Fear of flying and medication - need creative solutions.
January 17, 2012 7:04 PM   Subscribe

Help me overcome my fear of being on an airplane (not flying) using creative methods. Very specific details inside.

I'm afraid of being on airplanes. I'm not afraid of flying - no fear comes from the actual flying/being in the sky part. It's a control issue. I'm claustrophobic, agoraphobic and I passed out on my last flight five years ago. (It was early, I was drunk, I hadn't eaten, but the scene kept me away from planes since.)

I want to get over this, but here's another kicker - I also have a med phobia. Yep. I'm not getting over the med phobia anytime soon (result of a traumatic experience and I'm working on it in therapy), so I'd like to figure out an alternative coping strategy. I'm working with my therapist, but in the end, my best best will be just to get on the plane and do it.

What I'd like to do is figure out how to combat the strong physical symptoms I get with my fear. I've got the mental gymnastics covered, but it's tough getting my body to follow. I get a vasovagal response to stressful situations that ends in me fainting or puking, with the urge to scream. Just the type of person the Air Marshals want on a plane. (Yes, I identified with Kristen Wiig's character in Bridesmaids. Oh boy, did I.)

However, there are a couple of generic life situations that do a great job of getting my mind off myself and circumventing my physical response to stress. They are:

-Helping someone who's more anxious or more-in-need than me.
-Being in the first stages of balls-out love, where you'll do anything for the person.
-Being completely afraid that the person I'm with will yell at me, judge me and think less of me if they see my anxiousness. (This works only with acquaintances - not with strangers or people I'm very close to.)

Deep breathing, meditation, books, podcasts, crosswords, etc., only work for so long, so I'm trying a creative approach. Is there something that can simulate the situations above? I'm long-time married and the closer I am to someone, the more I'm apt to feel comfortable being anxious around them, so the love thing (in the literal sense) is out. Not sure about the other two. I've thought about paying an acquaintance to fly with me, though I'd probably have to explain why and that would ruin my motivation to keep cool. Plus, my main flying goal is to visit my parents across country very soon - not a fun trip to bribe someone.

As mentioned, my parents live across the country and I'd like to visit them without driving 22 hours. Thanks for any suggestions you have.

Other relevant details:

-30s female, physically healthy, mentally diagnosed with severe anxiety and agoraphobia. (I work from home and I have a so-so social life, but after a few hours, I need, like, three days of downtime.)
-Fibromyalgia. This makes stress double-time painful.
-I do better with forcing myself into fears, rather than slow exposure, but given the long waiting-around that flying entails, this is difficult.
-I flew 1-2x a year up until 5 years ago. I never liked flying and had a lot of anxiety beforehand, but I did it.
-I don't mind drinking, but it makes me sick pretty quickly as I get older.
-My one med exception is Klonopin, which I can take in tiny doses, but the last couple of times I flew before the "fainting in the guy's crotch next to me" incident, the Klonopin did nothing, even when I took a larger dose.
-I conquer my fears best alone. I don't get comfort from other people when I'm scared. (Lone wolf syndrome.)

I'm open to anything creative. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
However, there are a couple of generic life situations that do a great job of getting my mind off myself and circumventing my physical response to stress. They are:

-Being completely afraid that the person I'm with will yell at me, judge me and think less of me if they see my anxiousness. (This works only with acquaintances - not with strangers or people I'm very close to.)

Can you put an ad on Craigslist? "Trying to get to City X? I would like a traveling companion for the flight and offer to pay half your airfare. I like traveling companions who are fearless and no-nonsense (or any euphemism for "more likely to be judgmental of my anxiety" you prefer.) Would like to meet for coffee a few times to get to know each other first, my treat."
posted by cairdeas at 7:17 PM on January 17, 2012

I have a friend whose miracle cure for airplane anxiety is a sleep mask. She gets to her seat, puts on her seatbelt, and puts on the mask... and keeps it on until the plane has landed and the doors are open. If I recall correctly, she said it helps her define her own controlled space, and stops her from focusing on the size of the plane, the number of people on it, the pressure to interact, etc.. Before the flight she practices with the mask on sitting in a comfortable chair at home, so she gets used to the feeling and later can mentally transport herself back to that comfortable place while in-flight. Might be worth a try? You can listen to music/podcasts with it on if you like, too.
posted by argonauta at 7:26 PM on January 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm anxious though generally love flying (window seat only), but I've tried flying drunk twice and it was a disaster. This? It was early, I was drunk, I hadn't eaten.. would have wrecked me. I'm terrible at eating before flights, but it's really important, especially with the joke they call food service.

My last 6+ hour flight, I brought my iPad with me to make music with. I'm just an amateur dinking around, but it was something that really made me focus on it and not the people/things around me. It wasn't interesting enough to the kid sitting next to me to lean against me the entire flight like last time with a game, although I also enjoyed a few rounds of AI Ticket to Ride that made time go by even quicker. I see a lot of people using their tablets/laptops to write journal entries or stories. Maybe projects or ideas you could map out/strategize on a notepad?

Maybe just some noise-cancelling headphones and a sleep mask, as the thing that gets me irked about flying is hearing the inner-workings of the plane and the constant sound of the engine in conjunction with people talking/moving or babies crying.

