It’s all just energy. It comes in tides and washes over you. Suddenly, you find yourself overwhelmed by what was once just a bridge. A ski lift. The prospect of dealing with new people. But it’s all just energy. Repeat. It’s all just energy.
Me? I hate to throw up. I did it for 9 months once and I have no desire to do it again. Very expensive (now generic!) drugs for chemotherapy patients helped me then, and while I have every intention of flying with them from now on, they aren’t a magic bullet for airsickness and definitely not for treating the fear of air sickness. Claustrophobia has a tendency to kick in while I contemplate how sick I feel as well. You may fear tumbling from the sky. So what will you do? What will you do when dramamine + happy cancer-patient anti-emetics + xanax = not enough.
I am going through this right now.
So while I have plans to avoid the “root” of the problem and consult my doctor for newer, better, and more sedating drugs I can combine recklessly (were that we all had the means to get prescriptions in our own names…this is a secondary problem for Americans who need to fly, but can only afford to order drugs off-prescription from other countries), some old-school relaxation exercises can help too. After all, what’s your alternative? Missing out on your beautiful and short life?
Somewhere on the internet, in the land of anti-anxiety websites, which I read while waiting for my number to be called at the passport office, I first discovered this breathing technique. Now, normally, I am against even this kind of thing. Like in yoga, I find focusing on my breath to be freaky and it makes me concentrate on my heart (is it o.k.?) and my blood pressure (which may very well not be o.k. I am suffering from anxiety here!).
In a nutshell: breathe in for a count of 7 and breathe out for 11 beats. Panicking may actually load your body on oxygen that you don’t need. You feel that you need air, but the truth is you need carbon dioxide. Your heart races, your breathing is shallow, your palms are clammy. You’re sweating. Slowing down your breathing can help restore the physical balance that gets rid of the uncomfortable symptoms. They are caused by a fight-or-flight, panic response that would serve you well on the Serengeti when being chased down by a cheetah. Your leg muscles are going to want that kind of oxygen in a situation that’s truly fight-or-flight.
But sitting in your seat isn’t the time to fill your muscles to capacity. Your brain just hasn’t gotten the message. Your panic is out of proportion to the threat. It thinks now is the time to vomit all over that cheetah, making yourself a totally unappetizing treat. Thanks, brain. Know it has your best interest at heart. But redirect it with carbon dioxide. More CO2 also reduces stress hormones, making it harder for you to work yourself into a panic later. so try to stick with the breathing for a few minutes. It takes several minutes to get that initial flood of panic chemicals out of your blood.
Further, counting buys you 18 more seconds of doing something distracting that will only get you closer to your destination. Don’t think you can do it? You’re doing it! Practice on bridges, mountains, crowded elevators, and anywhere you may experience a lower-level panic, before trying to master it for the first time on a 10-hour flight.
Paper Bag Breathing
Too scared of what your fellow passengers will think? Too bad. Hasn’t it occurred to you that you’re never going to see them again? OK, fine, if it’s still holding you back, put your hands to your mouth and breath into them, then rebreathe the air you exhaled. This technique gets you breathing carbon dioxide, and again soothes the physical symptoms that are so uncomfortable, allowing you a return to physical normality that you can (hopefully) use to springboard to mental normality.
I love this technique. Why? Because there’s no panicking about whether you practiced enough and can do it well come go-time. It’s science. Your brain isn’t necessary here. Just inhale the CO2. It will help whether you allow it to or not.
Focus on Other Things Breathing
This relaxation technique is about distraction for me. It’s a slightly different count, but accomplishes the same thing, reducing oxygen and upping CO2. First, sit up straight. Ask yourself if you’re breathing deeply into the core, or just into the chest. Let the air fill your nose and expand your body, down to your fingertips. Do you feel them? Good. Pay attention to them. After inhaling for a given count (let’s go with 7) hold your breathe for 3 seconds, then exhale through your mouth for another 7 seconds.
Shallow Breathing instead of Deep Breathing
CART stands for Capnometry-Assisted Respiratory Training. It acknowledges that people who are panicking breathe quickly and deeply, pushing too much CO2 out in the first place. So, basically, all of these techniques want you to have MORE CO2. Breathing quicker and deeper, as you might during a panic attack, makes symptoms worse according to CART advocates. Instead, breathe slowly and shallowly.
Unfortunately, like deep breathing, it takes time and practice to be able to raise your carbon dioxide levels, and without a capnometer all your own, how would you know its working? This technique has some research behind it, and may be incredibly effective for those trained to use it.
Until then, you’re going to have to set up your own ad-hoc training program, standing atop that scary bridge, and practicing these different breathing techniques until you feel you can lower your carbon dioxide levels and the physical symptoms disappear. All of these techniques can get you there, and you should get comfortable using them to talk yourself down before the time comes that you’re really in a tailspin. Having the confidence to know you can control your CO2 helps with the fear cycle that you’re out of control, and being good at the breathing techniques themselves helps them work better too. Now get out there and