High Flying Anxiety


I think I’ve been blogging about OCD for too long. When I was on a turbulent three-hour flight last week, I found myself analyzing my intense anxiety, comparing it to OCD, and then composing a blog post in my head (which I then totally forgot, so I’m starting from scratch).

Flying is not my favorite thing, but I do it anyway. No avoidance here. So when I’m on an airplane, especially when I’m traveling alone, I am more anxious than usual. Take-offs are the worst, and then I’m usually fine. On this particular flight, we started out with some mild turbulence, at which point I began repeating to myself, “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay, it’ll be okay.” Then I smiled. Did I really think repeating “It’ll be okay” over and over would make things okay? If that’ s not a cognitive distortion (magical thinking anyone?) I don’t know what is.

The turbulence got worse and the flight attendants were instructed to take their seats. Drinks and snacks would have to wait. I could feel the speed of the airplane and endured a few stomach-dropping plunges. “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay, it’ll be okay.”

I wondered whether my intense anxiety was similar to what those with OCD experience. “Well, I’ll just try some ERP Therapy,” I thought. I faced my “obsession,”  the fear of being on an airplane that would crash. I had no choice anyway; I couldn’t just walk off the plane. Next I needed to refrain from my compulsion of repeating “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay, it’ll be okay.” I was easily able to do this (after all, I don’t have OCD…do I?) but as soon as I stopped reciting my mantra, I noticed scary thoughts and images related to my fear making their appearance. I realized these were just thoughts and instead of trying to suppress them, I just let them pass by. Which they quickly did. I was aware the whole time that what I was thinking was highly unlikely to happen. I mean, when was the last time a plane crashed because of turbulence? But it could, right? Ah, good ol’ uncertainty.

As I was busy analyzing myself, the loudspeaker came on. Finally, some reassurance from the pilot! I know reassurance is a no-no, but hey, I don’t really have OCD, so it’s okay, right? The pilot was all business. “We are likely to experience strong turbulence for the next hour or so. Everyone, including flight attendants, needs to remain seated with seatbelts fastened.” No lightheartedness, no lilt in his voice, no jokes. This must be serious. Not only was this not the reassurance I’d been hoping for, it was just the opposite, and my anxiety spiked. “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay, it’ll be okay.” Oh wait, I’m not supposed to say that…….

Twenty minutes later the turbulence had subsided and we were being served our drinks and snacks. As is often the case, things had not been as bad as anticipated, and the rest of the flight was uneventful.

I know I don’t know what it feels like to have OCD, but maybe, for a half hour, I came close. Of course, one of the big differences is my feelings on that airplane were an exception for me, not the norm. I can’t imagine feeling that way regularly, as those with OCD do.  I truly appreciate the fact that I’m usually free to move about the cabin.

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17 Responses to High Flying Anxiety

  1. Janet, thank you for your honest description of your anxiety on the airplane. And good for you for not trying to suppress your thoughts but just let them be. I think that’s good for anyone, not just those with OCD.

    I would definitely have been looking for some reassurance from the pilot! 🙂 You did a great job in handling the uncertainty.

  2. Great post, Janet. I think these kinds of experiences are really valuable for providing some insight into what an anxiety disorder might feel like for people who don’t have one. It’s much easier to relate to others’ fears in terms of our own! Flying anxiety is a good one to compare to OCD because it’s also easy to be of two minds about the safety of flying. We might know rationally that something like 20,000 commercial flights land safely in the US each day, and yet somehow we can believe (I know I have) that OUR flight is the unlucky one.

  3. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks, Seth! That’s a great point about being of two minds when thinking of the safety of flying. All those great statistics somehow go out the window when it’s OUR flight. Thanks for your insight.

  4. 71º & Sunny says:

    Oh wow, Janet, I’m sorry you had such a scary experience! I don’t like flying either – but my desire to go places wins over my anxiety about it. Yep, that sure sounds like OCD. I think it’s really cool that you were able to use some of those techniques to battle back. How insightful that you were able to recognize your anxiety symptoms while you were in the middle of them. Ha ha ha yes, you have been blogging about OCD for a long time, but I sure hope you continue!!

    • ocdtalk says:

      I have no plans to stop blogging, Sunny! I’ve learned so much about OCD, and this knowledge really helped on the flight. An added benefit I never expected!

  5. Jennifer Hedberg says:

    I feel the same way about flying. I do that same thing, I’m ok, I’m ok. This repeatative mantra is a way to self sooth, it helps you relax , and keeps your mind busy and away from the fear. Just my two cents

    • ocdtalk says:

      I agree, Jennifer. Once I stopped repeating the mantra, all the fearful thoughts came into my mind. I wonder how many other people on the plane were repeating their own mantra!

  6. VB says:

    Flying was one of my first OCD themes. I remember one day 2 weeks before a flight home thinking – “what if it crashes?” I had a *feeling* which sent me into the compulsions of ruminating, internet searching, avoidance, and even some magical thinking (“If I think about the plane crashing, it won’t crash, or at least I’ll be prepared”). I couldn’t prove that it wouldn’t crash, so therefore it was a danger (very OCD thinking). It’s not my main theme, but now that I understand my OCD I can stop myself before compulsive internet researching, rumination, and my old rituals. I’ve gotten a lot better about avoidance too, although I still don’t like flying very much. It’s all about progress…

    • ocdtalk says:

      Thanks for sharing VB, and it sure sounds like you have a great understanding of your OCD. And I agree, it’s all about progress and moving in the right direction!

  7. kris says:

    Janet, I had to laugh when the pilot did not reassure you..that is what I would have wanted to hear also. Without knowing it, he certainly allowed you the chance to continue your ERP. I guess this gave you a little window into what it is like to have OCD thoughts on the brain, though you have always written with such empathy that I felt you “got us” very well. I remember living with that kind of anxiety over one thing or another every waking moment of my day and even though I am not “cured”, I feel so blessed to have life manageable again.
    OCD makes things so scary and so much bigger – the anticipation is almost always worse than if what we fear really happens. I appreciate you and your blog so much.

  8. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks so much, Kris! I laughed about it after the fact as well, and am grateful my anxiety was short-lived. As I said, I can’t imagine having to deal with anxiety like that every minute of every day. So glad things are better for you now.

  9. I, too, loath flying… well, the flying doesn’t bother me; it’s the crashing and dying that I object strenuously to. Or the feeling that I’m completely NOT IN CONTROL. And like you, I am all crazed (in my mind, I appear quite normal to outsiders) during take off… and then I’m fine once we reach altitude. I’m taking my son to NY in October – his first flight (he’s 10) and my 3rd since 9/11 (was getting on a plane then – and whatever fears I’d gotten over about flying were OUT THE WINDOW after that)…anyway, I’m not wanting to make MY fears HIS fears so I’m already trying to mentally prepare myself for the experience. I wish they could just drug us up/knock us out/put us on stretchers and wake us up at our destination. I’d even lay in the ‘middle’ seat for that!

  10. ocdtalk says:

    Oh you are too funny! October is a long way off, so I think you should just not even think of it until late September at least :). As we know, the anticipation is usually much worse than the actual event!

  11. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, I know this is an old post, but great read, I have a fear of flying too! It’s funny though for me the take off/ascending and descending/landing is my favourite, I don’t get nervous, what makes me nervous is when we’re at cruising altitude!

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