I don’t know if ‘fear of flying’ is the right way to describe my feelings about aviation but I every time I had to travel abroad I got a feeling of dread in the days before my flight.
I think I can trace this back to my first ever flight in 2014 (when I was 20) on which I felt extremely ill and uncomfortable for the entire journey. I was constantly dizzy and every time I moved my head I felt as though I was going to pass out.
I’m not scared of crashing as such, which is why most people fear flying, it’s more the lack of control I have when in mid air. I suffer with travel sickness and vertigo generally and have for years, I can’t get in a car, bus or train without taking a travel sickness tablet first but I don’t get the feeling of dread and anxiety that I do before a flight.
This severe level of anxiety has made me seriously consider not going on trips abroad in the past and I want to share some of my tips for coping with it.
It’s the day before my flight out to Spain. It’s 2 hours and 50 minutes in total and we’re flying with Ryanair, as usual. I’ve still not packed and the excitement for the holiday that I felt a few days ago has subsided and been replaced with a knot in the pit of my stomach. I’m sat on my bed going over everything in my head. How I felt on my last flight. The feeling of light headedness and dizziness. The bumpy landing. Every small detail that caused me distress. I can’t eat my tea, I can’t think about packing. All I can think is ‘I need to get out of this’.
I’m supposed to be going on holiday with 3 of my closest friends to a villa in Murcia, Spain. I have been to Murcia before with my family, some really good family friends of ours (you know the aunty who isn’t really your aunty) own an apartment and rent it out. My mum and dad are also out there at the same times as my friends and I. They’re on the same flight out but staying for an extra 10 days. They keep asking me if I’m looking forward to it and each time they do the anxiety in me increases.
It’s almost midnight the night before my flight tomorrow and I’ve still not packed. I lay awake almost all night worrying about how to tell everyone I’m not going to be going. ‘I’m not bothered about the wasted money’ I tell myself but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I fruitlessly sit googling ways to overcome travel anxiety and fear of flying to no avail.
I set my alarm for 7am, the flight isn’t until 2.30pm and the taxi is booked for 10am. I get up and pack my case, feeling a lot less anxious than I did before my 4 hours of broken sleep. I put on my travel bands and set reminders in my phone for what time to take my travel sickness tablets.
I’m really not hungry but know if I don’t at least eat a piece of toast that I’ll feel a lot worse as the days wears on. It’s almost 10am and my friend is coming to pick us up and take us to his house, we’re all getting a minibus from there. I feel a lot calmer but still on edge. I’ve packed my case (forgetting most of what I bought specifically for the holiday) and I’m on my way to the airport. I keep trying to distract myself with anything and everything.
I find the check in process quite stressful. Queue after queue after endless queue. Shoes off, belt off, empty pockets, empty bag, re-pack bag but we get through smoothly. It’s October but Terminal 3 of Manchester Airport is still extremely busy. We make our way to a bar and find some seats. I nip into Boots and treat everyone to meal deals whilst everyone else gets the drinks in at the bar. I go for an orange Fanta as I assume if I drink alcohol it will only make the dizziness worse. I’d never drank before a flight and didn’t want to risk it.
The waiting around makes me increasingly nervous and as our flight is called for boarding the knot in my stomach returns. The dread washes over me like a tsunami, drowning me in a sea of palpitations and panic. I try to calm myself down by going to the toilet and standing in the silence for a few moments before making my way to the gate.
We board the plane and my anxiety levels shoot up. When my friends and I booked this holiday we used a travel agent. As we were flying with Ryanair we would’ve had to pay to choose our seats which we decided against. That was a huge mistake for me because the thought of having to sit next to a stranger, something I had never done on a flight before, terrified me. Luckily, as I mentioned earlier, we were on the same flight as my parents so I managed to swap seats with my mum so I was sat next to my dad as both my parents know I hate flying.
For some reason this holiday and this flight has made me more anxious than ever before, I don’t know why because I’ve flown on a friend’s holiday before and it was to Murcia just like it is this time. I convince myself this heightened feeling of dread is because I’ve not flown for so long. The flight crew prepare us for take off, go through the safety demonstration and make sure everyone has their seatbelt fastened. As I say I don’t fear the plane crashing, I’ve always been in the mind set that if it crashes then it crashes, it’s the feeling of lack of control. I keep going over in my head what the dizziness felt like. The uncontrollable feeling of my world spinning around and there’s nothing I can do to make that sensation go away. In my mind I play over all the different scenarios. What will happen if I pass out mid air? What will happen if I pass out mid air and we’re over the sea? Everyone will see me if I become unwell, there’s no privacy on a plane, especially one as tightly packed as a Ryanair flight.
