Overcoming The Fear of The Unknown, One Panic Attack at a Time

Today I want to talk about overcoming the fear of the unknown. I realise that everyone deals with ‘the unknown’ in different ways and the things that cause them to fear it are complex, unpredictable and diverse.

My current challenges lie within two predominant areas: flying and being around large congested crowds. I’m going to talk about flying, because it has been the larger problem and the one that I have spent more time learning how to overcome.

Getting back on the horse

This morning I took flight number 5 within a four week period. I flew to Melbourne. Despite the brisk temperatures, the weather has been really good from Sydney right through.

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Now, I am not one who looks forward to flights in general, as landing has been quite a problem over the past decade or so and considering the past decade is when I have had most of my flights, this has certainly become problematic.

Recently – as in just two weeks ago – I flew to France and back. Four international flights. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that three out of four were okay, meaning my unfortunate panic attacks were present and obvious, but not totally debilitating. My 17-year old son accompanied me on the trip, and said that flight number 1 was pretty bad, but that I progressed well through the flights, managing a little better each time.

I did try using a sedative to assist me on two of the flights but it didn’t seem to make a great deal of difference, so the other two I went solo, figuring it might be better to really try and understand what I am experiencing without feeling disconnected from it.

I am still working hard to agree with my son on my progress, but will take the encouragement regardless. This is because flight number four was dreadful. We had turbulence from the minute we took off and continued to have it for the proceeding 6.5 hours. By the time we began our decent in what felt like a rickety old plane, I was struggling to stay calm. I kept telling myself that the last flight had been really good and that I could manage this. That the turbulence was a lot like jelly with nuts in it – a new analogy my clever son came up with to help me.

But despite my best efforts, strategies and tools, it just didn’t work. As we landed, the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac one side at a time, causing the entire body of the plane to rock from side to side.

In my panicked state of mind, all I saw was a violent shift in my centre of gravity (even thought it wasn’t actually as bad as that) and it tipped me over the edge. I cried. I whimpered. I felt my body stiffen up and shake uncontrollably, all while I silently yelled at myself inside my head to stop it and get a hold of myself.

My son just gently wiped the tears from my face, held my hand and spoke calmly to me. The whole way through. All of about 30 seconds, which to me, felt like a number of really long minutes.

I can’t tell you what it’s like to have someone like that with you during what feels like a life and death situation. Especially when I realise it’s not a life and death situation and I can’t seem to stop the tide of emotion and fear. In fact, I don’t believe I would manage anywhere near as well without the support and patience of a loving family.

It took a good 15-20 minutes sitting on the plane waiting for others to leave and getting through customs for me to stop shaking. And then it took another half hour or so for me to feel like I could hold a simple conversation.

This is undoubtedly one of the worst panic attacks I have had. I was exhausted, mentally, emotionally and physically for the next three days due to the unreleased adrenalin still trying to leave my body and the images of the flight and ensuing panic episode running rampant in my mind.

Learning from facing my fears

If there is one thing that I have learned in the past month, it’s that no two situations are the same when it comes to experiencing and managing a panic disorder. Everything is unique, even if the triggers are similar. Even if all the circumstances seem alike.

And this unpredictability creates an incredible amount of frustration, creating a cyclical mindset of fear that contributes to further panic attacks, making the cycle worse.

Getting onto another plane was not something I intended to do in the near future.

Then last week I booked four more flights in two weeks.

Today was the first of those four. I had no idea what to anticipate and no idea if I would manage a full flight with no panic or not.

That’s because all the variables were different. The flight was different. The situation, length of flight, weather and company were all different. And I was different.

BUT, every time I have to manage this illness; every time I fight the panic and tears and physical desire to run away, off the plane (despite being in mid-air), I know that I am learning.

I am learning a ton, in fact.

I am learning what it feels like to feel the world crashing in around you, even though a small part of your brain is trying to tell you that you’re going to be okay.

I am learning that it’s okay to experience these challenges and that despite them being absolutely dreadful and debilitating, I am not going to die from them.

I am learning that my experiences could be of benefit to others who are going through the same or similar things and that facing my fears could reveal keys for other people.

So I went. And it wasn’t too bad. I still had problems but with these new thoughts, I tried again to improve on the last experience. And it did make a difference, so here are the strategies I used today that I think may have contributed to a better outcome.

1. I positioned myself in a way that met my personal needs.

I sat on the window side. Hubby had suggested that perhaps being able to see the ground, clouds, air and wings may help ‘ground’ me, giving me a physical and locational focus point.

I agreed to try it out and despite feeling a bit worried about seeing the plane bank and tip from side to side (which I am told is just how the pilot gets us up above the clouds), I think it worked.

