High anxiety: Conquering a fear of flying

Every bump is certain death, every sound, apocalyptic.
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Every bump is certain death, every sound, apocalyptic.

I have a friend who survived an emergency landing and still flies. Unbelievable. I get nervous if someone leans forward to grab their KiaOra mag, and this woman lands on a stretch of ice and talks about it like she's describing the omelette she made last night for dinner.

It's all very well for her. She's survived the worst-case scenario, so statistically she'd be bloody unlucky to have to live through another. I'm the one who has to worry.

I am a white-knuckle flyer. Every bump is certain death, every sound, apocalyptic. I fly better in business class because I'm armed with champagne and the inexplicable certainty that nothing bad will happen to me when I'm being glamorous up the front. My husband doesn't go for it.

Bumps were the first thing to trip me up on a flight to the Gold Coast as a teenager. My distaste for air travel has multiplied impressively since then. Now, the issues are many: the announcement of a delay can only mean engine problems; a pilot who checks in with coffee is dangerously tired; having to move on the plane at all will tip the balance and that means, obviously, the plane will tip over. Seeing a flight attendant approach another flight attendant without smiling means they are figuring out how to tell us the plane is about to crash; hearing 'ping!' means buckle up, you're going down; flying over water means we haven't got a hope in hell; and changes in sound or movement mean, well, this was fun guys, but say goodbye.

Then we land and I hop off and tell people about, 'Oh my god! My terrible flight!' And forget it about five minutes later.

People who fly next to me don't get to read their books or catch up on the Twilight movies. Flying isn't fun for them. They provide the arm I dig nails into and every time there's sound or sudden movement, their job is to say, "What, that? Please! That was nothing." It helps for a moment when they do that.

People are surprised when they hear I'm scared of flying and I am surprised when I hear they're not. The notion of a plane, a ridiculous and flimsy plane, flying through the crazy atmosphere, so disproportionately immense – I don't understand how we sign up for it.

The only practical solution to flying is ruthless alcohol consumption, valium or staying at home – and let me tell you, I've partaken in two of those options and been close to the third.

I googled the flying issue and found a guy called Grant Amos, who knows all about bad flyers. Up to 17 times a year, he travels up and down the country running a course called 'Flying Without Fear' for nail-biting scaredy cats. I went to one of them.

I found myself nodding a lot when he spoke. "Everyone here," he said, "is anxious." Well, yeah. Looking around the room it was pretty obvious from the foot tapping, the fidgeting, the clenched fists, bums balancing on the edge of seats, wide eyes, the shallow breathing, the nervous laughter, the deranged outbursts about pent-up flight-related fears. What about bird strike? Wind strike? Lightening strike?

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Grant Amos did a lot of the talking and, in hindsight, I wonder if he was trying to put a lid on the hysteria by not handing the mic over – we could have made things a lot worse for each other. As it was, I'd already learned a few things to be freaked out about thanks to my newfound fearful friends.

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'Wait! What's that on the wing!'

On the first night he told us, "I don't have the cure." That was a blow. He said, "People get a cure when they decide to change."

Being afraid of flying is kind of like having a sore body part, going to physio and then being given a list of boring exercises that most don't do, though if they did they would find it helped. When you hate flying so much that you find yourself in a cold room after hours for four long nights, you know you're in the minority that's willing to do the exercises. With the backup, of course, that if all else fails, you'll be heading straight to the bar next time you're at the airport lounge.

Amos says relaxation is number one priority for the fearful flyer. Just relax! Saying this to an anxious person will never inspire their breakthrough moment. Amos has stood in front of enough of us to know this, so he spent time expanding on the whole relaxation idea. He said exercises help, and we did some: breathing techniques. He said reigning in the emotions and being more reasoned helps – that one's more of a lifelong goal. All of them take time and practice.

He said anxious people are often busy and they need to learn to be passengers, to allow themselves time off. When Amos hops on a plane, he's relaxed by the thought that getting to the destination is not his problem. That's a big problem for me, but different strokes, I guess.

 He said it's important to change the narrative. So instead of telling your worst flight story at dinner parties, or listening to others talk about theirs, stay positive about it. He told us to wake up on the morning of a trip and say, "Wow! Today I'm flying." When a woman in the audience piped up and repeated his words with a downward inflection, the meaning changed, and all of us flight fearers laughed.

"Treat yourself like a psychological diabetic," said Amos. "There's no cure, only management."

We learnt survival tips from the Grant Amos toolkit. While breathing helps (on the plane and in life), so does wiggling the toes during take off, or whenever, really. This is supposed to prevent you from being able to tense up and try to grip on to the floor, and it's also a bit distracting. Distraction helps. Sitting with your bum right back in the seat helps, with the seatbelt fastened tightly so that you can move with the plane.

Amos always carries a bag of Oddfellow mints when flying. They force you to breathe through your nose. Hydration helps, but it has the unfortunate side effect that you will potentially tip the plane over when moving to the bathroom. He said this is impossible, but I don't fully believe him so please stay still. He also said it's impossible to be sucked down the toilet and out of the plane. That's something. Chewing gum on descent helps. Statistics don't. "Statistics make you a highly knowledgeable bad flyer, they don't change your feelings." Just in case they help you, I will report you would be bloody unlucky to die in a plane crash: More than 3.3 billion people flew safely on 38 million flights last year. There were 73 crashes, and 641 died. I asked him if any of the 7000 people who have taken his course have died in a plane crash and immediately regretted it when he said no – does that mean it's more likely that I could be the one?

On Friday night we graduated and were given cute Fly Without Fear badges, and a woman asked if this was so our bodies could be identified more easily if we wore them on flights. Christ almighty. He should've taken her badge back.

On the Saturday six of us flew return from Tauranga to Auckland with Amos, armed with our toolkits. We arrived and all agreed we had barely slept because it was so windy out. We thought the flight would be cancelled. We prayed the flight would be cancelled.

It was bumpy. Our mouths were stuffed with Oddfellow mints. We chatted happily until the first bounce, then Amos took over and did the talking. "Wiggle your toes! It's not turbulence, it's the plane rising and returning! It's not bad, it's interesting! Relax!" A woman looked at the group of us like we were outpatients and one of us told her what we were doing. At the end she took each of our hands and said, "Well done; you made it." It was silly and we knew it, but we were kind of proud.

People keep asking me if I'm cured. Only business class has the power to heal me completely. Until the day my bank balance allows it, I'll make do with the Amos toolkit, the relax mantra, and some solid time at the airport bar.

 - Sunday Magazine

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