We taxi to the runway (it takes that long that I begin to wonder if the plane is driving us to Spain) and as the engine noise increases we begin to pull away. Whenever I feel anxious all my senses seem heightened and this only makes the anxiety worse. I grab the seat in front of me tightly, close my eyes and tilt me head back. As we roll down the runway with increasing momentum I start trying to calm my breathing. I can feel myself almost hyperventilating and it’s making me feel dizzy already. I manage to steady my breathing and close my eyes tighter as we take off from the runway. The sensation when the plane becomes airborne is awful. The G force makes me feel like my brain is being pushed down into my shoes. I feel like I’m going to faint so I start breathing deeper and slower. I clench every muscle in my body and gradually start to feel more normal. I keep my head still and my hands clamped firmly to the seat in front of me for the time being, I still don’t feel 100% but I’m over the worst of it. After another 10 minutes or so I rummage in my carry on bag for my iPad and hope I can immerse myself in something to make the next few hours pass quickly.
I made sure to buy water from the airport as I didn’t fancy having to sell a kidney to buy a 300ml can of Coke on board. The flight is uneventful and I manage to actually look around and have a bit of a chat with my parents. The descent is smooth and the landing is bumpy (but anyone who has travelled Ryanair knows that is the norm with them) and we’re finally in Spain.
It sounds stupid but I feel proud of myself. I’ve overcome an obstacle that I didn’t think I would and I no longer feel worry for the flight home. The sun is shining and I’m on holiday with my best mates. The villa is gorgeous and we have an outstanding time filled with lager, laughs and lounging around. Then, the last day of our holiday comes around and the grey mist descends over me again. I feel this uncontrollable anxiety rise inside of me.
This time I have no choice but to get the flight, I’ve got to go home. As much as I’d like to stay in Spain on a permanent holiday my surname isn’t Kardashian.
The flight back is much the same as the flight out. The overwhelming fear of dread, the feeling of dizziness and light headedness, this time however they didn’t subside. This time I was also sat next to someone I didn’t know. It was awful. I kept my head and hands practically glued to the seat in front of me in a hope it would steady the spinning sensation. The landing was also a bit bumpier due to windy conditions. I got home almost 3 hours later drenched in sweat with a pounding headache. I told myself I wasn’t going to put myself through that again.
Fast forward a few months into the following year and my friends and I got offered an amazing deal on a holiday to Dubai. It was a holiday of a lifetime and an opportunity I couldn’t miss. I jumped at the chance. At the time I thought nothing about the fact it’s at least an 8 hour flight having just struggled immensely with a flight that was barely 3 hours long!
As the holiday drew nearer I started to worry about how I was going to cope on an 8 hour flight and then I was told that it was going to be two, 4 and a half hour flights. We were flying from Manchester to Istanbul and then Istanbul to Abu Dhabi. This put my mind at rest somewhat as it meant I could have a bit of a break mid flight which would be great if I didn’t feel well.
This was a holiday of a lifetime and I wanted to try and have as much of an enjoyable flight as I could. I did some research online and found that a possible reason I felt dizzy and light headed on a Ryanair flight was that smaller aeroplanes don’t pressurize the cabins to the same pressure as larger aircraft. The larger aircraft pressurize their cabins to a level a lot closer to what we feel at ground level, this could be why I was feeling unwell on the smaller planes. As we were flying with Turkish Airlines and the particular aircraft we would be on was going to be bigger it was less likely that I would feel ill… this is what I was banking on anyway.
I decided I was going to make sure I was prepared for this longer flight and make sure I had all the necessities to be comfortable. I bought things like lip balm and face cream to help with the dry air, I downloaded lots of TV shows and songs onto my iPad. With this being a longer flight and less of a budget airline we would provided with complimentary meals and refreshments throughout the flight. I did ensure I had a couple of bottles of water just in case the flight attendants were busy and I needed a drink. I decided (after speaking to a pharmacist) to go for a different type of travel sickness medication this time. I usually always use Kwells which is a hyoscine based travel sickness tablet, the pharmacist recommended I try an antihistamine based tablet for my longer journey as this may help more with the blood flow to the inner ear which is what usually causes dizziness. Two tablets of Stugeron (other brands are available) are to be taken 2 hours before travel and this can be followed by another one tablet 8 hours after the initial dose. I also had my trusty travel bands. In the days before the flight I made sure to address any worries as I thought of them. Rather than try and shy away from any feelings I got I embraced them and told my self logically that it would be a good, positive and enjoyable flight. The day finally came around and I was extremely nervous on the way to the airport but the main differences this time were we were flying from a different terminal and also that we had booked the airport lounge. This for me way the best decision. The airport lounges are calmer, quieter places with comfy seating and endless supply of beverages (non alcoholic). My friends and I were all able to enjoy a nice bite to eat, a few drinks (including a couple of bottles of water I took for the plane) and a natter before our flight. We talked about what we were going to do when in Dubai, the excursions we would do etc.