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When I looked back over the clouds it looked like a plateau of snow, it was so thick!
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Now and then the sun seemed to shine on just some clouds and it made it look like we were flying over white mountains and valleys.
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Hubby said these kinds of clouds are yucky. Full of turbulent and cranky air pockets. So glad we were zooming over the top of them!
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As we began to reduce altitude, there were these rows of thick, full clouds that resembled waves rolling in on a beach. This is when I started to do my preparations for landing, about half an hour before landing.
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Nearly in Melbourne. Seeing the land again was good and gave me a fresh ‘grounding’ experience.
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I took this moments after we landed, while we continued to taxi on the runway. Just beforehand I could see the shadows of the wheels and this really helped me prepare for the moment of landing.

Being next to the window did two things:

Provided visual perspective.

I could see the clouds and gauge how dense they were, giving me some perspective on how much turbulence we may be about to experience. It didn’t make me feel happy but it did make it easier to prepare myself for the eventual ‘up and down’ sensations that turbulence creates.

Helped me prepare for landing.

I was able to see the tarmac and the shadow from the wheels as we landed providing a much needed timeframe for how long we would be coming to a stop on the runway. I’ve been told it’s about 30 seconds, so this really helps to know this as well.

Taking control over the things I can control and using my surroundings to ground me helped me to feel more aware of what was happening. Anxiety feeds off you feeling afraid of the unknown and the unpredictable and having some perspective helps to reduce those feelings, reducing the number of elements I don’t know anything about. 

2. I made an effort to understand the thing that scared me.

I listened carefully to what my hubby was telling me about the physics behind the way a plane works, and the way it interacts with turbulence. I knew some of this stuff before, but when you have an anxiety disorder, it can be very easy to lose information along the way and forget things that don’t keep you alive!

I learned about how the wings work and about banking and climbing; about how the pilot adjusts sometimes to reduce the amount of turbulence we will move through and about how the plane usually lands (sometimes both wheels down, but sometimes one at a time, with just a tiny timeframe between them) and that each wheel (there are four in the back of a 707 and two in front, I think) have something like 8 separate breaks each on them. That the tyres are filled with nitrogen because if they were filled with oxygen the oxygen would freeze when we hit altitude and cause the tyres to weaken.

Learning more gave me more perspective on the science and technology behind flying and knowledge often makes me feel safer. Knowing stuff when you’re anxious, or have an anxiety disorder, can provide a foundation of information for you to rely on and base your feeling of safety around. It’s very powerful, so I am discovering.

3. I went through a little ritual I have started to use.

When I hear the pilot say we are beginning to drop altitude in preparation for landing, I go through my satchel and make sure I have all my things and that they are where I like to put them.

I put my shoes back on if I’ve had them off and I tidy up my little space if I need to. I get my phone out and put my headphones in and listen to music. Today, I listened to nature sounds that included a rushing gurgling river and I played it loud enough to dull the noise of the engines. Not hearing the engines shift to reduce altitude seemed to help me lose track of time, which was a good thing.

Routines like this help me feel in control. I don’t have control over anything else in this situation and so this little routine gives me something to do, something to focus on and something to have control over. 

4. I connected with my faith.

I prayed. Now this, I think, is the first time I have really made an intention to pray, as in really focus my heart and mind on God. I won’t beat around the bush here. I prayed in tongues, using my personal prayer language to reach into God’s peace and tried to stay there. I did this as soon as I had done the other steps and continued to do this until we had come to a full stop, which in total was around half and hour.

I can’t undersell the significance of this point.

I’ve tried to do this landing thing by myself over and over again. I’ve even taken sedatives to try and overcome it. I’ve also prayed. But today felt different. I don’t have all the answers, but I am pretty sure, that for me, this made a big difference to the outcome I had.

I need you to understand something important here though. I still had a panic attack. I still cried and my body still stiffened and I still felt a sense of shame and embarrassment as hubby did a great job calming me and soothing me during the episode.

Connecting with my faith seemed to create a bubble, of sorts, that I could ‘step’ into psychologically. It was a mental space I had control over. And the most significant thing is that I couldn’t think about what was going to happen and pray at the same time. At all.

Final thoughts

I know that my post is long and has a lot to take in. But dealing with panic disorder and generalised anxiety (as well as Bipolar Disorder) is complex. It has a diverse complexity that takes time and effort and deep thought to understand and eventually learn how to manage and overcome. I want to ensure that I always give as much insight into what I am experiencing so that it might just help a few people who might be going through the same things.

Am I cured? Not close yet. But I do believe that I am on the way to recovery. I don’t know when I will get on a plane and not even think about feeling anxious. Not even realise I wasn’t anxious until I get off. Until days later. It might be soon, or it might not be. My job is to just manage each panic attack if and when they come, and learn as much as I can in the process so I can pass on the information.

May you be blessed today. If you are experiencing any kind of disorder or mental illness or feeling overwhelmed by life, please contact someone. There are some wonderful communities such as Beyond Blue, LifeLine, HeadSpace, Black Dog Institute and more.

If you are a carer for someone with anxiety and/ or depression, you can check out a Facebook community called A Black Dog About the House, supporting carers of partners, parents and loved ones with mental illness and COPMI, which is supporting children of parents with a mental illness.

If you are suicidal, please call 000 and get help right away. Or LifeLine – talk to someone. Get help today.

With love and care,

Miriam E. Miles

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