on a plane:
*Choose a stranger on the plane and write a quick story about who you think they might be. You know, like mini-bio or where they’re headed after the plane lands. When I flew with my buddy Allison this past summer we alternated paragraphs, which makes it even more fun.
*Any game that involves the alphabet – an ABC list of names you would never name your baby, a list of places where you’d like to travel, a list of your favorite book characters.
*Who farted? Yeah, this is getting pretty mature. But laughter is the opposite of fear and this is a funny game. Can you tell who may have just farted on the plane?
A few resources I’ve used this week to prepare:
*These videos are great for info & desensitization.
This video is amazing – a Dad who works for Southwest created this video for his son who is on the autism spectrum:
So, now for the good stuff.
After planes, taxi’s & ferry boats, we arrived in the sleepy, little island of St. John and made our way to the Maho Bay Campgrounds where we stayed for a whole week. Now, some of my girlfriends laughed when I told them we stayed in a tent cabin, had to walk to the common bathhouse and fill water jugs every day. But, they have no idea what they were missing. There’s something to be said for simplicity and being so close to nature.
I gotta tell you, every anxious moment was worthwhile when I walked into our tent cabin & realized that we could sit up in bed & see the Caribbean ocean. Seriously – right from our beds!
During our vacation, we learned how to snorkel & saw the most vibrantly colored fish. It was like putting your face into a salt water aquarium. The first day we tried snorkeling, I felt a little tense, a bit nervous and then I remembered — it’s normal to feel nervous when you’re trying something new. Oh yeah. OK, let’s jump in then. On our snorkeling adventures we had the exciting pleasure of swimming with a few big & stripey barracuda, a big orange starfish, a friendly sea turtle, and a few nurse sharks. We met the most amazing people along the way and spent time in engaging conversation during breakfast and dinner each day, overlooking the Caribbean & British virgin islands from the dining pavilion. Our first full day there, we spontaneously decided to take a sunset sail with a couple we met at breakfast. There was also lots of time for hiking, napping, and for you parents out there – we were able to complete FULL sentences. We saw iguana’s & lizards in all shapes & sizes, ate delicious food prepared graciously for us all week long, sipped a variety of rum drinks here & there, and felt the weight of responsibility slide away for a while. Every night, we fell asleep to the sound of the ocean lapping gently at the shore; to doves who sang. all. night. long.; to singing frogs; and, most nights, a nighttime rain storm.
I did have moments of real anxiety during the vacation; nights were I felt on the verge of panic going to sleep, feeling very far away from my 3 precious children; creating images of a plane taking off & feeling dread that the only way home was through the air; and times where I just had an underlying feeling of tension. But you know what? I was able to handle those moments when they came up & I still had a fantastic time. Reid Wilson quotes Helen Keller at the end of his “Facing Panic” book & it stayed with me the entire trip & even back home. She said, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
The real truth for me is that anxiety is uncomfortable, it feels like something terrible is going to happen, but it’s not dangerous. On the trip I remembered a poignant moment when I was pregnant with my 3rd baby. I had a particularly intense panic attack the night before (intense for me, but my husband said that from the outside I just looked a little tense). After tossing & turning & having trouble falling asleep, I finally drifted off. The next day was one of those amazingly gorgeous January days where it almost felt like spring. I was working in the yard outside & looking up at the clouds, feeling the breeze across my hair & face, and it hit me – for as bad as I felt the night before, nothing bad had happened. It didn’t last forever; I didn’t go crazy; my panic was barely visible to the person I’m closest to; I was still able to fold laundry & talk during this attack which I perceived as intense; and, here I was standing in my back yard gazing at the clouds and almost forgetting that it had occurred. Huh.
I can’t believe how many weeks it’s been now since we came back home. If I didn’t have the pictures, it might feel like a lovely dream. If you’re considering an adventure, something that you know is safe, but scares you a little, why not try? People with anxiety disorders have a hidden well of courage they rarely acknowledge.
When you think about it, what amazing things have happened for you when you’ve been able to live a life of daring adventure?
As the aircraft sped up to takeoff speed & gradually lifted off the ground, soaring upward towards the clouds, I felt waves of anxiety coursing through my body. I figured that I had two choices: freak out the whole way to the Carribean or do my best to accept that I was going to be 35,000 feet in the air for a few more hours and get as comfortable as possible.
I thought about my tool belt of coping skills and started saying to myself, “I want this anxiety. I want it to get stronger.” And, you know what? It was working. I couldn’t make the symptoms any stronger than they already were.
