We have all faced a fear of something, and 1 in 5 individuals have suffered from anxiety. While this can often be a minor hindrance or disruption in our life, it can also manifest into a completely debilitating disorder, but one that can be conquered. I can speak from personal experience. In April of 1989, I found myself the victim of a major panic attack caused by a progressive fear of flying. I share this because it’s important to speak out and let others know they’re not weird or defective human beings because they have fears and anxieties. What is truly unfortunate is when they don’t seek out help and develop the necessary coping skills. All too often, our solution is to simply avoid. Of course, if your fear is that of heights, you could easily avoid standing on the edge of a cliff. What if it impacts and changes the trajectory of your daily life? Not addressing it can make the world smaller and limit your opportunities.
Somewhere in the late ’80s, for no known reason, I developed a discomfort and modest fear of flying. The only horrible (or what I thought was a close call) flight was a four- passenger private charter flight that took place in the middle of a winter storm. As I drove to the airport that morning, I was convinced we would not be flying due to the weather. It was a flight I did not want to be on, but I succumbed to the pressure so that a client could close a transaction prior to the year-end. It was a tense two hours that while sitting beside the pilot, I tried to make some nerve-settling conversation to take my thoughts off the lightning, but he wouldn’t talk. I guess he was focused on something else, like getting us safely to our destination.
Was this the original trigger? I don’t know. What I did realize was that as the years progressed, I became more and more fearful of flying. While I continued to fly for business, my anxiety before every flight became more intense as the flights got closer and closer. My anxiety became so bad that upon landing on return flights, I would feel 20 pounds lighter and elated that I had survived such a tremendous feat. It was almost euphoric.
Then in April of 1989, the bank I was working for sent me on a two-week assignment to Phoenix that would evolve into a promotion and relocation. I was to meet a co-worker from Chicago for dinner that Sunday evening before we started the project the next day. My flight was scheduled for noon on Sunday. Still unclear to me, that Saturday night around midnight, I was literally in the fetal position having an irrational, full-blown panic attack. Yuck! One thing was for sure; I needed to control my circumstances. So, by 3:30 a.m. that morning, I was in my car on my way to Phoenix.
Fast forward a year. I had just started a new business with the help of a couple of partners four months earlier. These were not former friends or associates. They were new members of my world who invited me to join them in a new business opportunity. They knew my experience and skill set, but not me. So, when we had planned a trip to Denver to meet some of our insurance carriers, I was a bit apprehensive, to say the least. On the night before the flight, I was so anxious I called each of my new partners to let them know I wasn’t going and exactly why. It was not a comfortable conversation. I just couldn’t imagine what they thought that night or what they were discussing on the plane the next day.
I had to move beyond the embarrassment and admit, document, and understand the specifics of my anxiety of flying in order to find a solution. I sought out multiple sources of professional help: psychology, psychiatry, meditation, hypnosis, books, audio tapes, and even medication. I was not leaving any stone unturned. However, I quickly concluded that medication was just a band-aid and not a solution. My problem was not physical; it was mental.
In the end, it took time, and while each of these resources provided some help, I needed to confront it head-on. I needed to actually jump off the cliff over and over, utilizing the knowledge and coping skills I gained to actually experience the safety of flying so much that it dissipated. It’s not an overnight fix, and it does take continual work.
In the years since, I have probably flown a million miles traveling all over the U.S. and internationally. We have been to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, and several of them multiple times. For the past 20 years, we have done at least one, if not two, international trips per year. Unfortunately, the pandemic has canceled four trips that we will have to catch up on later. Thankfully, today, flying is pretty much a non-event.
One of the things I learned through my experience is that these are not always isolated events. If an individual has anxiety, it can manifest in different areas of life during different times. Through my understanding of anxiety, I concluded that my running started out of fear. My father died when I was 20 from heart disease while I was in college, which was when I became a very ardent runner. I can well remember my first run through the University of Utah campus and Federal Heights, eight miles, I figured.
With running, I believed I had solved that risk of dying young of a heart attack until the day Jim Fixx (The Complete Book of Running) died while out on a run, no less. It shattered my world. Not that I felt bad for Jim, but that running was not enough. My point is that if someone is prone to have anxiety, it can manifest in other areas at different points in their life, but finding the solution can result in positive outcomes. Don’t let it cripple you. Use it to help you move forward to better things.
As for those who have loved ones with anxiety, help them through the process. Don’t force it, and don’t try to fix it. They need to find a solution that works for them with your help, support, and encouragement to reach out and utilize the resources available.