September 7, 2007

Claustrophobic Flying & How To Rise Above It!

A study done on claustrophobia reports that 10-20 percent of people who fly in the United States suffer from the fear of closed spaces. I am one of these people who becomes physically ill at the thought of being closed in. I can see a picture of someone in a small space and feel the quiver in my heart. The fear of flying is not safety related. I’m not bothered by stomach-displacing turbulence or strange noises erupting from the bowels of the jetliners, but I feel like saran-wrap is stuck to my face when I'm in small places and especially when I step over the thresh hold into an airplane.

It’s a powerful feeling of suffocation that grips me like a vice and squeezes tighter and tighter until I am paralyzed with a panic that feels like I’m trapped in a body that can’t breathe or move. And, that can be triggered by the tiniest thought of entering the doorway of any airplane and making my way to the isle seat nearest to the door!

My sister, Sandy, also suffers with this and we know it’s somehow related to our early traumatic childhood, but that does not lesson the physical discomfort and paralyzing life-changing fear that turns us into wild-eyed, babbling idiots with tears running down our pale face and white lips while we clutch our cold hands into tight fists and gasp for breath, seeking desperately to escape the oppressive prison that surrounds us and robs us of life-giving air! (And if you are out of breath after reading this sentence out loud in one breath, that’s just a fraction of how we feel in small places.)

But, I have determined not to let this disabling condition dictate my method of travel in this world. If I want to get someplace that requires more than five hours of drive time, I book that $59 flight and get there in time for supper!

So began one of the longest airplane trips of my life this last week when it was time to visit oldest son, Billy in Portland, Oregon from Columbus, Ohio! Perhaps I’ve flown to that city before, but due to the acute discomfort that comes with flying, it’s like my birthing experience with Billy, I don’t remember the details!

Months before (if possible), I book online and pick out my seat on the isle as close to the front as I can get. For some unknown reason, my sister needs a window seat so she can glue her face to the window the entire trip. Exit seats are the best, but they don’t let you select them online.

You may ask for one at the counter if you promise to lift heavy objects and throw them to the back of the plane during an emergency.

Because even thinking about being claustrophobic brings on the insidious terror, I must have all my ducks in a row before I get to the terminal.

I have read the first and last page of a book that is good enough to grab my attention and long enough to last until I get there. (It won’t be a religious book, so don’t look!)

Extra bags are checked outside the terminal so I don’t have to stand in more long lines than I have to and think about what’s ahead. The boarding pass has been printed out at home the night before.

During the mile-long security line that moves slower than a sick snail, and because they won’t allow us to joke anymore, and because they make us discard all of our comfort foods, I pretend I’m a spy and take careful notice of every detail around me. I memorize shoe colors, hair colors, idiosyncrasies, body odors, jewelry and sticker messages stuck on luggage. I check out old men’s hearing aides and young people’s piercings in odd places. I notice expressions, body language, cell phones, I-Pods and try to guess what’s in the packages that must go through the x-ray machine ahead. I make everything a game so I can forget where I’m headed.

When it’s time to board the plane, I’m last in line (even if they’ve called my “zone”) so I can let everybody get ahead of me. Or, I slow down and irritate the people behind me for the same reason (so there can be a lot of space ahead of me). I don’t want to be clogged up at the doorway when I’m going to be making some important decisions. And, I’m not taking a chance that I’ll kick the person ahead of me who takes five minutes trying to squeeze an oversized suitcase into an undersized spot while people pile up against each other in the minuscule sized isle!

Even so, as I enter the airline doorway, there’s this urge to turn around and run away. The number one objective is to clear my head of the question, “Am I staying here or not?” I don’t let any of the catalytic questions flitter completely through my head although the questions are banging at the forehead. “Am I going to stay here or not?” “How am I going to get out?” “Will my seatmate be really big and take up my space too?” “Is this plane going to close the doors and then sit on the tarmac with me encased inside”?

"I’m staying! I'm staying. I'm staying!", I say to myself with each step into the cavernous tank.

If the airline hostess (there’s that word “air” again) smiles and catches my eye as I step past her and turn right into the airless cigarette-sized coffin, I will explain that I have claustrophobia and would appreciate it if they don’t stop with the service cart beside me. Sometimes he/she will nod and smile in agreement, but most times don’t count on any empathy or sympathy from the hostess.

I sit without looking at the door, but I don’t buckle my seatbelt. I hide it under my blouse because they walk by and ‘look’. I turn on both air vents above my head and glare at my seatmate if he/she starts to reach up to turn it off. I open my book and start reading, not looking up for an instant. Right about then those air vents are going to stop hissing cool air and the swaddling blanket will start to tighten! If the suffocation gets too great, I close my eyes (first) and put my head back against the seat toward the air vents and envision a category-5 hurricane tearing recklessly through the aircraft, or I add creativity to a vast colorful ocean sunset.

