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My first flight was when I was 21 years old around 8 years ago. Since then I've had more than 30 flights. All of them were normal, I never experienced anything too turbulent or threatening in any of them. None of my family members, relatives or friends have experienced even minor flight related trauma that I know about.

For the last 7 or 8 flights (roughly 3 years) I have noticed that I get extremely anxious before a flight. It sets in when I am on my way to the airport. I start feeling stomach cramps, anxiety, I had to focus to breathe, and my head starts spinning. I had to concentrate extremely hard just to get through security and reach the flight. In the flight I usually try to sleep and think happy thoughts. Otherwise my head starts hurting. It all goes away when the flight lands on the destination.

Today was the worst case of it all, I had to take an Uber for 30 minutes to reach the airport. The anxiety started setting in when I booked the Uber. On the way to the airport my head started hurting, I started feeling stomach cramps and the only way I could calm myself down was by thinking that in the worst case I will die a painless death if something happened during the flight.

When the Uber reached the airport, I was in full panic mode. I didn't want to get out of the Uber and just wanted to go home and sleep in my bed. Somehow after struggling for a couple of minutes I got out of the Uber and went forward. I had to use all my energy and strength to check in and get past the security check. After that I sat for half an hour and drank water to calm myself.

Still only half of my brain was working, once I got in the plane I listened to some music, which calmed me down a little bit more, but I was still too tired to do anything, so I just closed my eyes and tried to sleep with a sleep mask. I did sleep for a brief period of time but for most of the time my head was hurting and I felt energyless and powerless.

Once the plane made first contact with land at the destination everything was gone. I felt normal like I feel on normal days, I had energy, the head hurting stopped, I could even think and make decisions and it's been normal since.

I think I had a panic attack when I was exiting from the Uber. However I don't know what panic attacks feel like so I am not sure.

I don't know what to do or what is causing them. I really want these to go as in the future there will be a lot of travel by air for me.

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    Tris sounds like a medical issue you should bring up with your usual general practitioner first, to put it into persepctive and to direct you to professional help if required.
    – o.m.
    Apr 8 at 4:48
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    Agreed. It doesn't sound like you're afraid of flying; it sounds like you're afraid of your own reaction to flying. It's a common pattern and it's something that you can get help for.
    – Sneftel
    Apr 8 at 8:24
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    I’m voting to close this question because it asking about a medical issue. Apr 8 at 12:43
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    @JackAidley it seems like a medical issue triggered by travel related circumstances. Also, I believe there are other people who have similar issues who may benefit from the pointers here Apr 9 at 16:45
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    If you've flown happily so many times over so many years and the last 7 or 8 flights over 3 years have been problematic, then something changed. If you do know what changed, can you Post details? If you don't know, can you seek therapy? Apr 9 at 18:23

5 Answers 5

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I have travelled on numerous occasions with someone with a full-blown anxiety disorder and I second the comment that suggests you see your GP. While your case is obviously limited to flying, it’s definitely worth a discussion.

These are the things we do to help reduce the anxiety:

  1. Medication. On top of his regular anti-anxiety meds, he has additional pills for panic attacks (prescribed by GP). He takes one an hour before going to the airport and another when he’s there.
  2. Travel together if possible. Partly for moral support and partly so I can do the thinking – I hang on to passports and boarding passes, do the speaking at check-in, get food and drink while he sits in a quiet corner, explain his difficulties to airport staff if needed. All he needs to do is exist.
  3. Special assistance. Even if you have a companion, special assistance is invaluable. Again, they take the thinking out of it. They will usually fast-track you through check in and security, and tell you exactly what you need to do. You can’t usually book special assistance online for anxiety (often the only options are for a hearing or mobility need) so we phone the airline beforehand.
  4. Find a quiet space. Special assistance usually have a separate seating area that is often away from the overwhelming crowds. At some airports it can get a bit chaotic in the special assistance area but they can usually direct you to a quieter spot and give you a pager so you know when to come back.
  5. Headphones with white noise or music to block out the surrounding passenger mayhem.

None of this solves the underlying problem (that's a whole different therapy game) but it reduces the number/severity of actual panic attacks and makes flying possible even for someone with a severe condition. Having a strategy helps reduce anxiety on the way to the airport too.

I realise you want flying to be pleasant rather than just possible, and hopefully your doctor can help with long-term solutions.

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    Flying (at least for us cattle-class plebs) hasn't been pleasant for over 20 years :-(
    – TonyK
    Apr 8 at 21:38
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    @TonyK, read pleasant in the answer as in free of fear, not pleasant as in an expensive holiday resort.
    – Willeke
    Apr 9 at 10:06
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I knew a guy that had similar anxiety issues with flying. It ultimately required a medical professional to completely resolve, but there was one thing he did on his own that made it significantly better.

Around once a month, he and a buddy would go to a local airport (not the big hectic international airport, a smaller regional airport) and have lunch. They had several restaurants on the "public" side of the security checkpoint, and they'd go sit at the one that had a big window where you could watch planes taking off and landing. It was a completely normal dining experience, you were just doing it while fully immersed in the sights, sounds, and everything else that exemplifies the "airport" ecosystem.

