"If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present." - Lao Tzu
We all have fears. Sometimes, these are healthy fears that aid in our survival. Other times, they're irrational fears that interfere with our daily lives. That latter type of fear is commonly referred to as a phobia. With a phobia, you know that there's nothing that you should be afraid of in a particular situation, but you can't help it. You make conscious efforts and go out of your way to avoid those particular situations. Often, you look down upon yourself for being weak when you think you shouldn't be. This adds to the burden of the phobia, making it that much more difficult to overcome.
One of my big irrational fears is a fear of being trapped or stuck in an enclosed space. I refer to it as claustrophobia, but it's not just the enclosed space... it's more the being trapped. It's a fear of not having the control or the option to leave a particular place or situation. Elevators trigger this fear, and I take stairs when possible. Airplanes are a big trigger. With airplanes, it's not a fear of crashing. It's simply a fear of not being able to leave the aircraft. At 30,000 feet, you're probably not going to be able to say to the flight attendant, "Yes, hi... I'm a bit uncomfortable right now and would really just like to step outside."
While I can usually avoid elevators easily enough (which I should point out, does nothing to help me conquer the phobia, and actually strengthens it), airplanes aren't always so easy. I have the opportunity to attend two or three conferences a year for work. I'm grateful for that opportunity, as my field is rather dynamic and it's imperative to make education an ongoing part of one's career. However, many of these conferences are out of state, and far enough out of state that driving just isn't practical.
The first time I had to fly for this job, it was from Phoenix to North Carolina. I was useless the entire week prior, as I was unable to focus on anything but the flight. I couldn't even tell you what it is I was focused on. It was just a general sense of worry. Maybe even dread. Had it been about something specific, something rational, I might have been able to work through it. But because it was completely irrational in nature, it was near impossible to logically address it. The day of the flight finally arrived. I didn't sleep much the night before. I popped a couple of xanax before the flight. And a couple more after I boarded. And of course, I made it to North Carolina without incident. But I spent the entire first day of the conference in a xanax-induced hangover, which considerably lowered the overall return on investment of the trip. So while I made it, I hardly considered it a success.
Subsequent trips were essentially the same. But I started taking the xanax earlier. I thought that if I started taking it an entire day before the flight, I'd be mellow enough by the time the flight rolled around. True, but now I lost another day to the xanax coma. I purchased self-help CDs of nature sounds with subliminal calming messages (allegedly). I googled for pictures of airplane interiors, staring at them in the hopes that I would become desensitized. In short, the amount of time and effort that I was putting forth towards being able to handle what would only be two to three hours out of my life, had long since surpassed "ridiculous".
Earlier this year, I was on a short flight from Phoenix to California. I went through much of the same anxiety in preparing for the trip, although it was less intense this time around, as it was going to be a relatively quick flight. There I sat, somewhere in between Phoenix and Orange County, 30,000 feet in the air... and something happened.
I sat there doing my best to fend off anxiety attacks, and I happened to notice the coffee maker in the galley area. I thought to myself, "That's pretty cool." All at once, I was less anxious about being "stuck" in this enclosed space, and marveling at the engineering feat that I was sitting in. I mean, we're talking about an 80 ton piece of machinery that's carrying hundreds of people and thousands of pounds worth of luggage, and flies through the air... AND IT HAS A COFFEE MAKER BUILT INTO IT. The anxiety began to subside as my brain thought about all of the thought and planning and effort that went into building this plane. I could watch movies. I could access wi-fi (ridiculously expensive wi-fi, but I digress...). And yes, I'm going to go there... I could go to the bathroom.
The more I realized how amazing the aircraft was, the more I found myself feeling gratitude in place of the anxiety. I was grateful that I was in a position to experience this. At that moment, I wasn't worried about the future. About what might happen if I had an anxiety or a panic attack. As the quote at the beginning of this entry suggests, anxiety comes from being worried about the future. Peace comes from living in the moment. And in that moment, I sat in that plane somewhere in between Phoenix and Orange County, 30,000 feet in the air... and I smiled.
I've flown a few times since then. I still have to make a conscious effort to be mindful and grateful. But it gets easier with each flight. My most recent flight, a flight home from Chicago to Phoenix, was done on a single xanax that I considered not even taking. And with significantly less stress and anxiety both before and after the flight.
I've read various sources that suggest gratitude is a key ingredient towards finding happiness. Coupled with mindfulness and being fully present in the moment, I think it can also be an important ingredient in overcoming anxieties and fears.
In the words of the immortal Louis CK, "Everything's amazing and nobody's happy." He's absolutely right. Everything is amazing. We should try to pay more attention to that.