On Fear and deciding not to be afraid

I told this story at the Insites Xmas Special earlier this month and have been meaning to write it all up. It’s the story of how I stopped being afraid of airplanes. In the hope that something in this is of use to anyone else who is scared of something and wants to deal with it.

I wasn’t always scared of planes.

My parents emigrated to the USA when I was 15 and, as a student I flew out to visit them three times. I wouldn’t say I was a great fan of being cramped in a pressurized tube for 8 hours, but I wasn’t scared.

I wasn’t scared of much aged 20.

After stopping dancing I worked backstage in the theatre, cheerfully flinging myself under bits of fast moving scenery and making sure that I was seen to be as brave and as competent at my job as any boy.

Then I became pregnant. When my daughter was born I became afraid of everything. Suddenly the world looked like this terrifying place, where everything and everyone was out to hurt this baby that I had been entrusted with. This fear was a symptom of post natal depression and in time I returned to feeling pretty much like myself again. A bit less crazy, a bit less happy to take risks but not utterly terrified of the world.

However it was almost as if I had taken all that random fear and directed it at one object that I could actually quite easily avoid – planes. I wouldn’t fly out to America to see my family because I was scared of planes. I wouldn’t consider a holiday anywhere that involved a flight, because I was scared of planes. As my career in the web progressed and I was asked to speak at conferences I would turn them down because I was scared of planes.

The more I told people I was scared of planes, the more I thought of it, the more I defined myself as a person who would not go on a plane. For 18 years I managed to avoid going on planes.

Then something changed. I think it started to change when I managed to deal with one of my other fears, that of public speaking. I’ve written here before about how I read Richard Carlson’s Stop Thinking, Start Living and one short section really changed how I saw fear. The idea that being afraid is a choice we make had been hugely important in me making a decision not to be afraid of public speaking.

I was really enjoying speaking at events in the UK, however I knew that my fear of planes was stopping me going further afield. My fear was stopping me doing things that I knew I would enjoy and I couldn’t pretend to myself any longer that I didn’t want to go anywhere anyway.

With the knowledge that I had managed to conquer one fear simply by deciding not to be afraid, I decided to try the same technique on this huge fear. When I was asked to speak in Poland in April this year I said yes. I stopped telling people I was afraid of planes. I made an effort not to define myself as this person who was terrified of planes. By the time it came to the flight, I was nervous but I wasn’t afraid that I was going to be that person screaming “I want off” at the stewardesses. I was absolutely sure that I was going to be able to get on the plane and be fine. I was not scared of planes.

I got onto the plane and the squeakiest aircraft I have encountered started very slowly doing a little tour of Heathrow, for 40 minutes or so. Squeak, squeak, squeak. I’ve been on several flights since this year and none of them have been as squeaky, or done such a lengthy taxi before take off as this one. I spent the whole time just reminding myself this was fine. I was not scared of planes. I did not need to worry that I couldn’t understand the Polish announcements because the plane was full of Polish people who all looked very relaxed, so all must be well. We took off. It was amazing.

On the way back from Poland we flew into Heathrow over Windsor Castle, and then I cried. I cried because living just down the road from Heathrow I saw the planes fly in over Windsor and I always thought it would be lovely to see the castle from the air, but I couldn’t as I was afraid of planes. As we came through the clouds and there was Windsor below me, it just felt like a little reward.

I’ve been on 14 planes to 7 different cities since that flight to Poland in April. I like flying. Airports haven’t started to annoy me yet and I’m looking forward to my upcoming trip to Canada.

I tell this story because I was seriously terrified, and I know lots of people share the same fears. Not much more than a year ago I would have told you that I had no intention of getting on a plane ever. I was too scared. Yet just by making an effort to change my thinking I’ve been able to totally turn that around to a point where I actually enjoy flying. I don’t know how the brain works, I don’t know why this worked, however perhaps it it something to try.

Next for me? I’m intending to enter some triathlons next year as I am definitely not at all afraid of open water swimming!

One Comment

John Gallagher December 31, 2012 Reply


Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve not heard about this technique but it sounds like it’d be highly effective. There’s so much I’m afraid of but I feel like I talk myself into being afraid of it before I’m actually afraid of it… if that makes any kind of sense…

Congratulations on being able to fly again and thanks again for sharing an interesting and useful Jedi mind trick.


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