Patty Chang Anker

Some Nerve

Holiday Travel and Fear of Flying

How to talk yourself down to a safe landing

Posted Dec 06, 2013

My friend R.O. hates to fly. And she’s one of the bravest people I know – as an oncologist she helps patients face fear of death, as a mom, she shows her daughters women can do anything they set their minds to. One of her favorite things to do is explore other cultures and try new things. But flying?

“I’ve cried, I’ve covered myself with the blanket, I’ve asked the stranger next to me to let me hold onto them, I’ve tried medication, wine, it’s still just awful,” she told me. She hasn't let her fear stop her from going places. But it’s hell getting there.

On her most recent flight to New York City for Thanksgiving, she did something different on the descent:

“I held my copy of Some Nerve to my chest and told myself I could get through it,” she said. She credited the book with helping her through the landing. I'm sure it had more to do with her talking to herself in a positive way.

On my own flight home from Santa Fe earlier this week my seat mate asked the flight attendant: “Aren’t you afraid that the more you fly the higher your chances of something bad happening?” The flight attendant, a mature looking woman who’d been doing this her whole career looked incredulous. “No, absolutely not,” she said. “It’s much safer up here than down there on the highways.” The statistics bear that out – in 2011 in the U.S. there were over 32,000 motor vehicle fatalities and in the same year there were no commercial airline fatalities at all.

But all the statistics in the world are little comfort to those who, once belted in and stripped of any control over the outcome, feel like they’re going to die. What R.O. did differently was exercise control  over the one thing she could: her thoughts. That in turn affected her feelings. ”I can get through this” she kept telling herself, calming herself down. “I am brave. I am stronger than I think.”

We are all brave. We are all capable of letting the fear come and then letting it go, allowing the brain to panic and then recognize that for the moment we’re actually okay. One moment after another, one breath at a time, one positive thought leading to the next, until the plane arrives safely at the gate.

R.O.'s next flight, going home from NYC, was "the easiest flight of my life," she wrote in an email. That's how strong the brain is. It can convince us we're in danger, but then it can also convince us we're okay. We invite it to turn and look at things differently, and with practice, turning can become easier, second nature even. How often do we hold ourselves back or suffer unnecessarily because we haven't taken that first turn? How soon will we begin to try?

Wishing everyone traveling this holiday season strength in motion, and safe home.