Taking flight from fear

Our DPSN theme for July is ‘death and decay’.  We realise this can be a slightly morbid topic for some, however death and decay are an important part of life and something which will affect us all at one time or another.  So as usual, we gave our bloggers free reign to interpret the theme as they like!  Please be aware that our bloggers this month may be reflecting on issues related to death so if you find such topics triggering, please skip our July blogs and join us again in August.  If you feel comfortable then please read on and let us know your thoughts on in the comments below, or jump over to our Facebook page to join the conversation.

Within the last year or two I seem to have developed a fear of flying.  I still travel by plane, of course, because there are places I want to see and places I need to go.  But flying makes me feel considerably more anxious than it ever used to.

Being a therapist, I’ve naturally done a huge amount of navel-gazing and self-reflection as to what this fear is about and why it has developed.  At first I thought that perhaps it was because I regularly spend so much time talking with clients about the experience of anxiety.  We deconstruct and tease out the thoughts, feelings and physical experience of anxiety, the things that maintain it (or help to manage it), and the beliefs or life experiences that underlie it.

In a way, it sort of makes sense that I would then become much more aware of my own anxieties – and hypervigilant in relation to what I’m feeling, thinking, or doing about it.  Ironically my previously small anxiety when getting on a plane has turned into a much larger one, probably because I’ve spent so much time contemplating it.

My first response was to try to manage it in the way that I coach my clients to.  A lot of the time I’m thinking, “What if the plane crashes??” So I work to decatastrophise my thoughts – did you know there is a 1 in 11 million chance of actually dying in a plane crash? In reality, it’s the safest way to travel!  I also use mindfulness and breathing exercises to keep me grounded and present on flights.  And I practice a lot of acceptance (I feel anxious, that makes sense given this crazy unnatural situation I’m in and that’s okay).

But what I found was that, while all of those things do help me to survive a flight without going into full on panic mode, the anxiety is still very firmly present every time I fly.

Then I reflected with some good psychologist friends as to whether they had an insight as to what my fear might be about.  One asked me, “What is it about dying a fiery plane crash that you actually find so scary?”  

“Well, isn’t it obvious?  I don’t want to die!” I answered.  

“Why not?” she asked. “After all, it happens to all of us eventually.”

“Of course,” I said, “but I’ve reached a place in my life where I’m really happy and satisfied and I’m not quite ready for that to stop just yet!”

And that was when it hit me.  It’s not a fear of flying, but a fear of death.  And I’m afraid to die because I’m really enjoying living.

That might sounds like a no brainer to some people, but it wasn’t always that way for me.  I experienced fairly severe depression on and off over many years in my early 20s and while I was thankfully never actively suicidal (not that there is any shame in that for people who are or who do go through this experience), I definitely can’t say I was enjoying my life at the time.

But things have changed considerably.  Through a lot of hard work and effort I’ve created a life that I love living.  I find great meaning and purpose in the work that I do.  I have a wonderful partner and lovely, generous, understanding and supportive friends.  While I’m not exactly rich (and have oodles of student debt), for the first time in my life I have enough money to pay all my bills week to week without stress.  I’ve learned to be kinder and more accepting of who I am in the world, including the mistakes that I make.

And while life is not without its challenges (because everyone has ups and downs), I feel hugely grateful for the life that I live at this moment in time.

So, perhaps ironically, the decay of my old, unhealthy and unsustainable self has led to an increased attachment and investment in life; and a corresponding fear of death, which I become most aware of when I’m rocketing through the air a thousand miles up in a large, metal tube with engines!

So, what to do about it?  Well, like most things, better understanding it actually helps to reduce it.  I still have some anxiety on planes, but it’s getting better and I keep doing all of the things I know help me to manage it.  I probably won’t ever get rid of it completely, but somehow that’s okay.

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