The Loneliness of Terror

I’d like to figure out how to stop being afraid of something. Do you let a spider just crawl all over you until you don’t have the heebie geebies anymore? Do you go to the top of every tall building and stay there until you can look over the edge? Do you just get on airplane after airplane until takeoff no longer makes you believe you’re about to die? I’m just saying, if someone has figured out how to actually get over a fear, I’d like to know.

Paralyzing Fear

I’ve been afraid of flying for as long as I can remember. I remember the first time I had a panic attack, age 12 and an unaccompanied minor, sitting next to my little brother who held my hand as I sobbed that we’d never see Mom again. He kept hitting the bell for the flight attendant, asking for hot tea and more napkins as my tears soaked through them. I remember looking out over the Rocky Mountains and knowing for sure that we’d be crashing into them. Luckily, it was just bad turbulence. But I don’t remember a plane ride after that without a panic attack, until I started taking medication to fly.

Facing fears isn’t brave and it doesn’t build character. It doesn’t get easier and I don’t get stronger. It’s terrifying every.single.time. It’s strange and humiliating and lonely to be terrified of something that no one else is.

I’m sure there are other people afraid on airplanes. Statistically about 40% of people have some level of anxiety about flying and about 6.5% of people have a real phobia or anxiety disorder about it. It’s just not like they have a support group right before the flight or anything so all the wimps can meet and sit together. You’re left to just look around and wonder, is anyone else as afraid as I am right now?

In the past few weeks I’ve had varying plane related nightmares. Sometimes it’s just me on a crashing airplane. Sometimes it’s me with my loved ones on a crashing airplane. Many times it’s me getting to the airport and realizing that I’ve forgotten my airplane meds (which would never ever happen) and realizing that I can’t go back and get them. Sometimes it’s just me digging through my bag searching for them, knowing that I can’t get home without them. The sheer terror in my dreams so closely resembles the panic attack I’d experience if I were awake. But what are nightmares really? Panic attacks unpredictable little brother.

I realize that I sounded a little bit like a drug addict there for a minute. I only take anti-anxiety meds to fly. That’s it. And I’m so grateful that they exist to help people like me to experience all the things I couldn’t if I was too afraid to get on an airplane. I’m sure the researcher who invented it doesn’t realize how much he or she changed my life. They may not realize they enabled me to visit my family, to have adventures with friends, and made it possible for me to experience other cultures. But they did and I’m so glad.

In the days leading up to the flight though, my crazy thoughts invade more than my dreams. I constantly hope to be on a baby filled airplane. Yes, you read that right. All the babies. Sure, put the screaming one right next to me. Because if there is a God (and remember, I’m not so convinced that there is) at least I know that isn’t the plane that’s going down. Not the one with all the precious babes on it.

My wandering mind considers every possible scenerio. Every single thing that could go wrong. I google “how long are planes built to last” and then find the average age of fleet for the airline I’m flying. I try to figure out if I’m flying a Boeing or an Airbus. For some reason I trust Boeing more. I like to fly some airlines more than others. Southwest has zero passenger fatalities. I like that, so I like them. American Airlines has money issues so I jump to the conclusion that they aren’t maintaining their airplanes (completely untrue, but still, I won’t fly them). I online check in the very second that I’m able to, as I scan the remaining seats on the plane and frantically decide which to pick. Are odd-numbered rows bad? Should I sit all the way in the back of the plane, knowing that’s where I’m most likely to survive a crash?

And then there’s the casual phone calls. Sometime in the days before my flight, I call nearly everyone I love. Just to say hi, check in, pretend to be normal. The whole time I’m wondering, what if this is the last time I talk to them? I make sure everyone knows I love them. I remind N that he can have all my money if I die but he has to take Archie to visit my parents occasionally. He laughs like I’m kidding and hugs me tight and we both know that I’m not kidding and we both wonder how or why he loves me anyway.

