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Curing Flight Anxiety July 13, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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If you’ve ever felt sick, nauseous or uncomfortable on a plane, trust me, I understand.  If you’ve ever lost sleep the night before catching a flight, let me assure you, I’ve been there.  But miraculously, I am now cured.

(to read the rest of this post, click on ‘more…’)

How bad did it get?

When it came to flight anxiety, I am confident that I used to be in the upper echelons of performers.  I don’t know when it began, because as a small child, I took several long haul flights without any issues.  It wasn’t until I reached my early teens that it became a problem, a real debilitating, horrific problem.

On any flight with a duration of more than 2 hours, I was a guaranteed hurler.  I’m not talking about sweaty palms and a fast heartbeat.  I was vomiting non-stop, continuously, for as long as the flight would take, and sometimes, for hours after.  At my worst, it took a day or two after arrival to fully get over it.

On a 10-hour flight, I would lose count of how many times I threw up (usually around the 20 mark).  It would start with whatever food was left in my stomach (in the later years there wouldn’t be much to start with as I grew too afraid to eat before flying), then it would just be the stomach acid.  Disgustingly sour, yellow, bubbly stomach acid.

I felt awful for whoever sat next to or near me, and the air hostesses who had to keep checking on me and give me more vomit bags.  On several occasions, they actually came and apologised because they had run out and had to give me old-fashioned, clear plastic bags to throw up in!

And after every vomit fest, I would feel incredibly cold.  My body would shake all over uncontrollably as much stomach continued to churn, preparing itself for the next attack.

The worst part about it all is that when you are on a plane, there is nowhere to go.  You can’t tell them to go faster.  You can’t tell them to turn back.  You can’t jump out (though the thought certainly crossed my mind).  You just have to gut it out.  When there’s still 8 or 9 hours to go and you’re already white as paper and feeling like you’re on the verge of death, it can get very depressing — not just for you but for whoever may be looking after you.

When you feel like throwing up all the time, you automatically shut down your throat and stomach.  Stuff wants to get out, not in.  So I would stop eating and drinking on flights.  It could be a 12-hour flight and I wouldn’t eat or drink a thing.  What was the point?  It would just come back out anyway.

The causes

As with most illnesses, it is imperative that you get the initial diagnosis right.

In my case, because I had suffered car and boat sickness very early in my childhood (for the most part, I grew out of both quickly), we first thought it had to be motion sickness.  We thought the bad turbulence and the constant, supersonic movement, must have been the culprit(s).

So I began by taking anti-motion sickness pills.  Of course, none of them worked.  I then upgraded from over-the-counter to prescription pills.  I used those motion sickness bracelets.  None of them worked either.  At my worst, I got injections of the most potent type of anti-motion sickness drug.  It kind of worked for a few hours because I felt totally out of it, but 6 hours into a 10 hour flight, the vomiting began and was even more intense than usual, as though it was making up for lost time!

It should have dawned on me and doctors early that it wasn’t a physical problem.  I should have known because I felt like throwing up as soon as I stepped onto the plane, as soon as that pungent mixture of jet fuel and bad coffee hit my nostrils.  Sometimes I would stick it out for an hour or so, sitting rigidly straight, focusing and willing my body to hold in the chunks in my stomach.  But as soon as the first meal arrived, I was gone.  The smell of the horrible airline food would inevitable send me over the edge.

Now, throwing up when others are eating is not exactly good etiquette, so I would always take my pain to the bathroom, where I would hide until everyone finished their meals.  Sometimes, even away from the smell, I wouldn’t be able to control the urge — and besides, the basin and toilet were right next to me, so I thought if I was going to hurl eventually, I might as well do it now!

However, it wasn’t until I began vomiting prior to boarding — and then even the night before it — that I realised with complete certainty that whatever my problem was, it must have been all psychological.

But what the heck was I afraid of?

I knew I wasn’t afraid of flying in the conventional sense — ie, I was not afraid that we would crash.  I even watch that Air Crash Investigation show with great interest.  I know that planes are, statistically speaking, one of the safest modes of transport.  So no, it wasn’t that.

You know what?  In the end, it didn’t really matter.  My tremendous physical discomfort and vomiting was derived from my fear of feeling tremendous physical discomfort and vomiting itself.  My utter fear of throwing up on a plane always ensured that I would.  It was my fear of throwing up that made me throw up.  It was anxiety-caused anxiety.  A vicious circle.  A self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps there was a time when it really was motion sickness.  Or when I ate too much of that nasty airline food and got an upset stomach.  There must have been a time in my past that I threw up on a flight for legitimate reasons.  However, that singular, horrible experience was somehow etched into my brain, so that every time I flew after that, the fear of throwing up again overpowered my psyche.