Then, I thought about Dave Carbonell‘s “Rule of Opposites” – doing the opposite of what feels “safe” in an anxiety provoking situation. So, instead of pulling down the shades & pretending I wasn’t on a plane, I started looking out the windows. I found that I really do like to see the tree tops, little tiny houses, and the outline of roads. Who lives in those homes & what is their story, I wondered.
Something else that really helped was the Truth Based Technique I read about in David Burn’s book. I wrote in my notebook:
*How many times have I gotten so anxious that I ran down the aisle of the plane screaming?
*How many times have planes had to land for me because I absolutely couldn’t handle symptoms of anxiety?
*How many times have I curled up in the fetal position under my chair & cried until it was all over?
Ahem, I think we know the answers to all of the above.
There were more moments with waves of fear and extended periods of time where I felt that pit in my stomach , but it was all manageable & my skills came in handy. Before I knew it, we were in Atlanta & preparing to board our second flight.
For our second flight, the longer flight, our seats were in the back of the plane. I’m not sure why the back of the plane is worse, but I kinda feel more claustrophobic back there. Our flight time was 3 hours & 12 minutes (but whose counting) & in my head I felt like a 2.5 hour flight would be so much easier. Isn’t it funny how our brains make up rules about what’s safe & what’s not?
Once we found our seats, we looked at each other at the same time — we were definitely in the “party” section of the plane. Three babies were in the back with us & some rowdy folks were starting the party early with cocktails. I wondered if some of them were drinking to cope with their own anxiety. A moment before take off, the 5 year old cherub behind me started to giggle & said, “Hey Mom! What if the plane catches on fire & we crash? Wouldn’t that be cool?!”
Hey kid – who asked you? Huh?
Finally, we landed in St. Thomas, USVI – just a ferry & a few taxi rides away from our final destination, St. John. The whole plane cheered & clapped at the successful landing. Steve & I stepped off the plane, walked down the roll away staircase out onto the tarmac & just kept grinning. This was going to be a blast.
So, let’s recap. What helped?
*Showing up & being willing to try something that creates anxiety
*Paradox/Bring it on mentality/Make the symptoms stronger
(Reid Wilson, Don’t Panic – newly revised)
*Truth based techniques (David Burns, When Panic Attacks)
*Rule of Opposites (Dave Carbonell, Panic Attacks Workbook)
*Engaging with others/humor
*Being ok if none of these worked
Stay tuned! The next installment will be about our adventures in paradise!
Friday night before the big vacation takeoff:
I am feeling excited, shopping for last minute beach towels & sunscreen, packing into the wee hours of the morning. I write little notes for my girls and fight the urge to say things like, “If we don’t make it home, I want you to know. . .” and fill up their journals with memories and dreams for their futures.
I crawl into bed & the anxiety steps things up a bit. Adrenaline becomes my bedmate & I know I’m not going to get much sleep. I remind myself that this is to be expected. I expect to sleep terribly and feel anxious, even panicky. I haven’t flown in almost 3 years & I’m leaving my children behind for a week – something I’ve never done before. Next to my bed is a pad of paper for notes & I write down, “I want this anxiety” – just in case I forget when the alarm goes off. I snuggle up to my man & try to ride the waves while he snoozes with ease. Thank God only one of us runs anxious!
Saturday morning – 4:30am:
I wake up with a real sense of dread. I feel nauseous & panicky. I look down at my “I want this anxiety” note with a smiley face & say “screw that – what a stupid thing to write”! In the shower, I’m weepy and yell out to my husband, “I changed my mind. I don’t want to go. I just want to stay home. I feel terrible.”
It’s so hard in that moment to believe all those coping statements and truths – that flying is much safer than driving; panic always goes away with time; panic & anxiety are uncomfortable, but not dangerous; it’s very likely that I’ll be able to relax into the flight once we get going & if not, I will survive.
The first step is making it out the door. Then, driving to the airport where I take .25 mg of xanax & review my options – “If we get to our first connection & I feel terrible, we can always come home, right?” Walking into the airport feels familiar – it’s been a while, but I’ve done this before. After going through the security lines & randomly having my shoes checked (are my Keens too stinky? I ask) I rush over to the gate attendant, tell her about my flying fear & ask for seats closer to the front. At first she says that the plane is full, but at the last minute I am called up to the desk & the lovely Miss Tina from Delta changes our seating to bulk head. I think I love her.
As they call our flight to begin boarding, Steve & I wait & I take another .25mg. The funny thing about many anxiety superheroes & meds is that we’re actually a little afraid of taking them. From the extremes of — “What if it’s too much & I stop breathing?” to “What if I take it & it doesn’t work?”
Finally we take make our way through the line and warm tears roll down my face as we board the plane. As we buckle up and they seal the doors, I close my eyes and remember where we’re going.