After about an hour and a half later after we’d eaten, drank and ‘checked in’ on Facebook our flight was called. Unlike the last Ryanair flight I was on we were all sat together this time. There was 5 of us on the holiday in total and we sat in a row of 3 and 2 so were all next to someone we knew. I had the aisle seat which I prefer as I find sitting near the window claustraphobic. Without going into too much detail again about the take off, this one was so much better. I didn’t have the awful feeling of light headedness and didn’t feel like I was about to pass out. Once we were in the air I felt a lot calmer and managed to relax. I never thought I would be able to relax on a flight. I was 2 films and chatted with friends and enjoyed the 4 and a half hours. This was the same for the second leg of our journey and the 2 return flights home. I was comfortable and calm.
By no means am I saying I’m all cured, I do still get the knot in my stomach before take off but I can control my anxiety a lot better now. I believe the exposure to more flights has helped this. Because after each flight I get off safely there is less to worry about in the future. I have had a few shaky flights where I’ve felt ill (returning to Spain via Ryanair again) but I have learnt how to cope with it. This year (thankfully before the Coronavirus pandemic) I travelled to New York. My first holiday to America and crucially my first long haul flight. My main worries this time were what if I felt ill on this flight that is over 7 hours long. The thought of having to endure feeling dizzy and light headed for over 7 hours was awful but I made sure I would have everything I needed to feel comfortable and hoped it would be an enjoyable flight like the ones to Dubai had been. It was. Bigger plane, in-flight-entertainment, refreshments on tap, I even managed to have a sneaky gin and lemonade. Aviation gin no less! I watched 5 episodes of Waterloo Road (a show a love and I believe really helped to calm me down and keep my mind off the flight) and listened to a bit of music amongst chatting with my friends who I was going with.
I would give these tips to anyone who suffers with travel sickness and/ or travel anxiety:
- Make sure you have everything you need close by. Pack your carry on bag strategically so you don’t end up fumbling around for things and stressing yourself out. It is a good idea to pack some sort of face cream and/ or lip balm if it is a longer haul flight to keep you feeling fresh. You can also add face wipes or baby wipes to freshen yourself up along with deodorant.
- Refreshments! Check if your flight will provide refreshments on board, most do but not all are complimentary. It is worth taking on a bottle (or 2) of water so you have this to hand to avoid waiting if the flight attendants are busy. Most long haul flights provide meals during service but consider if you may want a snack for in between the meal.
- If you suffer with travel sickness and take medication make sure you pack it in your hand luggage if you will need a top up dose mid flight. Set a timer on your phone and make sure you phone is in airplane mode so the time for your reminder is correct. Check how long before your journey you need to take your initial dose and set a reminder for that also. If, like me, you suffer with headaches it is worth packing some pain killers in your carry on in case you feel unwell mid flight.
- The night before: Avoid eating large, creasy or spicy meals as these will upset your stomach and cause bloating which will only exacerbate the feeling of sickness. When you are in a pressurised environment you are likely to bloat and this can be uncomfortable, especially for a longer journey. Avoid drinking alcohol and fizzy drinks the night before, immediately before and during your flight. The both cause dehydrations and fizzy drinks also cause bloating.
- Make sure you have a good sleep before you fly. Some people try to make themselves stay awake before a long flight in the hope they will sleep during the flight. If this works for you then continue to do it but if you are someone who feels anxious before flying then a good nights sleeps is recommended.
- Plan your entertainment, whether you take your phone, tablet or laptop with you it is always a good idea to take some sort of device that you can amuse yourself with as not all flights have in-flight-entertainment. Make sure you load your device with something to keep you occupied and calm.
- Keep yourself well hydrated in the days leading up to your flight. You’d be surprised how much water you lose from your body during a flight. Make sure you keep hydrated before you fly and stay hydrated during your flight. Being dehydrated can make you feel dizzy, lower blood pressure and make you feel generally unwell.
- If you have severe anxiety around travelling or severe travel sickness (such as vertigo) then it is best to talk to a GP. Your GP will be able to assess you ,advise you and may be able to prescribe some stronger medication than you can buy over the counter.