A psychologist I spoke to said this type of behaviour was actually rather common.  He explained that a lot of phobias spurned out of a single unpleasant experience.  For instance, if someone ate a piece of steak for the first time and that meat was rotten and filled with maggots, that person may be so mentally scarred that they’d never be able to eat a steak again.

Treatment and cure

There is a way.  If I can be cured then anyone can.

As I mentioned earlier, I tried almost everything:

  • Anti-motion sickness tablets (over the counter and prescription)
  • Anti-motion sickness bracelets, stickers, lozenges, ointments (OTC)
  • Sleeping pills (OTC and prescribed)
  • Valium
  • Psychotherapy (ie see a psychologist)
  • Meditation (taught by psychologist)
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Alcohol (and I’m a non-drinker)
  • Isotonic beverages
  • Flight safety program (I didn’t try this but have heard about it)

None of them worked effectively for a sustained period of time.

For instance the sleeping pills and Valium sometimes worked for 4 or 5 hours.  But if the flight was any longer then I was in trouble.  As soon as I awoke the vomiting began.  It was an uncontrollable beast.  Trying the meditation techniques on this thing was a joke.

However, this is not to say that these methods won’t work for other people.  You just have to try whatever is available.

If it’s just motion sickness then it’s not a big problem.  Any of the anti-motion sickness things I mentioned above (or even a combination of them — you can never be too anti-motion sickproof) should work.

If you prefer to just sleep to avoid your problems, then sleeping pills work too.  When I asked a doctor about these, he said that I could take one that would make me very drowsy for a few hours but I would have to top up for a longer flight.  Alternatively I could take a “knock out” pill, which sounded very promising, but it couldn’t be very good for the health, and he said people may have to carry me off the plane if I don’t wake up…

Valium (diazepam) was my saving grace for a little while because it helped reduce anxiety, but for me personally it didn’t do the trick for a sustained period of time, even when I topped it up after several hours.  When it got bad, even a Valium the night before couldn’t put my mind off it.

The hypnotherapy and psychologist didn’t do it for me at all.  Perhaps I didn’t persist for enough sessions, but they weren’t exactly cheap.

If your fear is the plane crashing or getting taken over by terrorists, then I would recommend trying one of these flight safety programs.  Many airlines offer it.  I know Qantas does.  They effectively give you tours of planes and pound through to your brain just how safe planes are.  It could work, I’m not sure.

What worked for me in the end was seeing a neurologist, who prescribed me Xanax.  I’m not saying it’ll work for everyone, but it certainly worked for me.  Xanax (alprazolam) used to treat anxiety disorders and panic attacks (which is essentially what I had whenever I boarded a plane).  The doctor also prescribed a drug called Deanxit (a mixture of flupentixol and melitracen, which I understand is not available in pill form in some countries), used for anxiety and depression (the latter which I don’t have).  A third drug that completes the cocktail is just a regular sedative.

At the beginning I took all three and topped up on long flights, but as usual, it’s best to not take drugs if you don’t have to.  The key drug in the mix for me is definitely Xanax.  On most flights now I just take one Xanax which has worked perfectly on flights of up to 10 hours.  Anything more than that I usually top it up once.  I only take Deanxit if I have it with me and I don’t take the sedative anymore.

Cured!

I’m a completely different flyer now.

I take one Xanax about half an hour before the flight, and by the time I have to board, I’m not even thinking about getting sick.  I might have at the very beginning when I first started taking it, but the thoughts strangely never went anywhere.  I just get on the plane and I become like any other regular passenger.  I read, I watch movies, I chat, I play video games.  I even eat that horrible airline food too, and I’m almost ashamed to say I sometimes enjoy it.  The drug does make me a little drowsy, so often I nod in and out of sleep, but that’s a fantastic side effect for night flights.

The only downer is that I’m usually still a bit out of it after I disembark, and prefer to rest rather than go out once we check into accommodation (or arrive home).  Better than vomiting half your stomach out.

Flying is never comfortable, but it has at least become bearable.  I would never have been able to take long flights to the US and UK in 2008 and 2009 if I didn’t have the confidence that I could handle it.  Most recently, I caught three connecting flights over 24 hours to India and had no problem whatsoever.

I no longer fret about flying.  I sleep well the night before.  I don’t freak out once I get to the airport.  I’m always planning my next overseas vacation.

[PS: This is one of the first posts I thought of when I started this blog 18 months ago but it has taken me this long to write it.  I guess my phobia has not completely subsided yet!]

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Comments»

1. Megan - October 16, 2010

Wow!!! I have the exact same problem as you! It sucks. I feel sick before flying because I get the thought of being sick on the plane, which makes me anxious :p thanks for the post, I now know I’m not the only one! :)

2. Rebecca Williams - January 10, 2011

GREAT POST!!! a lot of truth here!


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