Written by Heather Kintz
The first time I traveled by plane was when I was 6 months old. It was an international flight to Germany to meet my grandparents for the first time. This was followed by several more trips abroad and elsewhere over the years, and I came to really love flying. The summer between sixth and seventh grade, my sister and I traveled to Germany without adult guidance, leaving our parents behind at Chicago O’Hare and then connecting with my grandparents at Flughafen Frankfurt. I remember being a little nervous about the logistics but thrilled about flying, most especially the take-off — the sudden acceleration and then the feeling of being suspended just as the wheels left the tarmac were my favorite parts.
So, imagine my surprise 30 years later when I found myself overcome with travel anxiety.
I found myself battling significant nausea coupled with a carefully hidden panic attack in the hours leading up to a three-hour flight out to Salt Lake City with my children to visit this same sister. We did make it on that flight, but I then spent the entire vacation nauseated and dreading the reality that I would need to repeat that scenario to get back home. The morning of our return flight, I laid on my sister’s couch, struggling with all the same symptoms, and sobbed about how I couldn’t do it, and how I would need to find a way to rent a car and drive the 24-hour route back home. My sister agreed that I was in no shape to fly and felt it was unlikely they would let me on a plane in that condition. Rather than taking me to rent a car, though, she drove me to an urgent care center where the doctor agreed that I needed help and wrote out a few prescriptions for anti-nausea and anti-anxiety meds to patch me up for the journey back home. I don’t remember much else about that trip — the dosages of the medications prescribed were pretty high under those circumstances — but thankfully my kids had figured out the ropes and got us through the motions.
After that trip, every time I even thought about flying my stomach would clench up in knots. I determined that my days of flying were over — that I had become one of those people who just couldn’t fly, and that was just how it was going to be. My world shrunk with this decision, but as a single mom raising three kids, I didn’t really have the disposable income to travel much anyway. I did what one does with most things they feel they can’t control and tuned out any ideas of easy long-distance travel for work-related conferences or vacations. If it wasn’t within a 12-hour drive, I just didn’t go — and I would hide my embarrassment about this fear by making other excuses for why these trips were not a possibility.
Time went on — in many ways without me, as it will do under those circumstances. I had a few friends die, way before their time. I got older and as tends to happen, I began to contemplate my life and what I wanted to do with the rest of it. I grew increasingly frustrated about how my anxiety (not just with flying) was holding me back and keeping me from the kind of life I really wanted. I could see how my avoidance of certain things was shrinking my life at every turn, and I began to recognize how it had done the same to others. It occurred to me that I had been given more time than many, more resources than most, and it seemed like an incredible waste on my part to relegate whatever time I had left to a 50-mile radius of home. I wanted a much bigger and more vibrant life than that, including as much travel and experience as I could afford.
Around this same time, I started dating my now husband, who shared my desire for travel and a more vivacious life but lacked the generalized anxiety disorder that had grown so large in my world. Whereas I talked about wanting to live more fully and go see the world, he was already one foot out the door, ready to put the dream to reality, including overcoming my fear of flying. He pushed, I pushed back — I wanted to travel, yes, but flying still felt like the impossible hurdle to overcome. I had read a lot about overcoming fears and anxiety, and there was just no way that visualizations, focusing on my breathing, or talking about it was going to conquer that. It was too big.
We took a few longer road trips, traveling south to Tybee Island and Savannah, to Jacksonville and West Palm Beach. The destinations were great, but the hours and hours of mindless roads passing by, the frequent stops at random gas stations where you rolled the dice and hoped for a clean bathroom, the all-too-common traffic backups of travel during spring break — I could do it, but after a while I just didn’t want to anymore. I decided it was time to find some way to conquer this, because the anxiety had just made my world uncomfortably small; and life, I realized, was just too short to let irrational fears keep me from getting the most out of the time I’d been given.
I finally opened up to my family doctor and shared both my fear and my strong desire to live a fuller life. My doctor was confident that the same medications that got me back home from Salt Lake City could be used (in smaller doses) to get me to whatever destination I wanted. I was doubtful — there was a lot of nausea and a lot of panic in the days leading up to any trip, and how long could I take these medications anyway? Try it, she said, and wrote the scripts. She, like my husband, believed that with some help, I absolutely could.
