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Morra Aarons-Mele

Anxiety

Scared of Flying?

I just worry more.

I finally realized I needed to do something about my fear of flying after becoming so groggy from a double-dose of Xanax, following a business trip, that I completely passed out in my gate’s waiting area. I had been so anxious that I took two pills to relax, instead of one. I had to be woken by a kind passenger to board my flight home to L.A.

I’ve always been a fearful person. When I hear a siren, I panic. At major conferences, I hide in the bathroom—or leave early. I’m scared of heights, tight spaces, and snow storms. And even though I know that, statistically, I am more likely to be killed by a bear than in a plane crash, there is not a single time I don’t get on an airplane and worry I’ll never see my children again.

But over the years, I’ve realized that anxiety has also played a central part in my career: for the better. My rebellion against office life gave me the impetus to be an entrepreneur. My dislike of real-world networking meant I had an early foothold in the digital world that now forms the core of my company. My fear of being a bag lady keeps me hustling. My reliance on self-care keeps me from burning out. Anxiety has made me become a more focused salesperson and speaker, and a more empathetic boss.

And now, it’s made me a more confident traveler.

Rob Hyrons/Shutterstock
Source: Rob Hyrons/Shutterstock

A job that requires a lot of travel can throw a wrench in a career, especially when I feel anxious and scared every time I get on a plane. But I’ve learned over the years not to ignore my anxiety. I listen to it instead. I like to think that though my anxiety and I are in a difficult relationship, we’re trying to make things work. Here are tricks I’ve learned to make travel anxiety work for me.

I flip the perspective. At the first bump of turbulence, I worry I may never see my loved ones again. So I remind myself why I’m traveling in the first place. It’s not for fun: it’s for my family. Sure, I’m still terrified something will harm my children and I won’t be there for them, but I remind myself that I’m on the trip in the first place to earn money for my family (and keep myself from worrying about our finances).

Leave home behind. A friend tells me that she and her husband have a pact that the person at home is the one in charge of the kids, pets, and household, and the one traveling will only be contacted for an emergency or illness. While going AWOL might feel weird or wrong, setting clear boundaries when you have to travel is actually a great way to build trust in your in your partner’s competence, and your kids’ independence. I don’t Facetime my kids. In fact I try to forget them as much as I can.

I think way too much about my trip. Planning the most minute details gives me a sense of power when feeling powerless. First, I pack my travel days full of meetings so I have less time to ruminate, and ultimately have to make fewer trips. Sometimes, I might want to red eye and sleep on the plane and get home sooner, but sometimes it’s alone time at the hotel to chill after a busy day of meetings. I feel much safer on a 747 than I do on a regional jet. As a result, I’ve worked hard to build up loyalty points on the airlines I feel most comfortable with. Because I have loyalty points, I get upgraded more often, which also makes my flying experience more comfortable.

It took me many years to take my preferences and schedule seriously, and not feel like I was being indulgent or lazy by meeting my needs. But it pays off in my performance and focus at work.

Examine the anxiety, and name it. My wonderful therapist taught me this one. Sometimes, simply noting what’s making me anxious and acknowledging it can help me calm down. I try to observe my anxiety without giving into it, and simply tell myself what’s going on: I’m feeling flooded with anxiety because I’m separated from my kids and I can’t see them. Then I remind myself, You’re just like all these other mothers in the world. They’re anxious, too.

Actually, everyone on the plane is terrified of something. You know the type: the perfect, put together business traveler with matching luggage and designer accessories (as often the only woman in the airline lounge, I notice these things). Guess what? They’re anxious too! In my experience, there are a ton of people suffering small- to large-scale anxiety at any given time. If I’m panicking on the runway, I’m trying to remind myself that a bunch of other people on the plane are panicked about something, too.

Superstitious? You can use magical thinking to torture yourself (if the flight crew is answering the cabin intercom, this plane will go down!) or you can make it happy. I have a lucky charm from each of my children that I must have in my purse when I get on a plane. Having a concrete object, like a picture or piece of jewelry, can help trigger oxytocin for happiness instead of dread.

Sometimes I just need to get outside of my own head. Smiling at or helping a stressed parent with a baby can take me out of my dark thoughts.

And Finally: Meds. I’ve struggled for many years over whether to take anti anxiety medication. Is it bad for me? Am I killing brain cells? But honestly, I think medical doses given under a doctor’s care to control pervasive terror is nothing to be ashamed of. I’m sure to adjust if it’s a long journey: don’t drive a rental car on landing, and try to say no to a client dinner that might involve drinking, or frankly, any coherent conversation.

Do you have hacks for overcoming business travel anxiety? I’d love to hear! Please email me.

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About the Author

Morra Aarons-Mele is a consultant who has worked with organizations such as the United Nations and the Malala Fund. She is the author of Hiding in the Bathroom.