He drives me to the airport, I’m already hazy and relaxing as my meds kick in and I tell him I love him 47 times in 20 miles. I get there hours before I need to be. I scramble through security, always nervous that my meds are making me slow and I’m annoying other passengers. I find a cafe near my gate and get a hot chocolate. Specifically a hot chocolate and nothing else. I find the “news” store and pick up a trashy magazine. I can never remember what I read if I try to read a real book once I’ve taken my meds. Then I sit casually at the gate, flipping through the magazine and sipping my hot chocolate, like I haven’t got a care in the world.

  • When you consider everything that could go wrong, it triggers the release of stress hormones, and it is those hormones that cause feelings of anxiety, claustrophobia, and panic.

    If you could think all this over without the stress, and know about all the backup systems that are in place if something goes wrong, flying would make sense – intellectually. So if you learn how flying works, you will, I believe, be OK with it intellectually. That opens up the possibility to changing how it feels. Obviously you don’t want to get rid of a fear of something you shouldn’t do, but why not get rid of a fear of something it is OK to do?

    Having worked on fear of flying for over 30 years as both an airline pilot and a licensed therapist, I’ve stumbled upon some ways to quiet the fear. If interested, have a look at “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying,” the best-selling book on fear of flying. You can find it (be sure to read the reviews) on Amazon and elsewhere.

  • Flying has never scared me, but I completely understand that fear – because that’s how I feel about heights. At least, the heights where I can see the edge. I plane is fine, or a 30-story building. But put me on the roof of that building and I’m terrified. I loved skydiving, but it was hands-down the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.

    And thank you for pointing out that facing your fears does not make you stronger or better or braver. It’s terrifying every time, and I come out feeling pathetic. I hate the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – it doesn’t. You are still the same person, only now you’re shaken up.

  • I am afraid of flying too — until I trust the plane. Does that sound weird? It takes a good 30 minutes into the flight for me to trust that the plane is safe. But if there are any bumps, I freak out a little bit inside.

    My worst fear is with medical stuff. I always think about the worst thing that could happen to me, and then I freak out even more. I have to get my wisdom teeth out this summer, and it is freaking me out!

    “It’s strange and humiliating and lonely to be terrified of something that no one else is.” This is a sucky feeling and one I feel way too often! I sometimes get horrible anxiety and no one really understands why I have panic attack about things that they’re not afraid of. Sometimes it makes me feel like an outcast or a nutcase.

  • I completely feel for you. I have a lot of the same anxiety. Mine isn’t to the point where I have anxiety attacks, but I have the same fears for days leading up to a flight. Especially lately with all of these horrible accidents surrounding us. I don’t have any words of comfort, just that I feel your pain!

  • I’ve never been afraid to fly. I actually really love it and get super pumped any chance I get to fly. Which I know probably makes you gag. 😛

    My Dad travels Internationally all the time for business – Sunday he leaves for India for a week, comes back for 2 and then leaves for China for another week. He’s done that my whole life and while I’m use to him being in another country (I live away from my parents now anyways), with what has happened recently over Ukraine I’m getting TONS of anxiety over his flight. He told me that the route the Malaysia airlines flight took is the route he takes from Paris to New Delhi. Obviously now they’re rerouting all flights, but still. The thought of something happening to him in the air (or on the ground) makes me want to vomit.

    Anyways, enough about flying. 😛 My worst fear in life was being alone. Having no one around me, figuring things out 100% on my own. But then I moved 750+ miles away from everyone I knew and was forced to be alone and figure it all out. It was really hard at first – even just getting over the fear and anxiety of eating at a restaurant alone. I got into my very first car accident ever last year and that made me go into anxiety/panic attacks for days and weeks because I had to figure out how to get a rental and how the whole repair process works and everything by myself.

    I still have moments when I’m alone when I just lose it, but I’m much better now. I can fly/travel by myself, go to the movies alone and eat at a fancy restaurant by myself. So there are definitely some fears you just have to completely immerse yourself into in order to conquer them.

    PS- drugs are great, amirite? 😛


  • I’m genuinely phobic of thunderstorms. I hate when people either try to tell me that I shouldn’t be afraid (I know that already), or tell me that their dog hates thunderstorms and laugh about it. I’m a person and I’m afraid of thunderstorms. It’s not funny. I’m actually afraid. I wish I could tell you why, or just realize that it’s silly to be afraid of storms and “snap out of it”, but it’s not that easy.

