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Overcoming the fear of flying for the holidays

Published Dec 21, 2016 on Elephant Journal. Click here to read on EJ.

You finally have some time to read that long-neglected book, but now your eyelids turn heavy as you feel the low vibration of the engines and think, maybe I’ll sleep for a while, as you ease the seat back somewhere over Wyoming. Suddenly, everything falls out beneath you as the plane starts to violently shake up and down. Up in the galley, there’s a crash of something that shouldn’t be crashing and you hear the pilot say, flight attendants please take your seat, as you grip the armrest and look out the window to see if the wings are still attached to the plane.

Sound familiar? If it does, then you’re probably one of those people who hates flying and thinks that few things are more concerning than sudden mid-flight air turbulence. Lucky for you, this is the time of year when you get to confront it.

Full disclosure: I’m not one of you. I’m the guy who’s falling asleep just as the plane takes off. When it starts to bounce around, I’m the guy who moves his laptop from the seatback table to his legs because it’s easier to keep typing. I don’t mind turbulence; In fact, I must confess that I enjoy it - although, I wasn’t always this calm.

Back in the day, turbulence would make my palms sweat and my heart pound. I felt out of control. When you fly, you often worry in advance about what might happen along the way. But once in the air, when the ride is smooth, you forget your initial fears. You forget, until your smooth flight suddenly turns rough and sleepy thoughts are quickly replaced with terror. What you’re really feeling, however, the thing that upsets us all, is the sudden change from certainty to uncertainty. You change from the certainty of a smooth safe flight to the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not will you live through the next minute. Of course, you will, you always do, but in the moment it doesn’t seem that way.

But I’m here to tell you that there’s hope. You can travel without the fear. Flying 70,000 miles a year (for several years) has given me the opportunity to learn how to deal with turbulence. So the next time you’re at 35,000 feet and hit rough air, try this approach and I think you will find that you can manage your response and also learn to embrace and enjoy it. I also suggest that you can apply the same approach to the figurative turbulence that you will encounter throughout your life (that’s step #5), and learn to embrace and enjoy that as well. Here are the steps:

1. Focus on your Breath

As soon as the plane starts to shake, focus on your breath. If you’re a yogi, find your Ujjayi Breath. If you’re not, the technique is to inhale through your nose, slowly filling your belly to your chest, then exhale out through your nose, but with a slightly self-constricted airway (like you do when you fog up glass with your breath). Breathe slow and deep, over and over while you focus your thoughts only on your breathing. This will calm your nervous system, help you to relax and sharpen your awareness.

2. Notice your feelings and your physical surroundings

Then, notice your feelings, notice sensations and sounds. Feel the plane shake or suddenly drop and rise. Notice it tipping side to side. Hear the soft tone that accompanies the fasten seatbelt light. But also notice how the plane keeps moving forward, much, much further than it drops. Even though the plane moves up and down, side to side, notice how it always returns to normal. (Note: Positive stability, which automatically returns a plane to it’s safe and natural position, is built into the plane’s design)

Now close your eyes and visualize the plane’s trajectory (and keep breathing through your nose). It may rise or drop ten or twenty feet, but in only one second it will fly about nine hundred feet. That means that the ups and downs are insignificant compared to how far the plane moves forward. This is how the plane is designed to fly.

3. Understand what made you upset

When the plane started to shake, there was a sudden change from certainty to uncertainty. This is what upset you. What you initially thought was an unsafe change is really a natural, common and safe part of the flying experience. Knowing this, there’s no reason to feel uncertain about the safety of the flight and no logical reason to be nervous.

4. Accept that you’re not in control

Now that you’re aware of the cause of your reaction and understand that air turbulence is common and safe, you need to decide how you’re going to handle it. You can grip the arm rest, fill your mind with terrible thoughts and anguish that you cannot control the situation, or you can let go of your need to control, accept that air turbulence is a natural part of flying and enjoy the ride -or at least tolerate it without freaking out. In fact, for some people air turbulence can be fun. For others it is even calming.

5. Embrace the turbulence of life

This is where you take the lesson’s learned in managing your reaction to air turbulence and apply it to your life. Remember, it’s really the unexpected change from certainty to uncertainty that makes your heart pound and sends you into a whirlpool of emotion. It happens throughout our lives, in our careers, relationships, family and in our health. Suddenly you hit rough air. Maybe you lose your job or maybe your partner leaves you. Whatever it is, you find yourself gripping the armrest with white knuckles. When that happens, you can apply the same lessons:

Focus on your breathing. Do it constantly. This will calm you and help you to detach you from your mind, which is now fixed on worrying about the future.

Notice your feelings. Once you notice emotions and behaviors, you are better equipped to manage them and can even make the choice to let them pass, or to feel something else.

Understand why you are upset. Was it the change from certainty to uncertainty? Knowing this will help you put the change into context. For example, most people will lose several jobs throughout their lifetime, but many, in retrospect, recognize the change as an opportunity.

And finally, accept that you’re not in control and embrace the turbulence of life. Sudden uncertainty is a natural part of any journey. Let go of your need to control it and let the changes unfold. How you decide to handle sudden and unexpected change in life is similar to how you decide to handle air turbulence. You can wrap white knuckles around the armrest, or you can sit back, observe and learn to embrace it.

Happy flying this holiday season. Enjoy the ride.

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