Friday, January 6, 2012

Guest Post: Fearlessness through Fear

I had always been fine flying until one particular flight in August of 2010. I was going to Tanzania to give some presentations and expected it to be a difficult trip, my first time to Africa, hostile audience (people who weren't happy with the strategy my team was developing), you get the idea. I boarded the plane and sat down my seat in the very back row. All of a sudden, I just began to feel trapped, like I couldn't breathe, hot, legs shaking, and panicked.

As the plane taxied, I stood up and told the flight attendant that I had to get off the plane. She had me sit down and brought me some water and tried to calm me down, and did a really brilliant job. I calmed down somewhat within 5 minutes, and I realized that we were about to take off and I couldn't get off the plane. I eventually accepted that fact, and returned to my seat with a valerian (natural herbal relaxant) pill.

The very kind lady next to me was noticed what had happened, and did her best to have a conversation with me, which helped me not dwell on the fact that I'd just had a total panic attack. Anyway, the rest of the trip was fine, and I brushed it off as just a one-time thing that happened because of the stress of going to Africa, having that difficult meeting, etc.

Not so. I had one other 'successful' flight to Chicago about 2 months later. But then my next flight to California for Christmas to visit my family, I had another equally bad panic attack on the way back to DC. As soon as I boarded the plane, I could feel myself getting hot, my mind racing, wanting desperately to get off the plane. My wife was right next to me but she couldn't help me. I wasn't afraid of anything in particular (crashing, etc.), but just being trapped, out of control. Fight of flight kicked in, and I just wanted to flee.

When I landed back in DC, within the next few days I kinda hit rock bottom. I realized this wasn't a one-time thing. I wondered if I'd ever be able to fly normally again, if this would constrain my ability to have the life I wanted to have. I also started doubting myself and experiencing anxiety about other areas of my life: public speaking, social engagements, etc.

I realized that I had to address this full on, not try to avoid it. I had already been seeing a good counselor with my wife who started helping me work through some the anxiety. He basically helped me realize a few things:
1) This was based on my attempts to control, not letting go.
2) It's ok to feel anxiety and be in this place - it's actually a great place to embark on real, lasting change (because you've got a strong incentive and your open to change),
3) the anxiety wasn't just about flying, but much more broadly about not being rooted to a belief system and feeling out of control, purposeless.
4) I just wasn't very rooted in who I was, my identity, my values, etc. I had a good professional veneer of being the bright young strategist, but I wasn't grounded. And flying was the thing that blew that veneer to pieces.

The other thing that I was fortunately introduced to right around this time is meditation. I had never thought much about meditation before. It seemed kinda silly to sit and do nothing. But my friend invited me to his meditation center sometime around the time of the Tanzania trip, and I checked it out a couple of times. After the California experience, and hearing that meditation is supposedly one of the most profound ways to work with anxiety, I decided to give it a real try.

My new year's resolution for 2011 was to meditate at least 10 minutes a day for a year. The way it works is this; anticipatory anxiety only happens when you're in your head, not physically in your body, getting carried away in negative thoughts, which are rooted in the past or future. Meditation is a process of synchronizing your body and mind so that you're living in the present moment. It's a much nicer place to live, and it has all kinds of other benefits besides just managing anxiety.

Even if you're feeling the most intense panicked feeling, if you come to the present moment and just sit with the feeling, noticing its texture and energy, it will dissipate and become less scary over time. At this meditation center, one of their sayings is that 'everything is workable'.

For me, and it's different for everyone, this combination of meditation, good counseling, being open to and leaning into difficulty and doing some soul searching, has been just what I needed. Since that CA trip, I've had 3 flights. The first, just a month after California was a bit difficult on the way back. Since then, however, I've been able to fly to Hawaii (a 13 hour ordeal, both ways), and Miami (just last week) with very few issues, no panic, at most just a mild sense of nervousness. It's a day and night difference. I literally dreaded going to Hawaii, supposedly paradise on earth, for weeks in advance. But that was the breakthrough for me. On that long flight, I had virtually no trouble at all, and actually fell asleep on the way home. On this last flight to Miami, I got a little nervous the night before and the day of, but it was very very minor compared to the past, and again I slept a little on the plane. That's how relaxed I was.

I guess that's kinda the basic message I want to get across. I've been engulfed by anxiety, like so many people are. It feels dreadful, but there's solid ground ahead of you if you do the work and remain open to change. I've found that solutions and helpful people are all around me; I just have to be open enough to receive them. What worked for me might not be right for others, but there are a few absolute principles I think would help anyone in a similar situation:

0) Be gentle with yourself (this is fundamental - if you're hard on yourself it's not possible to work with the challenge)

1) "The anxiety of staying stagnant and feeling out of control is much worse than the anxiety of changing and challenging yourself."

2) Leaning into (not away from) the fear, no matter how intense, is the only way to get through it and emerge fearless on the other side. Fearlessness doesn't mean jumping over fear; it means getting to know it intimately so that it loses it's power. A goal might be to develop resilience to accept and manage the situation, no matter what arises.

3) Believe that things happen for a reason. Anxiety in many ways opens the door to a deeper, richer, more authentic life. Accept the challenge. Lots of auspicious things will start happening.

4) Take it one day at a time and be patient. You won't change the situation in a lasting way overnight. There's nothing wrong with going through some discomfort for a while, especially if it sets you up to be a more rooted, resilient person in the long run. If it feels too overwhelming, be merciful with yourself and take your foot off the gas a bit. There's a light, and a much better place than even where you were before, at the end of the tunnel.

1 comment:

  1. nice post. I think fear of flying is something many of us have experienced so this is really helpful.

    I started getting more anxious when flying in my mid-20s... the exact time your pre frontal cortex is finally fully developed, which I believe is the part of your brain that can assess risk. (one of the reasons teens are so prone to risk behavior is that their brains aren't fully developed yet.)

    deep breathing and cognitive behavioral methods of controlling my thoughts were very helpful to help me bring my anxiety levels down. a few of the things I like to tell myself are: turbulence never brought a plane down (wind sheers are different but they are rare), the pilots don't want to die any more than I do, and the ol' flying is safer than driving. I also look at the flight attendants who are completely unfazed during any turbulence.

    I'm not sure how people who have had a bad flight—like those on the plane that landed on the hudson—get over their fear. I think we can all acknowledge that as a human being, looking out the window and realizing you're 35,000 feet up is a perfectly normal thing to be anxious about. it's unnatural! I wonder if learning about lift and how planes operate is helpful.