Anxiety as Extra Baggage

Years ago, I was on a flight from Seattle to Moscow, Idaho. I had just spent a week away in Minneapolis with my husband getting vetted for cross-cultural work, I was on edge and struggling with feelings of humiliation and disappointment. It was stormy and bumpy and the pilot was forced to return the plane to Seattle because of low visibility. Within an hour we re-boarded the plane in an effort to try again.  I was nervous at the prospect of flying in the storm and was beginning to feel unsettled. The turbulence on that flight was strong and I was unable to see anything but grey clouds through the window, so as the emotions from the last week came to a head, I panicked. I had trouble breathing, I cried, I shook and I couldn’t calm myself until the plane touched down.

Since that experience, I have dealt with anxiety while flying. No matter how frequently I fly or how much time I invest in prayer, the anxiety has remained. But we all know how integral flying is to cross-cultural living and multiple times a year I fly internationally. I have, therefore, searched for and applied tools that help my fear of flying and have found some relief. Today, I wanted to share with you those tools that help make flying bearable for me in the midst of fear. They give me the courage I need to know that I will survive another flight and potential panic attack.

  1. Plan your trip. The less anxiety I feel about the logistics of the trip itself, the better I can handle the anxiety in flight. For me, this means being early for the flight, leaving enough time between layovers, choosing our seats so that my family sits together and having a plan for how we will board and exit the plane. Generalized anxiety can heighten the dread related to a particular phobia. So, planning and prepping the weeks and days before a flight are helpful in lowering the potential for in-flight panic.
  2. Prep your kids. In line with planning the trip it is also helpful to plan for in-flight child entertainment. Charging power banks and iPads, downloading movies, games or books that will keep kids occupied is helpful. My kids are aware of my fear of flying and have walked through GoZen with me, a program that teaches kids about anxiety relief. This gives us a shared vocabulary and they have an understanding of what anxiety is and how it can affect someone. They check in with me, share their devices, hold my hand and tell me it will all be ok.
  3. Limit your caffeine. I am a lover of coffee and use it to soothe myself in a variety of circumstances, however, the caffeine becomes a liability on the days that I fly. Because caffeine is a stimulant and can ignite the fight or flight response it is bad news for those of us with anxiety. But if I limit my coffee intake to a cup or two in the morning and switch it out with a nice hot tea, my heart rate has an easier time remaining steady. Less caffeine gives me more control over the physical expression of anxiety and helps me feel better equipped to handle what’s to come.
  4. Breathe. This has actually been one of the most helpful ways for me to alleviate anxiety and not just for flying. When anxiety hits, our breathing becomes very shallow and the shallow breathing makes us even more anxious, entering us into an unending anxiety cycle. Taking the time to breathe deeply, even for a minute, will be calming, break the cycle, and reduce stress. I use alternate nostril breathing which is a good option for alleviating anxiety and calming the nervous system, allowing the mind to remain in control. While in flight I embrace my inner Yogi, and come up with a mantra to repeat as I breathe, usually a bible verse or phrase that ministers to my spirit at that time, allowing the mind and body to reset.
  5. Color. There are so many types of adult coloring books these days that have beautifully intricate designs. A set of colored pencils and a good coloring page can help bring peace. It mimics meditation and occupies the mind, letting it switch off to focus on staying in the lines while creating a masterpiece. According to what I have read, coloring Mandalas can help reduce anxiety to a greater degree than other art forms.
  6. Medication. Once I realized that my anxiety was not going away over time I talked with my primary care physician and he provided me with anti-anxiety medication. Sometimes, no matter how many skills or tools you utilize the anxiety will keep you in a state of distress and medication can be a good option. It can alleviate the physical symptoms of anxiety which in turn allows the mind to remain relaxed and makes traveling by air more palatable.

We plan to take a trip back to the United States this summer and the thought of flying for 18 hours has already kept me up at night. I don’t know why my anxiety remains. I do know that I am an honest to goodness lover of Jesus, bought with his blood, saved by his grace and filled with his spirit. Even though the peace he gives to me is muddled in the midst of heart palpitations, shallow breathing and fear, it is still present and I am still loved. God is bigger than my anxiety and he is bigger than my fear.

Happy Flying!

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. 2 Thessalonians 3:16

Does traveling make you anxious? What tips or tricks do you have that ease the travel experience?