Alas, this might not be an option for you, but I find medical marijuana edibles (a brownie, a cookie, etc.) right before you go through security really helps me out and doesn't set in until I'm either boarding or already settled in and ready to avoid contact for the next few hours.
posted by june made him a gemini at 7:29 PM on January 17, 2012

If you're OK with the klonopin, considering your general phobias, I might just take it anyway, even though it doesn't do the job for you. I think it's better than the drinking option anyway.

Also, I don't have airplane anxiety, but I've had lots of insomnia and anxiety about sleep, and I swear by sleep masks. I'd get one ahead of time and spend time with it to get used to it. To me, it's a way of telling my brain "ok, relax, sleep now." It really helps. I know your focus isn't necessarily to be asleep the whole time, but this could help.

I hear you on the vasovagal response. I don't have the same triggers but I'm pretty sensitive to this. My main training from doctors/my mother (who is a doctor) since childhood is to sit right away if I feel something strange coming on. I know this is difficult with all the procedures at airports but it's something to think about -- get off your feet ASAP.

Can you try to get early, special needs boarding? This could help you get seated with less hassle.

Good luck, I think you can do this.
posted by sweetkid at 7:48 PM on January 17, 2012

Seconding marijuana edibles, although only if you've had them before. Sometimes they're great but sometimes they make me freak out HARDCORE.

I get claustrophobia so I usually take just over the counter Target brand sleeping pills, like 2-3 of em and that's the whole flight. Especially effective if you can wash it down with some wine.

Otherwise make friends with the people next to you, practice your social engineering and see if you can get to their interesting core? Write it down, make it a short story? Or hopefully you'll develop a crush and that'll keep your mind off floating in the air.

Otherwise sleep mask and listening to an ipod is good. If you can download a bunch of This American Life's that'd probably be good because it's highly absorbing and will keep your mind somewhere else.
posted by ad4pt at 8:09 PM on January 17, 2012

Several months ago, I was on a flight on what I think was United Airlines. I was bored before takeoff and my phone was going to die, so I plugged my headphones into the little armrest jack. Well, among the in-flight stations was one that monitored the radio between the pilots and the air traffic controllers. At first, I thought this would be a really terrible thing to listen to as I get a bit nervous on flights as well, especially during take-offs and landings (the only time that this radio thing seems to be on). Also, I hate those in-flight maps for International flights (and don't even get me started about the planes with cameras to watch landings). However, it had completely the opposite effect.

During landings and take-offs, when the most nerve-wracking actions seem to be happening, I would get the most nervous. For example, when the plane suddenly descends or ascends, or makes a big banking turn, or when the fog is really thick, or when you see other planes, or when you think you are landing too far away from the airport. So, when I put this on, suddenly it was eye-opening. The first time I heard this, we were landing at LGA, but suddenly we turned to go south along the Hudson. I put on the headset, and I heard "Flight 4-9er-5 (or whatever it was), descend to 15,000 and turn behind 9er-18 along the Hudson until the Tappan Zee". And suddenly, the plane did just that. Then, I heard, "Ok, 4-9er-5, descend to 10,000 and bank back to go north along XYZ", and the plane turned and I looked out over Manhattan and we descended a bit and went north. Then, we were up over the Bronx, and I could hear, "Ok, 4-9er-5, take her down to 8000, and you'll be in after 9er-18 on runway Z," and the plane descended again and I could hear the landing gear come down.

It was like clockwork, and I felt like I was in control and all those little bumps and jostles that would normally make my palms sweat all made perfect sense. Now, not every airline has these, and this may not have the same effect on you, but it really was very reassuring to me so it may be worth a shot.
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 8:14 PM on January 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

This may come from left field, and may be totally inappropriate for you, but have you considered trying a flying lesson? In a small airplane you have a much better view, an ability to put your hands on the controls, and an understanding teacher sitting next to you who can both get you back down safely and explain exactly what is happening.

Maybe it is just a reaction to your description of general health, performance response under pressure, better at pushing yourself right in rather than slow exposure, not sure what, but I wonder if it may not be a positive and exhilarating experience in its own way.

If you do consider this, ask around for an experienced instructor and one who is sympathetic to your goals. There are plenty of folks who take a lesson or two just for the experience, to try it out, or even to get over a fear of flying. So, you don't need to commit to anything more than a discussion and sitting in the airplane with the engine off. If things are going well at that point, take the next step. Get an agreement ahead of time that you'll only take things as far as is comfortable. You might surprise yourself.
posted by meinvt at 8:26 PM on January 17, 2012

I bought the SOAR course, and it's actually pretty darn good at reducing anxiety.
posted by holterbarbour at 8:32 PM on January 17, 2012

This_Will_Be_Good's tip about listening to the United flight radio helped me hugely, but I don't think it will do much for you, honestly, since it's more about fear of flying than fear of confinement.

That said, if you start chatting up your seatmate as soon as you board, you can make them into an acquaintance whose approval you would totally care about by the time you take off. I don't know how ethical it is to annoy people around you in the name of maintaining your sanity (and some people DO like to be talked to), but I've definitely done it on flights for the greater good.

