This weekend, Kirsty Adams flew from Glasgow to Essex for a mini break with some girlfriends. For many of us, the 1.5-hour flight would probably be a minor inconvenience – a boring blip on an otherwise action-packed, laughter-filled girly weekend. But for Kirsty, it’s a landmark event after beating a fear of flying that left her grounded for over two decades.
“I didn’t go on a plane for 23 years – can you believe?” she says, as she describes how she overcame that fear.
“When I was in my twenties, I went on holiday with a boyfriend. We ended up falling out and he went off with another girl – but we had to sit next to each other on the flight home, of course. It was awful! The next time I tried to fly I had a bad panic attack – and the anxiety slowly took over my life.”
“Back then there wasn’t the support and awareness we have now. So I drove everywhere, and told people I wasn’t interested in going abroad. It got so bad that I couldn’t even take my mum to the airport – I had to drop her off somewhere else. The minute I saw a plane I would be shaking and sweating.”
“The next time I tried to fly I had a bad panic attack – and the anxiety took over my life” (Alamy)
It sounds extreme, but Kirsty isn’t alone – in fact, a 2015 study by travel website Edreams concluded that 28 per cent of the British public would classify themselves as scared of flying – and the fear can be triggered by anything.
“I’m not quite sure when my difficulties started,” says Samantha Kelly, a social media strategist and co-founder of Women’s Inspire Network. “I know I had an awful experience as a child on the swinging boats with my Dad who decided he wanted to go really high and fast. I was terrified: I didn’t like the feeling of not being in control and am not a fan of anything fast or high either… so that kinda covers planes!”
For freelance writer Lizzy Harley, her anxiety – which she has now overcome – started with a traumatic patch of turbulence: “At the end of a twelve-hour flight to Malaysia our plane hit some pretty major turbulence, and we were bounced around for a good twenty to thirty minutes before things evened out. Cups were flying everywhere, the cabin crew had to retake their seats, and I remember gripping the armrest for dear life and praying for it to stop.
A glass of wine is not the answer (Alamy)
“Ever since then, turbulence – and fear of turbulence – has been my key trigger. I became hypersensitive to every movement that the aircraft makes, braced for a good shaking at any moment. I once had a mid-air freak out on a completely smooth flight from London to Geneva because I was convinced that we were bound to hit turbulence any second.”
What are the symptoms of fear of flying?
“My symptoms were always very similar to those of an anxiety attack,” says Lizzy. “First my hands would break out in a cold sweat, then I would loose control of my breathing and start hyperventilating. Sometimes these symptoms would kick in before I had even got on the plane – I think I managed to alarm quite a few fellow passengers by losing it on the skybridge once!”
Samantha also has trouble controlling her breathing: “I get very giddy, and when the engines rev up and the plane starts down the runway I usually grab the seat and start shaking and crying. I also let out gasps if the plane jolts or has a sudden movement – that’s because I’m imagining that we’re going to crash or the plane will break apart.”
How to cure your fear of flying
“You’ve really got to want to make that change,” says Kirsty. Nobody else can cure it for you – you have to want to overcome your fear. “When I opened my bridal shop Ivory Pinks, I was being invited to fly to meet designers, to go on all-expenses paid trips, and people just looked at me like I was crazy when I told them I wasn’t going,” she says. “That was the point that I decided to do something about it.”
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Kirsty went on a British Airways Flying with Confidence course – “the best £230 I’ve ever spent”. Trained counsellors and pilots explain to participants what the noises are on the aircraft, what air traffic control are saying, the rigorous training every staff member goes through – then there’s a relaxation session and you go on a short flight.
“I don’t remember much of the session to be honest, because I was so nervous about the flight,” says Kirsty. “They managed to get me on the plane – it felt so tiny, and I was purple because I was barely breathing. I was the worst out of the 50 people on the course, and the pilot said afterwards that he thought I’d chicken out – but I didn’t.” Six months later, Kirsty did the flight-only part of the course again, and successfully kicked her fear of flying. This year, she’s been on 12 different flights – for both business and pleasure – and is planning a salsa holiday to Cuba.
For Lizzy, a dream honeymoon forced her to confront her fear. “My husband and I had always planned to have a grand adventure honeymoon, so we booked three months of travelling around the world, which included ten different flights. As you can imagine, I was pretty terrified!
How to cope with fear of flying: 5 top tips
“Do not let it own you. Avoiding flying often just makes you more afraid. The world is big and beautiful and exciting, and being able to experience different countries and cultures is so much more wonderful than flying is frightening.” – Lizzy
“It’s all about your breathing. If you put your hand on your chest and one on your belly, as long as your belly is moving out when you breathe in (and not your chest), you’re breathing properly. You’re breathing from the bottom of your abdomen, which is natural for a calm person. But if you’re chest breathing, it’s actually really easy for something to trigger a panic attack because it’s not a normal breath. Breathe properly, and you physically can’t have a panic attack – that’s a fact.” – Kirsty
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“I rest my hands palm down on my knees, feet flat on the floor, and try to relax every muscle in my body. I was astonished at how effective these few simple changes were. My fear wasn’t completely gone, but I quickly developed a routine to run through if I started to feel anxious that helped me to calm down and to stay in control. Since then I’ve continued to practice and develop those techniques to help me stay calm even when turbulence strikes.” – Lizzy
“I actually find it much easier to fly on my own, and I never would have thought that. I like to just sit and relax with a magazine.” – Kirsty
“I recommend a book called Flying With Confidence. I bookmark the pages that explain the bits of the flight I’m anxious about – I read them the night before the flight, and on the flight itself – and that really helps.” – Kirsty
Thankyou to the three very inspirational women who shared their stories for this feature.