Pink whales, orange iridescent starfish and gigantic cones of chocolate ice-cream fill the sunset scene.
If that fails, I go the more subjective scene. A tall, handsome man in a really small bathing suit with a monkey on his shoulders and a parrot on the monkey’s head and a banana on the parrot's head and a fly on the banana and a flyswatter coming down on all of them…

“Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen. The doors have been closed and the captain has put on the seatbelt sign. We are number 14 in line so sit back and enjoy the flight.”

Create a picture for THAT one!

Next, there's always the little problem of having to pee during the 5-hour flight. They don't provide little pee jars, but the tiny cubicle provided is about the size of one! Just to prove I could, I actually fitted myself into the shell casing called the 'restroom', and didn't panic until the door stuck and I had to stop and read the little letters on the the door that said, "push here". By then I had the door pushed almost into the first class section of the plane.

Now I’m trying not to think about arriving at our destination when everyone will stand up and clog the isle and slurp my last bit of oxygen as they crush against the tide of people anxious to be the first off the plane.

So far, what works best is for me when that crush starts is to stand up in the isle and be a bit pushy myself. I put my arms out against the seats in front and stand with my feet apart leaning over so my butt keeps people away at the back, and my body keeps others from leaving their seats beside me. Look out the window and watch that airport employee driving that little go cart real fast, and notice how they all interact like little bugs on the ground. Hope the attendant knows how to open the door and be glad that people do move fast to get off the plane!

I thank the pilot for a 'nice flight', and step back into the sweet freedom of breathing again and suck in the bright sunshine of life. I'm finally free of the phobia grip, and can spit it's sickly bile into the wind.

Welcome back to earth!

Take Care on the Journey,


Julie B. said...

This is EXACTLY how I feel. I came across your blog while searching the web regarding my absolute dread of stepping into the tomb they call a cabin. I have an upcoming flight on a regional jet that I can't bring myself to think about. Everything I find is about how safe planes are etc. My fear has nothing to do with the plane crashing. I must say that I could have writtent this myself. I know I'll survive; I won't die from the sheer terror I feel; my heart won't burst open even though it sure feels like it; I just have to breath and think about all the wide open spaces around me but I can still see that small, enclosed space and that "fight or flight" feeling kicks in & I need to get off this plane - NOW, before I can't!!!
(I know you understand!) Thx,Julie

Mountain Laurel said...

I'm delighted that you found this story and sure hope it helps to know you are not alone. I'll bet if you asked, you'd find others on the plane who are feeling much the same way. If you don't mind, let me know how the trip goes.

Take Care on the Journey,

Elderbob said...

Thanks so much for your post. I feel, and have felt, exactly as you have. It seems to go beyond reason as I keep getting the deer in the headlights look from my loved ones when I try to explain my problem with flying. They keep reassuring me that flying is so much safer than driving. I keep telling them it is NOT the safety issue of flying....I just have panic attacks when the door shuts. Smothered just like the picture associated with this blog.
I read an online article that eluded to a study where there is a certain chromosome that senses decreased oxygen levels which induces a fight or flight instinctual reaction to leave the area. Since it is in an airplane, and we cannot leave, panic ensues.
The article stated that this reaction takes place in the brain stem, the area in the brain where breathing is controlled.
I am flying next year and I am already getting sweaty. I have Valium ready.

Jujuh said...

Thank you all for your posts,i must admit i am also in the same boat.I have the first longest flight of my life on Sunday and like you Elderbob, i am getting sweaty too.

Anonymous said...

Yep that’s it alright, I can feel the panic come up from my stomach, my breathing gets shallow I want to raise my arms and tell everyone to keep away, I would sell my would for one lung full of fresh air.

It’s worse on night flights, the lights go out and the cabin crew put the cabin temperature up so that the passengers go to sleep and don’t give them too much trouble, this is my nightmare, I’m tired but dare not go to sleep, if I wake up suddenly I may not be able to control the panic.

I don’t know of a cure but
I MUST sit in an isle seat
I try to sit at the front of the aircraft; you don’t see too many people that way
I always have a bottle of water with me
I try to distract myself with an audio book, I can close my eyes and make my own pictures that way, and it distracts me from my current location.
I get up walk around.

Does it always work, unfortunately not, the fear of a panic attack is often the trigger to a panic attack, and you have to keep in control and its damn difficult to keep in control, sitting here down I can feel the terror the panic attack brings on.

Hope this helps somone

Anand said...

I have been among the lucky ones who have been able to overcome this disease. Actually I took an unconventional approach and fortunately it paid off.

About an year back in the mid of 2011, at the peak of my suffering from claustrophobia I went to see a very good psychiatrist, know to my family for more than 10 years. He prescribed me anti-anxiety medication and advised behavioural therapy alongside. Around the same time, I came across a good homeopath and took a gamble of trying out his medication before starting with my psychiatrist’s advice. Luckily it worked and I could feel the difference in 15 days. I continued the homeopathic medication for 6 months. Never started with Clobazam.
Today I feel claustrophobia is a thing of past for me.

