I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.
My husband and I recently travelled to Athens. He went to see some sites he is studying in his Ancient Greece PhD. I went to eat nice food and have a week off from work (referring to work in the home and out). It was a pleasant week in which I prioritised self-care rather than creating a pressure to see and do as much as possible. Where does that pressure even come from? I suppose it amounts to some sort of achievement. My perfectionism-recovery-programme told me to enjoy, rest, connect. So I did.
The only downside in all this was the fact that I had to take a flight. There, and back. I wouldn’t categorise myself as having a flying phobia. I felt mild twinges of anxiety as I watched the safety presentation before the flight on the way out and this didn’t feel abnormal. However, I hadn’t actually flown for a year and a half – not since before I became unwell with anxiety. So unexpectedly, when the plane underwent some minor turbulence, I felt the familiar symptoms of a panic attack wash over me.
I had cold tingles travel up my chest and neck. My heart started pounding. My stomach was churning and I felt sick with fear. There was nothing I could do about the situation. I couldn’t leave via the nearest exit (which were ‘here’ and ‘here).
This is what I did:
- Square breathing, read about this very effective technique here
- I arrested my thoughts and imagination that were starting to play out the scenario of when the plane goes down and what I would do, as if I was Liam Neeson in an action film.
- I had a playlist of helpful thoughts that I put on repeat:
- Maybe, but probably not (in response to imagining the plane crashing)
- Minor turbulence is normal, not dangerous, and inevitable on a flight
- No one else is worried
- Flying is statistically very safe
- I played music and started reading as a distraction
I wasn’t sitting next to my husband (cheers, Ryanair) and so I gave myself a big high-five when I managed to calm myself down and even fall asleep, which anyone who has had an adrenaline rush knows, it’s not so easy to relax immediately after.
An important element of mental health is to celebrate when you manage an attack or a situation that involves triggers. Too often we can fixate on the times it overwhelms and feel an acute sense of disappointment and even failure.
I got through the flight with extreme sweat patches and a sense of elation. Not half bad. As we were travelling to our hotel an unnerving thought snuck into my mind:
I am going to have to do that again in six day’s time.
I told myself it will be fine and I refused to think about it again. Thankfully, that worked and I had no anxiety about it during the week. Until we were at the airport again and I was terribly anxious, worse than during the flight over.
It’s amazing how quickly your mind can associate a place/activity with certain feelings. In the end, I was essentially feeling anxious about being made to feel anxious again. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but it’s not a nice feeling. If we then listen too hard to that anxiety we will avoid the experience and before we know it a phobia has developed. At face value, the flights were perfectly fine. As Mark Twain alludes to, we have an incredible capacity to create and often what we create are terrifying experiences that never actually occur.
I was dreading four hours of potential torture but it was much better than expected. I told myself, who cares? They’re just feelings and I’ll manage. I slept for a large part of the flight thanks to my serenity (!). I looked out of the window and marvelled at what I could see. I chose to feel grateful for the experience and what it afforded me.
Now I am feeling confident I will be fine for my next flight in the summer holidays. Also, that each time it will be better and better. That belief in itself is an antidote to anxiety. I am noticing that just as anxiety can spiral out of control very quickly, it can also work in the opposite way. As you gain more confidence in your ability to handle it and more awareness that they are feelings you can overcome, things keep getting better.
What are some of your mental health triumphs?