Also, crosswords are well and good but I've had much better escapism luck on something where I can really get serious flow -- for me that's number puzzles.
posted by telegraph at 8:33 PM on January 17, 2012

A couple possibilities:
* Be really tired when you fly. Maybe then you can put your seat belt on and zonk out.
* Take a train instead.
posted by maurreen at 9:27 PM on January 17, 2012

Have you tried not just deep breathing and meditation, but straight up self-hypnosis? I'd work with a therapist first to help practice the induction and set triggers, but you aren't "being hypnotised," you're just kind of hacking your own systems. I gave birth using only hypnosis for labor management and it worked really well; it might be a good thing to try here too.
posted by KathrynT at 9:49 PM on January 17, 2012

If you choose the sleep mask and headphones route, I recommend practicing at home and playing a new playlist on repeat, but only while you have the mask on. This will enhance your feeling that you're at home.

But I think that's not what you want to do. Maybe chat up a parent and ask if you can talk to the child. Or befriend a first-time flyer in the waiting area.
posted by Night_owl at 10:48 PM on January 17, 2012

I'm claustrophobic, agoraphobic and I passed out on my last flight five years ago.

You make me feel like an amateur. All I ever managed to do was throw up a lot, although I think if I drank alcohol I could have managed actual loss of consciousness.

Like you, a fear of impending shame takes my mind off things. Fortunately I once threw up all over my lap, seat and legs two minutes after boarding a cross-country flight, so I'm never short of something to worry about. There *are* things that will shame you in front of strangers, and it may be worth thinking about them.

One big mistake I made was trying to deal with the claustrophobia by getting a window seat. The theory was that by having the window right there I wouldn't feel so enclosed. Six uncomfortable years later I realized that the curve of the ceiling along with the two people between me and the aisle were making things much much worse. For flights longer than 2 hours I fly in an aisle seat or I don't fly at all.

On a personal note, after watching my horizons shrink over a seven year period -- three years of which I couldn't fly and two years of which I couldn't sleep anywhere but my own bed -- I was finally driven to get into therapy and get to work on things. The results have been good. I wish and hope the same for you.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:42 PM on January 17, 2012

I fly very badly. It just makes me ill, generally, but now I get anxious about the fact that it makes me ill, so. (I think I'd rather have the plane crash than end up throwing up in the middle of a crowded flight.) So, here's what I've been doing, generally:

* Most comfortable clothes I own, to start. Slip-on shoes. Layers so that I can be comfortable no matter what the temperature is on the plane. Comfort is huge.
* I spend irrational quantities of money on TSA-okay treats, generally foods I would not be willing to purchase for myself under any other circumstances. Expensive chocolate. Ginger candy. (The latter also helps with nausea in general.)
* I try to take games that I can get very engaged with. Or audiobooks that I am really, really excited about listening to. Not just time-passer things, but, "Can we delay getting off the plane, I'm in the middle of a level/chapter," kind of things. Either way, I try to keep in-ear headphones on pretty much the whole way to block out much noise, and if I'm just listening to something, a sleep mask. I need to get *lost*. Maybe you can't pick up a lover for the occasion, but you can pick up whatever sort of fictional experience happens to get you closest to feeling the same rush.
* Deep breathing and such never worked for me, but I try to spend at least the last few minutes before boarding walking around and stretching instead of just sitting in an uncomfortable chair waiting.
* I don't drink. Too unpredictable. I do take an Ativan. (I'm not sure how much Klonopin differs.) I'm not totally sure how much it actually helps, but I tend to figure it can't hurt.

Basically, everything I do is geared towards limiting unpleasant sensory input, and maximizing whatever pleasant sensory input I can get. It doesn't make the whole thing fun, but it gets me onto the plane and off of it again in one piece.
posted by gracedissolved at 1:23 AM on January 18, 2012

It's a control issue. [snip] -Helping someone who's more anxious or more-in-need than me.

Find an organization (perhaps this one, for example) that could match you up with someone (child? special needs?) you would accompany from place to place? Then you would have to stay in control of yourself and the situation for the sake of the person you are helping. Of course, I don't know if they would want to hire someone who has even the slightest chance of barfing in someone's lap and fainting dead away exactly when you need to be in control.

But maybe there's a very young or old person among your family and close friends for whom you could arrange such a trip informally. You and your little cousin or aged aunt both fly out to visit your parents, and you are in charge and in control of everything -- getting to the airport, getting a baggage cart, finding a toilet, finding snacks, getting magazines, checking in, getting through security, finding a toilet again, carrying tickets and boarding passes and carry-on luggage, finding another toilet, knowing when to board (maybe first, because of who you're with), finding your seats, helping your charge to the airplane bathroom, explaining how long it is going to take, where you are now, how much longer, the aircraft type and all about it, knowing how to get the flight attendant, knowing when it is OK to turn things on and off or buckle or unbuckle your seatbelt, understanding and explaining the air masks and flotation devices and emergency exits, etc. There are a million things you could be the master of if you accompanied someone on a flight.
posted by pracowity at 3:52 AM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

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