Megan Roantree went to Dublin Airport to get to the root of her fear.
I was 17 when I was sitting in Shannon airport with my mum about to head off to Lanzarote. It was a couple of months after a family tragedy, and all of a sudden I felt the air was sucked out of me and it was like I forgot how to breathe. Beforehand, I don’t think flying really phased me, but after that, I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong.
What if the plane falls out of the sky, what does that noise mean, is turbulence going to break a wing off? Is someone going to attack us all while we’re in the air? It wasn’t as if I had an awful experience that traumatised me, but all of a sudden everything about it just made me feel uneasy, and then came the panic attacks.
Luckily I can manage to get on a plane. It’s not that fear cripples me to the point where I don’t walk up the steps, but that’s only really because I never fly alone. Whether it’s my boyfriend, my friends or my mother, I always have someone to squeeze and to cry on. Then last year I flew to New York, which is over seven hours, and the fear I felt all over my body, the tightness in my chest, and the crippling anxiety, not to mention the odd panic attack, proved quite a lot to handle, but thankfully I had my boyfriend with me. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Flying is just about manageable, once I never have to go on my own’. But let’s face it – it’s inevitable.
With this in mind, I signed up for Fly Fearless, a course designed to help those who won’t fly, or will fly but are miserable for days before the flight, during it, and days before you have to return home – the latter being me. The course, which has been running since 2008, has a 92% success rate, so I was feeling optimistic. The six-hour course went through everything, breaking down each fear such as turbulence, terrorism and mechanical faults, and explained how and why these issues can be dealt with. What helped me was realising the connection between the bereavements I had been through and my fear. Founder of Fly Fearless, Michael Comyn, explains:
It’s very common, factors like being angry, hungry, lonely, tired or vulnerable can have an effect. The vulnerable part is what happened with you. After a bereavement, death of someone your own age or of someone close to you, you feel vulnerable, after something traumatic your vulnerabilities will kick in and you get stressed.
Of course, grief isn’t the only thing that can cause feelings like this. “Similarly the birth of a new baby make mothers very risk-averse so they don’t particularly want to take any risks so they can be around for their kids.
Even something like coming back with a hangover from a stag or hen party, flying with a very bad cold, or being exposed to world news can increase vulnerability. So it can be anything at all that makes you feel vulnerable. That’s all it is, and what happens there is your body goes into a stress response and you’re going to be more acutely aware of what you think is a possible threat.
Looking around the room, there was a man the size of a rugby player, an elderly couple, a successful businesswoman and a man about my age, among loads of others. While chatting to them I learned that though they all had different levels of fear – some having not left Ireland in 11 years, others not being able to sleep for nights before the flight, the issue was the same for us all – it was holding us back in life.
Panic attacks are hugely common among those who dislike flying, and once again, Michael explained that once you understand panic attacks, they are a little less scary. “It’s a fear of fear, rather than a fear of flying. You’re actually afraid of being mortified by being in a state of panic, and when you’re in that state all logic and reason go out the window.
You don’t quite trust that you have the ability to stop the process. A panic ‘attack’ is a very strong word, they go on a scale starting in your head and go right through your body, but what happens is your body will take you offline if it gets bad enough and you’ll faint, but someone will look after you and you will be grand. Remember, no one has ever died from a panic attack.
“Your body won’t let it harm itself, if your blood pressure goes down, you’ll faint and it brings you horizontal, so while extremely unpleasant, it will be okay. Also, cabin crew are extremely well trained and comfortable with dealing with things like that.”
He also explained that if you’re travelling with a nervous flyer, being practical rather than sympathetic can make all the difference. Asking someone why they are scared or worried can help them to realise there is nothing to be afraid of. “It’s not about reassuring the person, yes if there is something that is generally scary it’s fine, but otherwise it’s about being realistic.”
One aspect of the course that really helped me was how the team listened to every fear, irrational or otherwise, and explained why they really aren’t fears at all, and more often than not it’s actually lack of information. For example, many of those present on the day took comfort in knowing what each sound meant on the flight while I personally took comfort in learning that turbulence has never actually damaged a plane.
The pilots present on the day even take you to a simulator and fly you across Dublin, so that you can familiarise yourself with how things operate in the cockpit. But what I found most interesting came in the latter half of the day, and that was discussing what fear really is, through things like cognitive behavioural therapy, coping mechanisms and understanding anxiety, not to mention practical math tables and graphs to keep your mind occupied and focused during the flight.
With a new wealth of information and practical aides, anyone who I chatted to on the course felt considerably more at ease, but can it really be that simple? “What makes a big difference is that people began to realise that they are stressed, not afraid, it’s about taking away the mystery,” Michael adds.
Fear is sadly more than just the thing you are afraid of, it’s a barrier, it’s time-consuming and it occupies your mind. It can creep into other aspects of your life too. I know that days before I travel I am thinking about the flight, the things that could go wrong, forgetting my passport, getting stopped at security and missing my flight for some reason and it takes up space in my mind when I should be thinking about what to do when I get there, where to eat and what to see.
Facing that fear not only meant that I now feel as though I can head off on my own on my next flight, but that days are not wasted and my mental health is not tested in the way in was before. If you’re in a similar situation, I would highly recommend the course, you are provided with plenty of resources, information and advice as well as that invaluable peace of mind.
Prices start at €200. See flyfearless.ie for more info.
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