It took a little while, but it eventually re-programmed his brain to no longer associate the airport with fear. Instead, it was just that place that had the good hamburgers. He had significantly fewer problems when it came to getting to and navigating around the airport itself. He'd still get anxious once he got on the plane, but at least he was on the plane. By that point it was too late to get caught in the snowball effect of worrying about your reaction and wondering if you'd be able to make it (which is often the bulk of the problem to begin with).

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    Exposure therapy can be very helpful! Works for more than just flight issues - e.g. for social anxiety.
    – John Hon
    Apr 9 at 7:19
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Aerophobia is very common and can have many causes. People who have other conditions such as claustrophobia, OCD etc. may be at higher risk. You could try therapy to get to the root of your phobia. In addition, therapy may give you some useful techniques that could lower or remove your anxiety.

There are a number of answers to a similar question that you may find useful, I won't repeat them here.

I think you're in a good position to reduce, possibly remove the problem. You do fly - many people with aerophobia can't bring themselves to get on an aircraft. Also, you're looking to improve things rather than avoiding flying altogether. Many people with severe phobias allow them rule and limit their lives.

Good luck!

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I'm sorry you are going through this. You are not alone. This sounds so similar to performance anxiety (whether for sports or arts performances.) When I felt suddenly anxious about flying a few years ago, I used breathing techniques such as counting as it was unexpected. I realized, that for me, the flight anxiety was related to other stressful factors in my life which I have since dealt with. Evaluate other potential stressors which may be spiking over threshold with flying. Counseling might help. Medication for sudden events might help. However, if you are hesitant about meds or counseling, other techniques might help:

  • Loud noises make me anxious, so I wear foam earplugs at the airport to take the edge off. Noise cancelling headphones can work wonders. You are already listening to music - make it something soothing which you can breathe to.

  • Walking and having a look around also helps regulate breathing and anxiety. Have a walk in the evening before and the day of your flight and then again at the airport. Here is an article. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/why-walking-is-the-answer-to-anxiety

  • Add visualization to your walks while paying attention to your breathing. Visualize calling a cab, arriving at the airport on time, going through security, arriving at the gate, getting on the plane and finding your seat, asking for a glass of water from the FA, landing, arriving safely at your destination.

  • Make a physical checklist of everything you need to do to prepare your living space and packing your suitcase and refer to the physical list the night before and before your leave your home. Visualize completing your checklist.

  • I agree with @bta that going to the airport when you don't have a flight is a great rehearsal. Adding: Eat at a restaurant in the airport. Talk to staff at the airport, tell them why you are there when you don't have a flight, ask if they have any tips for sudden flight anxiety.

  • Take up yoga, focus on breathing and connection to your body in addition to those sweet stretches. And do yoga at the airport. If the airport has a quiet room for yoga or prayer, use it. I say to add yoga because yoga works on intentionally slowing and deepening breathing. When one is in the middle of an anxiety or panic episode, breathing becomes shallow because muscles tighten up.

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The following helped me. It may or may not help you and there is possibly a chance that it may make things worse, so I offer it for your consideration only.

I have flown internationally many times (50? legs), plus numerous times locally plus, significantly, maybe dozens of times on Chinese internal flights.

I do not usually suffer anxiety in daily life, and I was never "afraid of flying" in the classic sense. However, I was always very aware of the low probability but potentially large risks, always attentive to the safety instructions (even though I could have given the talk myself :-) ) and generally aware of risk at a heightened level during takeoff and landing.

For several years I travelled occasionally on Chinese internal flights. That's the only occasion where I've seen tray tables still being cleared on "final approach". When there was snow on the ground I noted that their deicing procedures appeared adequate (not that I could really tell).

Then, I decided to visit a friend who lived in Urumqi, in far Northwest China. I was flying from Hangzhou in the southeast with one brief stop - from memory 5+ hours. Given the general feeling of laxness that I had felt (real or not) about Chinese internal flight safety issues I decided to look at the accident records of all the available airlines. I looked at crash statistics over 20+ years. I found that many had lost 1 aircraft in the 10 to 20 years ago period BUT that none had lost an aircraft in the last ten years. I decided that all appeared about equally acceptable and chose flights on other factors.(I did not then know that there had been a general "shakeup" in Chinese internal safety procedures in the past due to substandard performance and that what I observed was quite likely due to this).

However: I was not initially aware subsequently of any changes in my attitude, but fairly quickly realised that my "concerns" over flight safety had vanished. I felt "different". I had to force myself to watch the safety presentations and take note of exits etc for the flight I was on. While I had been well aware of the relative safety of flying compared to almost any other form of travel, my attitude and awareness now correspond.
Doing something like this in your context may help you. There is perhaps the risk, and I do not know if your or any mind works this way, that doing this may make things worse. But, for me it was highly educational, and also somewhat comforting.

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