20 Comments

  1. S February 11, 2018

    Joy, I have struggled with anxiety while flying also! When I was younger my family would drive everywhere back home and not fly. My dad was in the army and got his share of flying in there and really disliked flying so he would drive us. My first flight was when I was 12! And not again until I was in my young 20s. Then the Lord led me to marry……a pilot! Who loves to fly! And loves taking me his wife flying in the small 4 seater aircraft. I am so thankful and greatful he is patient with me. And now as we serve overseas, those halfway around the world flights have a tendacy to cause me anxiety! One thing I have found extremely helpful (along with tons of prayer) is essential oils. I use peppermint to calm my upset stomach and a blend called ‘balance’ to balance my emotions. They are my travel companions! Thank you for your tips! I shall apply those next time we head back home, half way around the world!

    1. Joy Smalley February 11, 2018

      Hi S, thank you for sharing some of your story. I love essential oils! I think that I can get peppermint and lavender here. Where do you apply the oils on the skin? Feet, wrists, temple? I am totally going to steal your idea and bring some with me the next flight.

      1. S February 12, 2018

        I add the balance to my wrist as it’s a pulse point and then to my temples and also inhale the smell. And I’ll add a small amount to my tounge if I’m nauseas and to my temples if I have a headache 🙂

  2. Addie February 11, 2018

    I’m also an anxious flier who has to travel on airplanes more often than I would like! Funny how that’s how God’s been calling me to love people in the past few years, by being present even if it means a big trip. I usually find myself praying the whole ride, but more out of desperation than faith. I’ve tried prescribed sleep medication, which got me drowsy but didn’t allow me to rest as I’d hoped. Sometimes, I wonder if God doesn’t have me sleeping on planes because he wants that time to interact with me, and to drill in the promises I know he’s made.

    I also love using essential oils – lavender is my go-to, but I’d love to try peppermint too! And colouring. I’m curious to follow this post and see what other suggestions come up 🙂

    1. Joy Smalley February 11, 2018

      Hi Addie! When I am on airplanes my prayer and focus on God increases a great deal too. I wish he would just conk me out but, for whatever reason, he likes to sit with me through it.

  3. Maddie MacMath February 11, 2018

    I so appreciate this post! Partly because I don’t love flying and I love your practical tips, but also because I’m encouraged by the way you talk about your anxiety. I’m in a season of stress and unknowns, and it’s been causing some anxiety. For as much as I’ve prayed, surrendered, and am walking in trust, the anxiety doesn’t always go away. It’s encouraging to read that just because we aren’t experiencing Christ’s peace in something doesn’t mean we don’t believe it, trust Him, or that His peace isn’t there. Thank you!

    1. Joy Smalley February 12, 2018

      Hi Maddie! Anxiety is the worst! Especially when it is laced with shame. I have found that there is peace in the acknowledgment of my anxiety and it has served to draw me closer to Christ and not pushed me farther away. Maybe it’s a grace, lol, and not a liability 🙂 Praying you see/feel the presence of God’s peace in the midst of the anxiety.

  4. Phyllis February 12, 2018

    For me the actual flying isn’t a problem, but preparing for it is! I hate all the planning and packing, and that’s usually enough to make me mean, miserable, and sleepless for a while, if I don’t really work hard to fight it. I can try some of your suggestions next time we’re prepping to travel (which–thankfully–shouldn’t be anytime soon!).

    I’ve also noticed that even when we don’t even have any flying anywhere on the horizon, most dreams that I have are about flying/traveling. They’re not usually terrifying nightmares, just missing flights, being stuck in airports, and such.

    1. Joy Smalley February 12, 2018

      Hi Phyllis, it’s funny how our anxieties like to infiltrate our dreams 🙂 My pre-flying anxiety usually involves forgetting the passports at home and then missing the flight.

      1. Ruth February 14, 2018

        So many travel stress dreams!!

  5. Elizabeth February 12, 2018

    Flying gives me significant anxiety too. In April I will be leaving my husband and four sons behind, and my daughter and I will be traveling back to our passport country for a wedding. It’s the first time I’ll be doing long-haul flights around the world without my husband. I’ve already experienced anxiety wondering what I”ll do without his hand to grip as I break out in a sweat and my stomach goes into knots.
    I do have a stash of anti-anxiety medicine and while I’ve never used it when flying, this might just be the time. I’m also intrigued by using essential oils to help keep calm.
    Thank you for reminding me today that, ” God is bigger than my anxiety and he is bigger than my fear.”

    1. Joy Smalley February 12, 2018

      Hi Elizabeth, I would be feeling the same if I had to fly without my husband. I’ll be praying for your trip coming up. May God give you peace and a smooth flight.

