Navigating Flight Claustrophobia

Stress Management

Navigating Flight Claustrophobia

The claustrophobia was coming in waves.

We’d been sitting on the tarmac for hours and I really wanted to get off the plane.

So far I had been able to ride through the intermittent panic by distracting myself with repeated games of solitaire on my iPad.

There were a lot of thoughts swirling in my head…

“Think of a spacious, happy, place.”

“Everyone else is being so calm – you can buck up and handle this.”

“You can only feel your thinking about this small space – a small space can’t give you this feeling.”

None of it was helping. claustrophobia!!!

Finding a solution for my claustrophobia…

After a couple of hours of working hard at keeping the claustrophobic feelings in check I caught the eye of the young woman seated across from me. We hadn’t yet spoken.

“Are you going to miss your connecting flight?” I asked. This was the current chatter on the plane.

“I’m not sure.” She responded hesitantly.

“I’ve never flown before.” she continued, “I don’t know how it works. I’ve been sitting here so nervous about the take-off and landing that I haven’t thought about what I need to do after that.”

Wow. A nervous first-time flyer that gets stuck on the tarmac – what a tough experience.

I asked to see her ticket and offered some ideas about getting a new connecting flight. She made some calls and we chatted a bit more.

Some time passed and then it hit me: I didn’t feel claustrophobic.

And then it hit me again – for the millionth time: I am only ever feeling thought in the moment – and so isn’t everyone else. 100% of the time.

Here’s what I mean…

If I am trying to think my way out of my feelings – I can only feel trying to think my way out of feelings I don’t like. I can’t feel new feelings.

If I am trying to distract myself from my feelings –claustrophobia.I can only feel trying to distract/ignore those claustrophobic feelings. I can’t feel the absence of the feelings by shoving them aside. I can only feel the shoving.

If I am trying to positively reframe my thinking I can only feel trying to find a positive reframe – I can’t feel the new perspective – only trying to find a new perspective.

It’s all happening in the moment. With each breath.

Seeing this fact insightfully is an entirely different experience than trying to think your way here. Mainly because you can’t. It isn’t possible to think your way to insight.

What actually got me out of the experience of claustrophobia wasn’t finding a new or better way to think. It wasn’t successfully talking myself into calm feelings or quieting my mind through will and effort. What got me there was regular, everyday insight: following what arose in the moment.

Perfectly worked …..

What occurred to me was to talk to the woman next to me. Next was to offer practical support and reassurance. Next was to go back and play more solitaire. It didn’t occur to me until later that any of this was insight. It just looked like the obvious thing to do.

I got to see (without trying to see) how small my world becomes when I try to fight my way out of claustrophobic feelings and how much more useful I am to myself and others when I look beyond my own experience.

Insight led me away from trying to fix or make better – when we step out of fix-it mode our thoughts and feelings naturally shift. By design they move through. I can feel what I feel and I don’t have to worry that I feel what I feel. I don’t have to run it.

This naturally quiets the mind – it eliminates the layer of worry over what we are feeling. Insights arise. We do the next obvious thing. It works the same for everyone.

As if to drive this point home we took off a few minutes later and the nervous woman across the seats threw open her window shade and whirled around her seat as if she was on an amusement park.

I leaned over and asked, “You’re enjoying yourself aren’t you?”

Yes.” She responded with a beautiful grin.

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