And so, in April of 2022, we made our initial flight. We decided to make the trip as small as possible — we flew from our smaller, local airport (with thankfully very friendly, understanding and patient staff). We made sure to find a closer destination with a direct flight — it would be two hours in the air, and then we would be at our destination. I purchased and wore a motion sickness/anti-nausea device which uses patterns of electronic pulses to stimulate a nerve in your wrist on the recommendation of others who battled nausea related to anxiety; I took the medications as my doctor prescribed; and I set off on my maiden voyage. In the hours leading up to the trip, I noticed that although I was still feeling a great deal of nervousness, I wasn’t making the frequent bathroom trips of my previous flight, and the feeling that I might hyperventilate or pass out was also gone. As we boarded the plane and took our seats, I was incredibly relieved to find that not only did I feel OK, I felt EXCITED — something I hadn’t felt about flying since I was a child. I knew in that moment that all of our planning and preparation was going to work, and that the handcuffs I’d put myself in years earlier after returning from Salt Lake City had just gotten a whole lot looser.
Ten months after that trip, we repeated it to the same destination using the same methods as before. This time my anxiety symptoms were even less, and I was able to take less medication in the hours leading up to our flight. I felt much calmer as we approached our gate and was able to leisurely sit and wait for our boarding call. I told my husband that the answer was clear: we just need to fly more often so that the repetition can help eliminate the anxiety altogether (something that “old me” would never have suggested!).
While I’m not an expert or physician, my recommendations for others who may be battling the same kind of travel anxiety are these:
- Keep an open mind. I didn’t think that medication would be a good solution for me, and for some reason felt like I should be able to do this without the need for medical intervention. In hindsight, for the level of anxiety I was experiencing, I can’t see any other way to begin to overcome it otherwise. I’m not saying medication is the way to go for everyone, but talk to the professionals, be honest with yourself and with them, and be open to all solutions.
- Start small. My flight was two hours, and direct. I didn’t have to worry about making any connecting flights, or being in the air for multiple hours, or flying over large bodies of water. “It’s only two hours” definitely helped me visualize surviving my initial flight.
- Minimize other stressors. I know that for me, large crowds, a lot of activity, and unfamiliar surroundings and circumstances cause anxiety. I know that I worry about things like being late and making unforeseeable mistakes. Anxiety is not logical, so in my estimation it is wasted energy to try to rationalize it away. Instead, dodge where you can, and meet it where you cannot. We flew from the airport in our city, which is a smaller, less chaotic airport, and arrived as early as I could convince my husband to get there. “As soon as I am at the airport, I can stop worrying about making it to the airport,” I told him. Eliminate any unnecessary worries and try to carry the others one at a time rather than all at once.
- Travel with an understanding and patient friend. There is no shame in leaning on others. I don’t know that I could have made that initial flight or the one after without my husband by my side. His willingness to listen, to carry the extra bag so I didn’t have to worry about the extra bag, to arrive earlier than necessary, to squeeze my hand and reassure me made this process so much more manageable. I hesitate to say that I couldn’t have done it without him, but I’m really not sure that I could have!
- Be an understanding and patient friend to yourself. I cannot tell you how many times over the years I have called myself an idiot or said that I was stupid or weak. I was ashamed of my anxiety and what it had done to my ability to function in life. It was only when I decided to stop beating myself up, and to start giving myself a bit of grace and understanding that I started to see that I was worth doing whatever it took to get to the life I wanted for myself. I continue to remind myself that this is not something that one overcomes overnight. I still struggle with the idea of another trip overseas, but I’m getting there one step at a time. We just booked flights out to Denver to visit family, which means a slightly longer trip, out of and into much bigger airports. Not a trip to Germany yet but I’m getting closer!
- Over-the-counter solutions worth mentioning (individual results may vary):
- Reliefband Premier Anti-Nausea Wristband. I really think this device helped with both the anxiety and nausea. I plan on using it to try rollercoasters again in the future — we’ll see how that goes!
- The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self by Michael Easter. I’ve never been a balls-to-the-wall, no-pain-no-gain, overly gritty kind of person, and I doubt I ever will be. But this book caused an entire paradigm shift for me that has led me to push through a lot more discomfort in order to find a whole lot of reward waiting for me on the other side.
What it all comes down to is this: Life is indeed short, and at least for me, I hope to spend however many days I have left getting out there and seeing the world. From my experience with anxiety, it tends to grow and become stronger when you let it win, which then creates something of an invisible monster ruling your life that feels pretty invincible a lot of the time. There is a way, though, to shrink it back down and reclaim your life — and it is 100 percent worth doing.
Heather K. is a long-time friend of Heather Smith, and we are very thankful that she submitted this piece to our website so that her journey might help others.
If you’d like to read more on anxiety and depression when traveling, Heather S. wrote a blog last year when she was plagued with a bad bit of the blues while on the road.
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This piece is not intended to replace the advice of your physician or other doctors