This Simple Meditation Practice Finally Solved My Fear of Flying
Twenty years ago, I remember reaching over to a stranger and grabbing her hand as we flew into a turbulent landing in Las Vegas. The woman, of course, seemed surprised and I told her, “I get nervous during turbulence.” She understood and immediately tried to comfort me and ultimately nothing was wrong — moments later we safely landed on the runway.
This experience was a personal epiphany. I had spent my 20s and 30s constantly nervous about flying, with my anxiety always beginning at least a few weeks before the scheduled flight. In quiet moments, I’d belabor worst case scenarios and when it came time to head to the airport, I’d take my time packing because my nervousness would spiral out of control. At the airport, I’d check and double check the amount of time I’d spend in the air, as well as view the turbulence app (yes, there is such a thing) on potential patches of rocky air between destinations. I’d worry about the pilot and whether he had enough sleep and I’d feel my palms get sweaty as I started to board the plane.
During takeoff, I’d grip the sides of my seat, grind my teeth, and close my eyes as the plane grated against the runway and lifted into the air. I’d pay attention to the beeps (the code pilots use to signal the flight crew whether it is safe) and gauge how much I could relax based on cues individual stewardesses made while airbound.
My fear of flying had me in a stronghold before, during, and after the flight. I spent years engaging in this unhealthy behavior until a single meditation practice changed my life.
Over the course of several years, I dabbled in various breathing and meditation techniques and nothing worked. But in 2016, I discovered transcendental meditation as yet another potential way to help my restless spirit.
I didn’t know much about the practice, but learned about it while visiting a good friend. I discovered a transcendental meditation center near my home and took a week-long course to understand more about the technique and how it could apply to my life. During the sessions, a certified teacher assigned me a special phrase that I was required to repeat in silence with my eyes closed for 20 minutes, followed by silence for two minutes. The practice works best when done twice daily for a total of 44 minutes.
At first, the practice seemed like such a huge time commitment, but as each day passed and I carved out time to do my meditation, I started to notice how much more easily I was handling my day-to-day tasks. When a “crisis” emerged, I found myself not reacting, but looking for solutions. I began using my time so efficiently I even had friends notice that there was something good-different about me.
I didn’t realize how empowering my meditation practice became until I boarded a flight after including transcendental meditation in my life. While packing for a five-hour flight to New York, I noticed I didn’t call family or friends for reassurance. I slept well before my flight and in the morning I didn’t frantically check the turbulence app or look at the weather patterns.
This all makes sense, according to Dr. Scott Terry, who frequently recommends transcendental meditation for his clients. “Transcendental meditation, by reducing stress, helps the amygdala in the brain to avoid its normal flight and flight reaction. Just by reducing stress — a phobia such as fear of flying — will be easier to address as you are letting your nervous system calm down so you are not as triggered into phobic activity,” says Terry.
The real magic happened at the airport. As I walked through the crowds, my pulse wasn’t racing and I was actually looking forward to sitting in the waiting area to read the book I’d been saving for the flight. When it was my turn to board the plane, the ease with which I walked to my seat surprised me. I sat down, buckled my seat belt, and waited for the plane to take off. I was waiting for the panic to strike — but it didn’t. My breath was even, my palms were dry, and I couldn’t feel my heart racing outside my chest. Instead, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and started my transcendental practice as the plane was taking off.
When patches of turbulence hit during the flight, I eased into my breath and didn’t think much about the several bouts of bumpy air that hit through different parts of the journey. When the turbulence became severe, I set my timer for 22 minutes and started my mantra. It immediately kept my fears from spiraling.
“Meditating at the airport so you are calm before you get on the plane and meditating once you are on the plane can help make it easier to not have a phobic reaction,” Terry confirms. “Regular practice of meditation will reduce stress so the amygdala is not overstimulated and so you don’t go into that freeze, flight, or fight reaction that you have when you are phobic.”
Now instead of reaching for a stranger during a particularly bumpy landing, I reach for my own breath, close my eyes, and understand how far I’ve come.