  • Cat

    “Facing fears isn’t brave and it doesn’t build character. It doesn’t get easier and I don’t get stronger. It’s terrifying every.single.time. It’s strange and humiliating and lonely to be terrified of something that no one else is.”

    This is honestly one of the best paragraphs I’ve read on fear. People will go on and on about how it isn’t as bad as you think it is, how you just need to face it to overcome it. I know the things I’m afraid of are irrational, but that knowledge doesn’t make my fears any less real or any less terrifying. I feel foolish and embarrassed and alone in my fear, and being told to get over myself doesn’t make it better.

  • i’ve been there. i do that. last year i got on more than 47 airplanes. my husband and i love to travel but the actual act of traveling to places is atrocious to me. while i do fear that the plane may crash and i’ll never see my family again or i’ll some how survive and my husband will be burned alive eats me away…even more intense for me is that someone my vomit near or around me or on the plane at it.

    crazy? yes. irrational? yes. been to therapy for it? yes. regardless it’s horrible and to top it off we leave for malaysia in 3 weeks…i will absolutely be taking a FEW of my anti-anxiety pills. you’re not alone and enjoy your hot chocolate and do what you need to do to take care of you!

  • I’m absolutely terrified of flying. In fact, it’s kept me from visiting quite a few places. For instance, I have always dreamed of going to Ireland, but I can barely handle a four-hour flight to LAX. I totally understand where you’re coming from!

  • I actually love flying, but every time I fly, I do wonder if they are my last moments to be alive. I just tell myself that if it is in God’s plan that I die, then I am okay with that. I try to let it serve as a reminder that so many things could go wrong at any moment in my life. We never, ever really know what is going to happen in the next minute, no matter how safe we feel. Somehow, knowing that I have to trust God with my life at every moment (not just when I feel afraid), makes the scary times a little bit easier.

  • Oh, but spiders? I don’t have a pep talk for myself to get over those demonic creatures.

  • Thank you for saying that facing fears isn’t brave and it doesn’t build character. So many times we’re made to inadvertently feel as though we’ve failed as humans if we’re afraid and can’t get “rid” of that fear. It is very lonely. I feel the same on airplanes, I feel alone and wish I could hover over my chair so that I don’t feel the turbulence. During my last flight though a flight attendant told me how turbulence keeps the plane up (of course I immediately thought..”but if there’s no turbulence..?”). This has helped calm my fears. Another thing I tell myself is, a plane is a vessel, like a ship. A ship has to battle waves and rough seas, and manages to stay afloat. So it’s exactly the same. And think of all of those people who travelled the world on ships and discovered new places. Surely I can be as adventurous as them?

    Sorry I wrote so much. Glad the drugs help 🙂


  • AhhhH! That sounds terrifying! I’m so sorry you have to deal with that – kudos to you for still flying, regardless of your fears!
    ps. I think it’s rather ironic that the ad directly under your blog post was for flying lessons….lol

  • My husband is of the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” mindset, so I’m all ready to read every word of your story out loud to him. We frequently bicker about whether or not I can get over my fears (heights, though not airplanes..)

    I’m sorry that you have to go through this. I hope your friends and family will understand what this really means and supports you!

  • This post is so perfect. I am terrified of puke. I don’t know why but I am. It is a very real fear and one that no one else I know has. It is the worst to be so afraid of something and no one understands you. They think that you are overreacting, being ridiculous and so on but I can’t help it. I wish I could change it but I can’t. And although your fear is completely different than mine I feel like you understand me and that is pretty great because no one else does.

  • Airlines sometimes run “workshops” for people who have phobias of flying. I know British Airways do, and I guess they might not be the only ones. I’ve always been tempted, but I don’t think I’m scared enough to justify spending the money. It might be something to look into, though…

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  • As someone prone to certain looping anxious thoughts, I read this post nodding a lot. I’m not afraid of flying, per se, but I can easily work myself up into a tizzy if something even goes slightly askew (thanks, anxiety!). Truly, though, we all have our own individual paralyzing fears (which often make zero sense to those who don’t share them) and I think just opening up like this and being vulnerable helps create an important dialogue.

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