How to Overcome the Fear of Flying (or, my strange journey back to 30,000 feet)

2016-02-06 09.13.23 am
My first flight in 12 years. 53 long minutes from D.C. to Hartford.

Sometime soon after a 2003 flight back from Florida (I was 21 at the time) I became afraid of getting on airplanes. There wasn’t any specific triggering event for my fear, other than maybe that transition that happens to every young man when he goes from fearing nothing as a teenager to fearing everything in adulthood. The fear of flying grounded me for about 12 years, until last year when I forced myself to take a 53 minute flight from Washington, D.C. to Hartford, CT.

Since 2009, there have been only 3 deaths in the U.S. from airline accidents, while more than 200,000 people have died from car crashes during the same time period. Everyone knows the statistics. Flying is very safe. Why would anyone be afraid of it? I think of it like smoking – everyone knows smoking is bad for you, but why do people smoke?

The fear of flying is an emotional issue, and trying to overcome a strong emotional fear with logic is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. If you’re stuck on the ground like I was, you’re going to have to address the underlying emotional concerns before you’re ready to hear the statistics.

My fear of flying had two underlying component parts: 1) being a control freak, and 2) being afraid of dying. Here’s how I worked it out:

1. Cosmic Consciousness 

Overcoming my need to be in control has not been easy. It’s my nature to want to be in control, and my default mode to be calling the shots. How nuts am I? I actually used to feel like if I was flying the plane or at least sitting in the cockpit to supervise the pilots that I would have been fine with flying 10 years ago. That’s how nuts.

The real breakthrough I had with letting go has come from meditation, but not in a spiritual new-agey way. Meditation has helped me realize how physically tense and tight I am all of time.

When I sit quietly for a while I can start to feel that I’ve been clenching my shoulder muscles all day like a half shrug. So I stop controlling my shoulders, and I feel a little more calm. Then I notice my brow has been pulled tight all day too, so I let go of controlling those muscles, and I feel a little better. Then I notice all these other small muscles in my face that I didn’t even know I had, and they’ve all been activated too, so I let those go, and the more control I let go of the better I feel.

I know how annoying it is to hear someone tell you that a new health focus of theirs is helping them “feel better,” so I apologize for sounding like a zealot. At the same time, I’m sure it’s not too hard for you to imagine how a guy who walks around with his butt clenched all day might feel a little less anxious and exhausted if he lets loose for 20 minutes. It helps.

Meditating hasn’t been the panacea it’s sometimes touted as, but it’s definitely made me a little more pleasant to be around. I’m learning to let go, relax, and be a little less anxious.

2. “Very Soon You Will be Dead” 

That’s a cherry little quote from the famous stoic philosopher, Roman emperor, and regicide victim in the movie The Gladitor, Marcus Aeurellius. It’s more of a mantra than a quote. I’ll explain in a bit.

It’s not the flying I’ve been afraid of all these years. It’s the crashing. And crashing doesn’t seem very survivable from 30,000 feet.

Logically, I know the plane isn’t going to drop out of the sky, but I’m also much more afraid of wolves than mosquitos, even though logic would suggest I’m a billion time more likely to die from a nibble by the latter.

The fear of flying is the fear of dying, and not just regular dying, but dying by being torn to bits by wolves. For me to get back in the air I had to reconcile with what happens when the wolf catches up to us. Mortality can be a particularly unacceptable proposition, especially for those who are, on their best days, agnostic about what waits for us on the other side of that terrible event all men have in common.

So sometime around my 22nd birthday I began a near-decade long existential rumination. Thought of Nothing can easily turn into a terrifying skipping vinyl record in your head. It happened to me.

How do you overcome an intense fear of dying? Beats the hell out of me. If you figure it out let me know.

My solution came to me in my early 30s. The thought occurred to me that spending a lifetime trying to know the unknowable was wasteful and stupid. I couldn’t solve the problem of mortality, so instead I chose to ignore my fear of death.

Marcus Aeurellius and the Stoics teach us that we’ll have to deal with that problem soon enough, but before then, we need to live our lives. So I chose to just take the skipping record off the player and put it on the shelf.

The Wild Blue Yonder

2016-01-25 06.51.12
Sunrise over the Mar de Cortez in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

My friend Jack London has taught me that a good life has to have risks and adventures. Interesting work, people, and places make our lives richer and they’re all waiting for us on the other side of the safest form of transportation ever.

By 2014-ish I felt I was about ready to take a test flight, and then came the big day in October 2015.

I found out that the actual act of overcoming the fear of flying is astonishingly simple. All I had to do is buy a ticket and walk onto the airplane before it took off. Was I nervous? Sure. But like most fears I’ve experienced, the anticipation was way worse than the event, and I was glad I did it when it was over. The flight was a breeze and even a little enjoyable at times.

I’m currently editing this post from the Pacific Coast of Baja Mexico, like 2,000 miles from home. I’ve been on 6 flights in the past few months, and I’ll be flying at least 4 more times this year to places I’ve never been, to see people I’ve never met. I still get a little nervous at times, but each flight is easier than the one before.

If you’re reading this, and you’re afraid of flying, here’s the best piece of advice I can give you: stop being a wimp. You will be dead very very soon whether you fly or don’t. Until that day comes, remember life is for living. Let go of control. If you can’t solve your fears today, then chose to ignore them. Make a decision to change, and then get out there and live your life.