My stomach would do flip-flops the minute I began making travel plans. I’d be a mess from the day I booked the flight to the weeks leading up to my trip.
Not surprisingly, I was less-than-fun to be around.
I tried everything, including hypnosis, past-life regression (yes, I was that desperate), medication and acupuncture. Everything short of electroshock therapy, although I would’ve been open to that if I thought it may work.
I eventually signed up for therapy sessions with a psychologist who specialized in helping people overcome fears.
Time was of the essence, since I was scheduled to fly to see a friend across the country within a couple of weeks.
I don’t recall much about our sessions (this took place in the late 80s), aside from “graduation” day, because it involved actually flying. In a plane.
Oh, not on a commercial jet, mind you, but on a 4-seater little putt-putt airplane, one step up from a paper airplane. It’s the type that usually end up in the news for landing on major highways and inconveniencing people at dinnertime by crashing into their house without warning.
Even people with no fear of flying often aren’t brave enough to go up in one of these tiny things.
I did not know how small the plane was until I arrived at the airport. My panic set in immediately – weeks of therapy out the window.
As I tried to calm myself, I saw my therapist take the pilot aside to reassure him I wouldn’t totally freak out while we were up in the air.
I was not so sure.
I sat up in front next to the pilot, a young guy who probably wondered how he got bamboozled into this situation. My therapist sat in back (I found out later, hanging on for dear life).
There was, literally, only room for four people.
The pilot instructed me to put on a headset so I could listen to him as he communicated with ground control. It was supposed to make me feel calmer.
It didn’t work.
It was a windy day, a factor that would not be of concern to a larger plane but would toss this metal box around like an errant helium balloon.
I did not last long before begging asking the pilot to bring us back down. But — YA!! — I did it!
My therapist told me later the pilot had advised her not to go up because of the wind. She told him it was my only chance, since I was leaving in a few days.
In other words, I’m lucky my worst fears didn’t come true.
But: I lived.
This brings me to the point of this post: Fear is often an unfounded emotion, a primitive warning system to keep us on high alert that we may be in danger of getting eaten, attacked, or otherwise meet our maker in an untimely manner.
I often talk about my lifelong struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, so I know of what I speak. They began at age 17 and only got worse with age.
People who get to know me are often shocked at that realization. “You don’t seem like you’d fear anything!” I heard more than once, even from my mother.
I hide things well, apparently.
In truth, I was afraid of everything. Wide open spaces, small spaces, heights, flying, just about everything except for snakes, spiders and other “normal” fears.
You know the scene in Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown, where Lucy counsels Charlie Brown about his fears and runs through a litany of phobias before she came to pantaphobia, the fear of everything ? I was Charlie Brown.
I eventually overcame my fear of flying through a combination of techniques and yes, antianxiety medication. The latter helped me in many more ways that helped me cope with everyday fears and reduced my panic attacks by about 99%.
I bring this up in this blog because making changes – even good ones – can be scary.
It’s easier to keep the same habits, stay in the same destructive or unhappy relationships, and see yourself as a victim of unhappy circumstances.
I’m here to tell you: IT’S NOT TRUE. You can make changes and have success in anything you put your mind to do.
I did it many times and always — repeat, always — came out better in the end.
Here are a few things I learned about ways to overcome fear so you can find success in anything you seek…
Avoiding situations because of your fear only makes it worse. This pertains whether you’re afraid of flying or stepping outside your comfort zone in any way. If you can’t do it 100%, take small steps to get closer.
For example, at the height of my panic disorder, I suffered a panic attack in grocery stores. I’ve since heard it’s a common one, which could be due to the fluorescent lights, crowds, or the ridiculously high prices. Who knows.
So I developed my own desensitization process:
— I stayed around the perimeter and slowly made my way towards the back of the store as my anxiety permitted
— I told myself I could leave at any time, even if I had to abandon my shopping cart in the middle of an aisle
— I distracted myself by focusing on the task at hand (this was easier said than done)
Oh, who forgets to breathe, right? Everyone who has anxiety.
When you’re fearful you tend to breathe shallowly or hold your breath. When you’re prone to panic attacks, this is enough to trigger one.
The key lies in exhaling for twice the length of time as you inhale. The count may vary, but I use a 5-count to inhale and a 10-count to exhale. It takes only a couple of these deep breaths to calm yourself.
If you’re really struggling, don’t be a hero and try to go it alone. People can help. Reach out to others. Ask for referrals. Do whatever it takes so you can get on with your life!
I waited until fear kept me nearly housebound before seeing a doctor. My only regret is I didn’t do it sooner.
Of course, many other factors may be at play, which again, is what a good doctor can evaluate. It may be something simple like a sensitivity to caffeine, low blood sugar — or a thyroid malfunction.
All these can be resolved.
In my case, the solution was a combination of therapy, deep breathing, and yes, the right meds. It’s often not one single thing that works, and the process can take time. But I’m here to tell you: It’s SO worth it in the end and you have your life back.
YOUR TURN… What scares you — and what, if anything, did you do overcome it? Let me know in the comments section below! And please forward this to your friends if you found it beneficial. I’d be 4-ever grateful :).
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Linda Melone is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, certified trainer and award-winning health and fitness writer. She specializes in helping women over 50 get in shape and lose weight.