Although I fly between New York and Florida relatively often, I would have laughed if you told me this would have been my life 15 years ago. I had an extreme fear of flying. The catalyst? Channel surfing and stumbling upon the movie – Final Destination. If you saw the original, you know WHAT happened.
After looping the scenes in my head over and over, I decided that even though I wanted to see the world – THAT – method of transportation was too terrifying. My fear morphed into a full blown phobia. So at 13, I decided that my life was meant to stay in New York and all my travel would be done via road trips. I went years being very content with my decision not to get on a plane, but slowly it started to wear on me. Most of my friends did not have the money or time for a continental road trip (neither did I), and it turned out to not be a realistic method of travel. As I watched friends and family go away on their trips (via planes), I became depressed. “Why are they allowed to get on planes and go places, but I’m cursed? If I go anywhere, something bad will happen to me.” My irrational fear created some of the most morbid inner dialogues I have ever had with myself.
Then one day my mom was looking in the newspaper and saw an article about “Fear of Flying”. It was a six week class that was being offered at a local airport. When she asked if I was interested in attending the class, I met her with strong opposition. “Was she trying to kill me? Did she want me DEAD?” Insert more dramatic rhetorical questions here (most likely I said it). However, after a few days, I decided that I was tired of being sad and jealous of other people. If they were allowed to travel, I should be too. I was my own worst enemy – I know.
On the first day of class, I walked in to a room of about twenty people. Everyone in the room (except the therapists), had a fear of flying. For some reason, being surrounded by a group of people who shared my fear was comforting. They understood where I was coming from. Finally, I wouldn’t be the only one rolling her eyes as people tell me that planes are safer than cars! Over the six weeks (1 class per week), we learned about planes AND mental health. We learned about irrational fears, anxiety, and coping strategies. When I realized that 99% of my anxiety was caused by thoughts in my head – not by the situation itself – mindfulness became of utmost importance to me.
When people get lost in their heads, they are not paying attention to what is going on around them. For example, when you get in a fight with a significant other you may be at the mall shopping. Are you paying attention to what is going on in front of you? The texture of the clothes? The type of people passing you? The smells in the food court? Or are you stuck in your head replaying the fight? Reality is where you are at exactly this moment in time, the fight no longer matters (it can be continued/discussed when you are face to face with your partner) – why expend energy or emotions on something in your head? That is how it was for me with planes. Once I started being mindful of my surroundings, I learned to stop the cycle of negative thoughts (using coping strategies) before they spiraled out.
At the end of six weeks, the class took a flight from New York to Boston. It was one of the scariest things I ever did. When negative thoughts popped into my head, I turned on my music and focused on the words in the song. Nothing else existed except me and the song. And guess what? I did it, I flew! That first step of experiencing the flight, showed me that it was not as bad as I had thought. I had made up all these scenarios in my head when (in reality), it was like riding on a train. To keep the momentum up, I booked a trip to Florida later that week.
I have to say that attending this class was one of the best things I could have done for myself. For the longest time, I expected my life to remain in New York. My home, work, kids, family – everything would be New York. However, life had very different plans for me. That trip to Florida? I ended up meeting a man who is now my fiancé. Even more ironically – that man? He turned out to be a commercial aircraft mechanic. Life loves to make itself laugh, doesn’t it?!