Since I was about seven years old, I have been a fairly frequent flyer – my Dad moved to Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington, and then back to Christchurch. I grew up in Invercargill, so come
school holidays time my younger brother and I would put on our unaccompanied minor (UM) badges and be escorted onto a plane heading to one of those destinations.
Back then I had no fear whatsoever – we would live for moments of turbulence like it was our favourite theme park ride, and we sure had our fair share of it, going in and out of Wellington. Back then they still served meals on domestic flights and we would giggle away as we naughtily mixed lettuce into gross UHT milk.
As we got older, we started going on yearly international holidays – these included visiting the theme parks on the Gold Coast, three trips to the Fiji Islands, and one to Rarotonga (and Aitutaki) – through these trips, which we were incredibly fortunate to go on, I was exposed to bigger aircraft – I think when we went to Australia the Jumbo Jet was still in commission so that was a real experience for us as we were just used to the humble ATR 72-500 turbo prop… and sometimes the even more humble Bombardier Q300. I don’t remember having any fear on any of these journeys, except perhaps the Saab that flew Rarotonga to Aitutaki.
After leaving school, and studying tourism and travel, I joined the travel industry working in Wholesale, which meant I got to go on my first ever educational trip which was also to Fiji – that’s probably one of the last times I remember not feeling any serious fear. When I was 19, I went on a holiday to Rarotonga with my then boyfriend – I remember there was a fair bit of turbulence and there was a lot of lightning quite visible in the clouds. My boyfriend was a mechanic in the Air Force, and also had his private pilot’s licence – I trusted him for those reasons, and he was able to calm me down with explanations. I’d even let him take me up in a tiny Cessna, flying from Blenheim to Nelson and back, just the two of us… I could never do that now, I’m sweating just thinking about it. Anyway, he was able to explain certain sounds, what happens with lightning etc, so that was helpful. Every flight from then on though, I seemed to be the same… I was able to control my anxiety to a certain extent, and it would sometimes depend on who I was travelling with. I became a corporate travel agent not long after that, which meant regular air travel with educationals, more inclination to go on personal holidays, and also flights home to visit my mum, as I’d moved from Invercargill to Christchurch.
I’m now 32 years old, and a mum to a pre-schooler, who I sometimes travel with alone – her natural wriggling (a random elbow here, a rogue hand there) can be an intense trigger for me, along with the fact that I really have to go into myself to hide the anxiety from her. My anxiety, when flying, presents as an all over feeling of light pins and needles and tension, with a tight chest and butterflies, so I do find this hard when she moves around a lot. She is very well behaved though, and I’m grateful for that.
You would not believe the thoughts that go through my mind before flying, but I haven’t let the fear stop me from travelling, and have been on many longhaul, shorthaul, and domestic flights to amazing places, but I definitely have a routine in place and I still need to work more on it.
This is my routine…
Day before and morning of – check the wind predictions for both the departure city and the arrival city, as this will give an indication of potential turbulence on take off and landing… even if it is going to be quite windy, at least I will expect it in advance.
Prepare a phone with downloaded shows for my daughter, and charge her Bluetooth headphones (and mine).
Day of – minimise sugar, caffeine, and carbs intake… I find these really exacerbate my anxiety
I also make sure to drink lots of water, as it has natural calming properties and it’s always good to be hydrated.
I make sure I have my SOAR app downloaded – this has wind information, techniques for relaxing (1-2-3-4 technique) and it also has a G Force indicator that shows you how within the normal range the turbulence you’re experiencing is (it’s always been mild when I’ve used this).
About 1.5 hours before the flight
I’ll take a lorazepam – either a .5mg or 1mg, depending on how long the flight is, and if I have my daughter with me – the effects of this medication can last for 6 or so hours, and it does make you a bit drowsy, but I find it helps me to relax hugely. Do not drink with this medication, as it can cause respiratory problems.
As I write this, we are descending through thick cloud into Christchurch, having travelled from Queenstown – I always know that when flying through cloud cover turbulence is likely.
Fear of flying affects 40 percent of people, although apparently only 2.5 percent have it to the extent I do. If you aren’t one of these people, that’s so great, but please know that statistics often do not quell a phobia – I know I’m much more likely to be hit by a car while crossing the road, but anxiety does not think like that… if you’re travelling with a fearful flyer, don’t go down the route of statistics, you’re best to just distract with normal conversation.
I don’t think this fear will ever go away unfortunately, but being prepared helps and hopefully my routine might give others ideas on how to cope with their fear of flying.