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Being Frenemies with Fear

I love to travel. My favorite quotes include “not all those who wander are lost”, “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer” and “I haven’t been everywhere but its on my list”. My issue is I really don’t like flying. I’ve anxiously thought about flights weeks before and had bad dreams. I’ve been on planes and was so scared my legs trembled. I tried different coping strategies and read about making friends with fear to face it and be stronger, braver, more resilient. Nothing helped. I wanted to find a sustainable solution.

In December I read a mindfulness technique to ask “what is actually happening right now” when anxiety strikes. When I fly I get consumed by what may happen, not what is actually happening. So on my recent flights I asked what is real right now. If I started with “we are going to hit turbulence” I would pause and state the reality of “right now the flight is smooth, the seatbelt sign is off, the flight attendants are serving drinks” or from the thought of “taking off is the most dangerous part of a flight” to the reality of “the pilots are experienced and prepared, the plane is climbing at the right speed, the sound just went off because we hit 10,000 feet safely.”

I continually observed what was happening in my mind and in the plane around me. If I started to spiral to the worst case scenario I would go back to stating what was actually happening. I would repeat the affirmation “I am safe” and focus on my breathing and the reality of the present moment.

The concept of mindfulness is to be aware of your physical, mental and emotional state in the present moment exclusively and without judgment. Mindfulness techniques can help to better control your mind instead of thoughts spiraling and controlling you (like what would happen to me when flying). Additionally mindfulness requires us to accept the present moment fully yet not let it influence us or be consumed by it.

Other mindfulness techniques include:

  • Focus on the senses: what are 5 things you can see, smell, hear, touch and taste right now.

  • Box breathing: breath in for 5, hold for 5, breath out for 5, hold for 5, repeat. Can lengthen the count while staying equal to each part (like a square or box).

  • Body scan: concentrate on each area of the body, starting from the feet and working up. Pay attention to how the body feels and what the body is touching (feet on the floor, back against a chair, etc).

Mindfulness brings the physical and mental awareness into the present. It asks us to slow down, pay attention and fully engage. It is essential to release judgement. I would often berate myself after an anxious flight for not overcoming my fear. Beating yourself up never helps!

Reframe language to be accurate of the fear. I now say "I don’t enjoy rough turbulence" versus I’m afraid of flying. These mindfulness techniques can be used for other anxieties too. While I still get nervous, my last 3 flights were more enjoyable than in the past and I felt more refreshed reaching my destinations. Each time I fly, or do anything that brings anxiety, I can practice staying present in reality and releasing fear. With patience, grace and letting go of judgement I plan for my next adventure!

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