  6. Rachel February 12, 2018

    I’m sure I’m not the only one out there with “close to home” experiences with the recent terrorist attacks. We took the trams in Brussels and stood in the Brussels airport at about the very spot where a few months later, bombings took place. A few months later, we passed through the Turkish Airport and just a few months after that, the bombing happened at the Turkish airport. And somewhere in the middle of all that, we heard stories of planes crashing (very few, but still…). And ever since, I’ve had intense anxiety with airports and flying. Once I’m IN the airport or flying IN the plane, for me, the anxiety lessens. It’s the beforehand that’s the worst.
    We are stateside now, but took a recent trip back across the ocean to our “other home” and this time I had medication that helped calm nerves. I’ve come through a long journey recently, and one thing I’ve learned is, it’s not wrong as a Christian to take medications for depression and anxiety. Sometimes it’s His way of helping to heal us.
    So for all of you who need that extra help, you’re not the only one, and may any shame be gone in having to do so!

    1. Joy Smalley February 12, 2018

      Hi Rachel, thank you for sharing your story. I agree that medication is a means God uses to heal us and it is often a part of our journeys. Thank you for speaking truth that there is no shame is using medication for depression and anxiety relief! Blessings.

  7. Emily February 13, 2018

    I used to love flying. It meant I was going somewhere! But as I’ve gotten older, I find myself getting a little more anxious every time I’m on a plane. I don’t know if it’s a keener sense of all the things that could go wrong (thanks to all the news stories I’ve heard about when something DOES go wrong)? Or air travel getting less and less enjoyable with diminishing leg room and crankier passengers? Or…? Whatever the reason, I usually have at least a moment of panic, especially during take-off and turbulence, which used to not bother me at all. I love your tips and I’ll try some of those. I find that watching an engaging movie is a good way to get my mind totally distracted.Things like coloring leave my mind open to wandering, and that’s exactly what gets me into trouble because I start imagining pretty bad outcomes!

    1. Joy Smalley February 16, 2018

      Turbulence is the worst for me! I also like to watch shows/movies, something that sucks me in and helps the time pass quickly. It totally can be calming.

  8. Laurie February 13, 2018

    I’ve served the Lord cross-culturally pretty much my whole life and have had to fly across every ocean, many times, often alone, as I am single. The flying experience, when all goes well and the air is smooth, is actually something I love. But the least bit of turbulence and I am a mess. I’ve had some scary flights and have held hands with complete strangers many many times. I have cried and even (only one time) screamed out loud during a scary bump on a flight. I get prescription meds from my doctor (Valium) but am able to override the med’s effect completely when I’m scared. So the best two things that help me are my “do not fear” notebook and remembering to “pray through the bumps.” My “do not fear” notebook is a small notebook I started years ago. I write Bible passages into it about fear, about God’s strength, about trusting Him; I’ve also added sayings, any words of wisdom about fear. As I fly, I will sometimes page through and ponder thoughts from that book. (I also always keep my Bible in the seat pocket so I can get lost in God’s Word whenever possible). Secondly, a woman I flew with once taught me to “praise God in the bumps.” Rather than start hyper-ventilating and asking God to “please stop the bumps, please smooth the air” over and over again as is my tendency, she told me to begin to praise God. The bumpier it gets, the more I sing hymns of praise in my mind, or make lists of qualities of God in my mind that I praise Him for. More bumps, more praise. Don’t just praise Him in the smooth moments. Good reminder for all of life! These two things, my notebooks and praise, help. They don’t stop the fear. But they help.

    1. Joy Smalley February 16, 2018

      Hi Laurie, I love that you have a do not fear notebook. What are some of your favorite verses or quotes? When turbulence hits, I am always praying that God would stop the bumps, thank you for suggesting praise as an alternative. I’m gonna do that 🙂

  9. Danielle February 16, 2018

    Just wanted to say thank you! I am so thankful you wrote this article. I have been living overseas for 4 years now, and my fear of flying has gotten worse the longer I have lived here. I have been on some really, really bumpy flights (like flying through a snowstorm). I have been almost ashamed to tell people I have this fear because I am a believer and I don’t want to seem like a hypocrite because I do believe I have no reason to fear. It’s hard to remember that while I am flying, though. What I have been doing during times of turbulence is imagining Jesus is with me. I talk to him, I imagine He is holding my hand, and I practice breathing like you mentioned. Recently, that has been able to get me through. I look forward to trying some of your tips and see if any of them will work for me!

    1. Joy Smalley February 16, 2018

      Hi Danielle, I can relate to the feeling of shame over the anxiety or fear that we feel. I have found that my fear/anxiety has never served to push me away from God but has drawn me closer to him and because of that I can consider it a grace. Man, what an opportunity to feel the presence of Christ Jesus next to you. I love that image!

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