Last week, I boarded a plane to Charleston for a bachelorette weekend. I’d been dreading the flight for months. Airplanes are not on my short list of comfort zones, so I try to avoid them at all costs.
Why can’t we just drive? I thought to myself, fancying the idea of a 12-hour car ride over a one-hour plane trip. But I had no choice. Either I went on the airplane, or I didn’t go at all.
So, without allowing myself to overthink, I made a promise to myself: I’d feel the fear of flying and do it anyway.
It seemed simple enough. And maybe it would be for most people. But I’m not most people, and I’m a bit more tormented by fear and obsessive thinking than the average person.
Still, I tried focusing on my new book as we prepared for takeoff, tried slowing my breathing as I listened to my favorite songs on my Spotify playlist. And it worked, at first. But as the plane sped down the runway, and as we ascended into the air, into what felt like a wall of pressure, all the pent-up anxiety hit me like bad sushi. It was as if I was falling out of the plane to my death, not sitting comfortably inside en route a charming town with my friends.
I hadn’t anticipated the physical symptoms to be as daunting as the mental ones. But there I was, fighting a nervous stomach and a racing heart. I slammed my book shut, turned up my music, and shut my eyes. Leaning my head back on my seat, I felt like I was tied to a stiff chair, unforgiven for my heightened alert.
I just wanted to lie down. I thought that if I couldn’t do so, I’d pass out. My heart beat so quickly that I could feel it in my throat, and my head spun so fast that I couldn’t open my eyes. I felt trapped. I felt sick. I felt panicked. I felt all these overwhelming emotions and sensations that all I could do was, well, nothing.
So that’s what I did: nothing.
I didn’t pass out. Though it could’ve happened, like that time I collapsed under a table because I thought I might throw up. And we didn’t crash. Though that could’ve happened, too, like it did to that Southwest airline that went down with a broken engine.
But you know what? I had no control over it, just like I had no control over the plane itself as it cut through the air.
But I did have some control: over my reaction. My reaction to my lack of control. I had the power to accept. The power to let go. To just exist. Sometimes, that’s all you can do – exist.
You can’t avoid every trigger. Can’t run from agony. Can’t hide from your worries. Can’t control other people, or the weather, or your thoughts, or the fact that you might end up floating in the ocean as shark bait if your plane goes down. (FYI: it didn’t. I made it there and back safely, despite how convinced I was that I wouldn’t.)
I maintained this perspective during the trip as well. When it was nearly 100-degrees and humid outside, I walked in the heat despite how unbearable it felt. When I bashed my knee on a hard piece of metal in our rental car, I took deep breaths and allowed the pain and nausea to scream their arrival. When we got caught outside in a thunderstorm with cloud-to-ground lightning, I let the rain soak my clothes, felt the dirt on my feet, and told myself if I’m meant to get struck, I guess my family will have a pretty cool story to tell when asked how I died. (Humor helps, too.)
This might seem obvious to you. But like I said, I’m not like most people; and these types of situations are never easy for me. The point is, when you have absolutely no control over something, or if you think that gaining control will strip you of valuable experiences, then you need to let go. You need to accept the fact that sometimes, life gets tough, and you can’t do anything about it.
I used this technique all the time as a kid; I just didn’t realize it.
I grew up on the soccer field, where I was the most fearless. Sure, I felt fear. But I didn’t have time to succumb to it. That wasn’t an option for me. So, when I noticed myself shying away from headers, I’d have my friend chuck the ball hard at my head until I no longer flinched. When I saw a defender ready to take me out with a slide tackle, I sprinted toward them anyway (which earned me a broken shin and tons of respect from my teammates.) When I got nervous before each game, I channeled it as motivation to kick some grass.
This mindset can help you cope with any emotion or sensation, from anger to exhaustion. I’m not saying you should fight until you reach an unhealthy breaking point (you’ll know when that is, trust me); but you should push yourself far enough that you become more resilient each time.
Think about holding a cup of iced coffee in your bare hand on a cold day. It hurts. It stings. It makes you want to keep switching it from one hand to the other. Don’t do that. Hold it. Absorb the temperature. Hold it longer. Feel the tingling in your palm. Keep holding it. Let your hand burn and ache and turn red. It won’t feel natural, but not everything will.
Acknowledge and embrace the pain and discomfort in every situation you’re in – running on the treadmill, presenting in front of an audience, throwing up in the toilet, cycling worries in your mind. It’s going to be there anyway, no matter what you do. Fighting your feelings, physical and mental, won’t work. Shaming yourself for them won’t either. They exist, regardless of whether you want them to.
Don’t let the possibility of anything, from a broken leg to a plane crash, stop you from living. If you don’t face your feelings head-on, you’ll never know how strong you are, and how strong you can become.