Last Updated on October 22, 2021 by queenie mak
I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this. I had written about this particular topic in some form or another. It is usually in a personal journal either hand-written or online (but not published).
Even as I am thinking about writing this, my heart is racing and tears are welling up in my eyes. Writing and talking about this makes me really uncomfortable.
I am talking about my fear and anxiety relating to travelling.
We all have fears. Not all of them are the same. But we all live with something that we are afraid of and probably limit certain life opportunities. But don’t allow fear to stop you from living the life of your dreams.
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I have a fear of being stuck in a confined space with heat and no air movement.
Even though I haven’t been clinically diagnosed with claustrophobia, but I recognize the definition in myself. Claustrophobia: “abnormal and persistent fear of closed spaces, of being closed in or being shut in, as in elevators, tunnels, or any other confined space.”
However, I can still be in an enclosed space if there is sufficient air movement and if the air is cold enough. My hypersensitivity to air temperature and airflow has a significant impact on how I react in a small space.
I’m not even sure if there is a name for my phobia. Between my claustrophobic characteristics and hypersensitivity to air, this is the closest thing I can find.
Ultimately, I fear suffocation in a small space.
Confined space + still air = panic attacks
My panic attacks can happen in a lot of places. My heart will race whenever I have to get into a car, bus, train, subway, elevator and so on.
It is most prominent in an airplane. I know what you are thinking, how can I be a solo traveller and be afraid to fly? Most of my panic attacks happen on a plane.
For a few short moments between the closing of the door to take off, the pilot turns off the air supply (or at least I think they do), to start the engine. In that short period, I panic. My thoughts go from “oh they turned off the air” to “I’m going to die because there is no oxygen!”. It happens within a split second.
I’m not sure why my brain switches from a normal thought to a disturbing thought so quickly. It is not something that will happen, but the mind went into a fight-or-flight situation.
Where did my fear come from?
To be honest, I don’t even know how it started. One day I just noticed a little bit of nervousness. Then that feeling grew more and more. And over the last few years, it is just something I am living with.
My first memory of this fear is around 2008. I was interning at a design firm in Shanghai, China at the time and I would fly to Hong Kong during long weekends to see my family. On one of the flights back to Shanghai, something happened, and the plane had to be re-routed from Pudong airport to Hongqiao airport. Because it’s as such a last-minute decision, Hongqiao airport didn’t allow anyone to get off the plane until customs had cleared it. We sat on the plane with minimal airflow for an hour. It was the most excruciating experience.
But my worst experience was around 2016. I just started a new position and travelling to client sites was part of my responsibilities. The monthly business trip was a norm; sometimes I would be on a plane up to six times a month. The time when I travelled from Toronto to Indianapolis, Indiana, was by far the worst experience in my life. Between hot summer weather and plane engine issues, the small plane was not a place I wanted to be in.
As soon as the door closed, my mind was racing. So much so that I couldn’t be in that space any longer. I told my colleague that I cannot be there and asked to leave the plane. And so I did. My fear was overpowering, and I just couldn’t fight it anymore.
As much as I felt the physical relief from exiting the plane, I felt defeated. I felt that my fear has taken over my life. And I lost.
Learning to cope with my fear and anxiety
I knew I just have to deal with my fear and anxiety. I knew I had to get over my fear and I have to do it quickly. I wasn’t going to let my fear win. Travel is part of my life! So I will have to cope with whatever fear I have.
I had to admit that this is something I have to face. Brushing it off further is no longer an option. I saw a therapist for a few months when I lived in Toronto, and she taught me how to cope whenever I am in these situations. Even though it was helpful to talk to her once a week, I wanted to work on it more outside of therapy; I wanted her to assign “homework” for me to do.
Taking the lessons I learned from my therapist, and along with my own experience, I’ve developed a routine that I always do every time I get on a plane.
First, It starts with planning. I always pick an aisle seat closest to the front of the aircraft. Visually, I feel better if I do not see a lot of people sitting in front of me. Secondly, I always bring a bottle of cold water, mints or these Chinese cough candies that I like, and a portable fan (it’s small and you plug it into your phone). Third, I distract myself by counting. Whenever the engine starts, which means the air is turned off, I start counting. Somehow it distracts me and those seconds and minutes go by faster.
There are days that these techniques work really well. Then there are days when none of the tricks work, and I just sit there and cope. But I’m determined to do whatever it takes to make my travel life a better experience.
Am I the only one who is going through this?
Probably not because I googled and found other people with similar issues. But there aren’t a lot of us.
To this day, I have no idea how it started. I don’t have any memories of major trauma in my life that can explain this. The only possible theory I have is that I may have died in a small space through suffocation in my past life. Ha! If I can even call it a theory, but I digress.
Don’t let your fear stop you from living the life that you want
Whatever it is that I have, the point is to move forward. There is no point in dwelling on the issue. Yes, it is super annoying that I have this phobia, but it is not the end of the world. I’m choosing to live the life that I want to live; which means I’m going to travel as much as I can. I’m going to do whatever it takes to cope with it and get over it. I’m still going to travel because there are a lot of places I haven’t been to!
I hope whatever you are going through, whatever fears you have or social anxiety, don’t let your fear stop you from living the life that you want.
The reason why I wanted to share this is that I am just like you. I am a human being with a desire to travel but will not allow any fear to stop me from doing something I love. Life is too short to be dwelling on things that we are afraid of.
If you like to share your story, leave a comment below, or you can always contact me privately.
Thanks for reading.