I have a confession to make – I have struggled with the fear of flying for over 12 years, since the birth of my daughter. Seems that bringing a new being into the world and being responsible for her created a deeper reverence for life… and an intensified fear of death.
For many years, I avoided flying at all costs. If I had to fly, my palms would break out into a cold sweat anytime we came upon even mild turbulence. I’d shiver and white knuckle my way through it, trying to hide any signs from my daughter if she was with me.
But after several years of being limited to the ground, the mental and physical decline of my mother on the east coast necessitated more visits – and more flights. It was time to deal with my fear of flying head-on.
About six years ago, I discovered the Fear of Flying Clinic at San Francisco International Airport. I was grateful that one of the best programs to treat flight anxiety was right in my backyard! I took the course and was able to complete the flight to Seattle at its conclusion – a great way to celebrate my new courage.
However, my fear of flying didn’t disappear. And flights didn’t magically become perfectly smooth. No, my fear was still there, but something else was also there – my determination that the fear wasn’t going to keep me imprisoned anymore. I knew there was something within me that was bigger than the fear.
Although my fear of flying hasn’t gone away, it has improved significantly. I have taken 4 trips in the last 9 months, all of them involving air transportation. It gets easier and easier. Yet, there’s not a “happily ever after” here – I still face this anxiety every time I plan a trip. This last flight in June was a doozy, and brought new insights about the gifts of fear.
My daughter and I were returning from a trip down to Southern California, flying out of Burbank airport, just outside LA. It was a very hot day – we didn’t realize how hot, sitting inside the pleasantly air-conditioned terminal. Burbank, as most of Southern California, is a semi-desert area, and the temperatures can soar in the summer months.
We boarded our flight and settled into our seats. I was so relaxed that I wasn’t even thinking about my fear of flying – a huge success for me. The flight into LA was fine 5 days earlier, and I was looking forward to another short, uneventful return home. After sitting on the runway for 20 mintues, the captain announced over the speakers that the temperature was 107°F, and that the take-off had to be recalculated based on the heat. I had heard of flights in Arizona being delayed for hours the previous week, so it wasn’t terribly surprising. Back to the gate we taxied to sit for another hour and a half.
Finally, we got the go-ahead to take-off! Hurray! I was delighted and enthusiastic to get home. We taxied and set up for take-off, and soon we were airborne. And that’s when my fear of flying rose from the grave.
As we took off, I felt the familiar upward suctioning of our aircraft. Then a few seconds later, a lurch. The plane began jostling around like a jerky amusement park ride. My daughter let out a startled response and looked at me with concern.
Oh no. I forgot about updrafts.
Updrafts happen often over deserts and near mountainous areas – ahem, like Burbank? – on hot days. They can cause serious turbulence. Uh oh.
My body immediately manifested fear – I felt the trembling inside, my palms breaking into the familiar cold sweat. I saw a couple huddled together across the aisle, and another one holding hands in front of them. I wasn’t the only one nervous. One brave soul several rows ahead had her arms in the air, squealing as if she were on a roller coaster. How can she laugh and giggle and think this was fun, when I was terrified?
Yep, I was scared, but two things helped me. One, I understood what was going on and the fact that the pilot knows what is happening and has plenty of experience with it (learned that from the Fear of Flying Clinic!). I could counteract my fearful thoughts with that knowledge. And the other was that my daughter was sitting next to me.
My daughter was counting on me to protect her, support her, and reassure her. So that’s what I did. I was able to witness my fear in my body’s reactions and my fearful thoughts, but I kept my face and voice calm. “It’s OK, sweetie. The pilot is used to this. She takes off in the heat of summer at this airport all the time and knows exactly what to do. The turbulence will stop when we reach a higher elevation.”
At least I hoped. That’s what was supposed to happen, but my fear wasn’t too sure. I was praying hard. Please let this stop. Soon.
I also prayed to be given the courage, patience, and trust to withstand this, for however long the turbulence lasts. I can’t control the turbulence, but if I can be with my anxiety and learn from it, then my fear of flying wouldn’t stop me from going the places I wish to go.
In the moment, fear feels consuming, as if it could destroy me. But it doesn’t. When I am present with the fear and let it teach me, it reveals parts of myself that would lie in obscurity otherwise. I become aware of my Self, that is larger than the fear.
My larger Self steps forward, even in the midst of my anxiety, and comforts my daughter. It keeps some part of me calm while my body wildly reacts. It reminds me that my thoughts aren’t real, even though I’m having real sensations in my body. Fear teaches me that I’m capable of responding rather than reacting, even when I’m terrified.
Fear shows me how to move through it to a larger experience of life. It tells me, yes, I’m stepping into unfamiliar, uncomfortable, uncontrollable territory, but I have courage, patience, and trust to sustain me, and I’m OK. By my willingness to learn from fear, I free myself from its grip.
The turbulence indeed stopped in a few minutes when we reached cruising altitude. Although I’d rather not repeat the experience, I thanked fear for what it taught me.
What are you learning from fear? Share it here. Let it bring out something Greater in you!
copyright © 2017 by Rev. Connie L. Habash