Back to mid-2011. I was looking for a post that would describe the terrible feeling I underwent when I had regular attacks of claustrophobia. And I would say your post described it just as I felt, though the feeling of “saran-wrap stuck to my face” can’t be explained enough.

I used to have mild attacks years back as well though I never took it very seriously. It was in 2010, when I travelled from Bangalore, India to Munich, Germany did I realise the gravity of the problem. It got triggered when I saw my seat – an economy class window seat. I mustered enough courage and took that seat, but my situation worsened. By the time the aircraft started moving, I could take it no more. I can promise if there were an open window, I would have jumped out of it. I got out of the seat and rushed towards some open space near the toilets. One of the cabin crew saw me and probably guessed my condition and offered me a vacant isle seat in business class. I somehow managed but I wasn’t myself throughout the journey.

I stayed in Munich for about 3 weeks. During the stay, the frequency of the attacks increased to almost daily. I started finding it difficult to sit even inside my hotel room. When it was bad, I would just go out of my hotel and walk on the streets, most of the times past mid-night. Finally I saw a physician and pleased him to do something so that I could travel back to my home at Bangalore. He prescribed me and anti-stress pill and advised to take it half an hour before boarding a plane. It wasn’t bad as I could sleep off during the most of the flight-time

I ignored my illness on return ( I probably didn’t want to admit I was ill) and went on with life. I did discuss at times with my family members but I guess I did not quite tell them about the magnitude of the problem. Mid-2011, I started having sever attacks of claustrophobia. It would trigger in sleep, while watching something related to close spaces on television or just thinking about a travel in a plane.

This is when I decide I needed to get some serious treatment. Some of the elders in my family have had psychiatric treatment for depression/anxiety disorders for years, so it was natural for me to first go to the psychiatrist who had treated these family members.

Fortunately for me, I also gave a chance to an alternate treatment (homeopathy) and it worked. I did it on experimental basis as I did not have a very strong past experience around it. But I can tell that results have been extremely favourable. I would advise seeking help of a good homeopath alongside a regular treatment for claustrophobia.

Anonymous said...

I have a flight in about 12 hours and I am as scared as ever. im in a small plane, whilst only a 45 minute flight. but still there is the terror of being up in the air and not being able to get out. i am travelling with a 6 month old baby- which wont make it a very relaxing trip! could anyone please help me asap what do you reccommend?
Thank you x

DDS said...

All you have to tell yourself and repeat that you are not the only one and that what you are really afraid of is your own reaction as nothing in a plane can hurt you really. Having your baby will help you to keep busy

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering what Anand's homeopathic treatment was.

Anonymous said...

I seem to struggle the most when at the hairdressers. Thats when it decides to kick in. I have learned to execute more control over it than in past times, but sometimes sitting in that hairdressers chair is almost unbearable. I tend to take to pinching myself for some reason but it doesn't really help. I have to tell them I don't want to wear the cape because, no matter how loose they snap it, I am instantly strangling and everything goes downhill from there. Airplanes are less of a problem (maybe because I rarely fly?) But I must sit in the aisle seat, and the cold air blowing from above is such a relief. From my experience, distraction has worked best for me but has NOT eliminated the symptoms. I would say I have moderate claustrophobia, as I am able to handle most of these situations, however with difficulty. One day I WILL conquer this.

bailochan sahoo said...

Dear Anna,

I am also facing such type problem i.e claustrophobia, sometimes I feel quite panic in the closed room, if someone close the door and intimate me that the door is closed. In a case, once i was in a hotel and if somebody close the main door what i do? I did not sleep in the hotel and sat on the main door till the end of the night. Just few days back i move to delhi from bhubaneswar, while boarding the aeroplane, I got so panic that I thought i wont go and will cancel the journey. but aftera few min I got normal but in the flight 6-7 times same thing happened.

U has mentioned that u took some homeopathic medicine,where did u took the doctor complete address with phone no, the name of the medicine if u remember can u plz forward me.


Flushing U Top Prep said...

Hi Linda, thank you so much for the blog. The fear of flying has stopped me from visiting my family in Asia for years! Even when my beloved grandma passed away, I couldn't put myself on the plane. I am in tears when I read your blog. I know it's some time ago but I'd really like to know if you have been on the plane since then, any medication you've used...

Thank you is not enough for any advice you give.

Primavera said...

Hi did anyone find out what the homeopatic remedy was that one of the ladies sayd worked for her?
Thanks for sharing your experience. Would you say, you're now free of claustrophobia? How? By forcing yourself to fly?

Sourayya Rossenkhan said...

Hello Linda,
Thanks for this. It does help a bit to find out im not the only one in my predicament. I need to take a 12 hour flight in 2 weeks and i have been stressing about it for the past 7 to 8 months. I hate the fact that ill be stuck for 12 freaking hours in an enclosed space with so many strangers around me. I even went on to buy my seat to make sure it is an aisle seat so i feel less 'trapped'. i wake up in sweats at night and wonder how ill do it. I have been prescribed some meds to calm my nerves and a sleeping tablet too. I doubt they'll work.
Please help!!!