I love to travel, for me it is more of an inner journey than a physical one. The experiences I’ve had, the people I have met, and the places I have been fortunate enough to explore have opened my eyes to a world and humanity I hardly know anything about. It has made me question my beliefs, my reality, my opinions, and my idea of how life should be. And questioning is a good thing because it has made space in me for seeking, for learning, and for realizing that my perception of life was confined to a small bubble that needed to be burst.
So, it came as a surprise that from all the obstacles I anticipated threatening my globetrotting journey, fear of flying was never one of them. It felt like a macabre play from destiny that my passion could be jeopardized by an invisible monster that sneaked up on me. Macabre because its coming was not evident, it meticulously and gradually developed and by the time I realized its enormity, it was too late. I was already finding myself in the middle of anxiety attacks pre and post boarding flights. Why this fear? What was the trigger? Fortunately, I have not had any bad experiences while flying that might merit this change in me. Thus, I cannot understand what happened in between the me that used to enjoy flying and the me now: having to sit, terrified through my fight-or-flight response every time I fly.
It was in 2016 during my flight from South Africa to Germany when I had my worst panic attack up to date. Passengers had boarded the aircraft and everyone had taken their seats when my anxiety began to manifest in such a way that it quickly turned into a panic attack. There I was at the edge of my seat, my heart racing, my body trembling, hyperventilating, with a sinking feeling in my stomach, and feeling ice-cold. I was ready to run out of the plane but it was too late, the doors had been shut. My fight-or-flight response was so intense that I had no doubt that had the door been open during take-off I would have jumped off the moving plane. It took me about two hours to calm myself down and relax, and I did, for the rest of the flight I felt calm. I understood then how irrational my fear was—one moment petrified and the next calm and relaxed—however, it already had a tight grip on me.
Time went on, I lost countless flights, opted for long bus rides rather than flying, stepped out of planes seconds before the doors were shut, sat outside airports crying because I couldn’t get myself to step out of my car. During this time I would spend the majority of my days contemplating the thought that I may never fly again; intuitively I couldn’t accept it, nevertheless it was becoming a real possibility.
Until one sentence changed everything for me: simply sit still in complete acceptance. Inside my mind this sentence works a little bit like this:
Breath deep, become a witness to yourself, to your mind and to your surroundings, then breath deep again. Acknowledge your fear, do not fight it, do not run away but rather accept it completely, accept it like if you had chosen it, welcome it even and sit with it. Abandon any attempt at controlling your emotions, at rationalizing them and making sense of things. Rather, sit with your fear in complete acceptance, letting go of any notion, of any feeling, and letting go of your mind. Accept any terrifying scene your imagination throws at you, accept any outcome, accept any possibility, accept that you have no control. And in complete surrender sit still only as a witness that is not there to judge the situation but to live through their fears as calmly and gracefully as possible.
It has been a few years since my first, major panic attack during a flight and to this day I continue to fly and I do so in complete surrender.