October 22, 2017

When Life Gets Turbulent

One Spring, when I was still in college, I was flying back home into the Atlanta airport to visit with my family. I hate flying. I hate feeling out of control. I hate turbulence. I hate when I'm not next to the window because I can't see what's going on. It's miserable for me.

On this particular flight the pilot warned us the landing was going to be a little bumpy so my anxiety was already heightened. As we neared the airport, the pilot came back on to say that there were tornadoes in the area and that he didn't know when we would be able to land. At this point, I'm near panicking but trying to keep it together because no one else seems concerned and in my mind the only thing worse than being scared was having everyone else know that I was scared. The flight continues to get bumpier and I'm trying to remember all of the science behind flying that my brother would explain to me when we were kids. I feel a little calmer until the pilot comes back on and says "We're in between tornadoes so we're going to go ahead with landing. Everyone buckle up." The plane drops suddenly as we start our descent and I give up on pretending I'm okay. I grab the leg of the poor man sitting next to me (who was so sweet and gave me a pat on the back and said "it's ok") and proceed to bury my head in my lap. No deep breathing or positive thinking was going to stop me from feeling the way I was feeling. I was convinced this is the end. Of course, we land safely and everyone walks off like nothing happened. I was left feeling overwhelmed, stupid for reacting so strongly, and even more afraid of flying.

Sometimes when we are struggling with our mental health, it can feel how I felt on that flight: Completely out of control but trying to pretend you're okay; stupid and like no one else gets it or feels it; and like nothing you do will make you feel better.

1. It's okay to not be okay. 

We put so much effort into pretending we are okay. When we pretend we are okay, we don't open ourselves up to receiving support. So not only is it exhausting to pretend to be okay, it also doesn't allow us to get the help we need. I felt a small amount of relief when the stranger next to me patted my back and told me it was okay. And I probably wouldn't have been grabbing his leg in the first place if earlier in my panic I had told him I was scared. He might not have said anything super helpful but at least I wouldn't have had the added anxiety of trying to look like I wasn't anxious.

2. A lot of people experience some of what you experience.

So yes, technically you are the only one who knows how you're feeling and experiences what you experience. But, a lot of other people out there probably experience something similar. That can be comforting, feel less lonely, and can give you perspective. I now LOVE sitting next to people on flights who hate flying. I can explain the science to them, what causes turbulence, and why things will most likely be okay (I'm sure they just love me too). And when I do that, I'm putting my own fears into perspective and challenging the illogical thoughts my anxiety loves to attack my brain with.

3. Practice makes perfect.

During that flight, I tried everything I knew I was supposed to do to make myself feel better. Deep breathing, positive self-talk, distracting myself, etc. None of that worked because I hadn't practiced it at all. My brain and my body were too far down the anxiety spiral for any of that to work. Now if those had been things I'd practiced regularly when I was feeling okay (and not thinking I was about to die), my brain and body would  have known what to do to calm down with less conscious work from me. I worked hard over a lot of years and got really good at changing the panicked thoughts when I fly. Again, this took repeating positive things to myself when I wasn't in a state of high anxiety. Now when I hit turbulence, my brain doesn't go straight to "You're going to die." Instead my brain acknowledges my fear and then says "You'll probably be okay." It's not perfect, I still get scared, but it's a lot better and I'll keep working on making it better.

Click here to read more about anxiety therapy.

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