I recently took a connecting flight from Detroit back to Atlanta. Typical of the post-Thanksgiving travel madness, it was a full flight. I got on the plane and my boarding pass put me in an aisle seat. I put my luggage in the overhead compartment and I sat down while more passengers boarded. It was absolutely chaotic. Between everyone’s luggage, purses and heavy coats, there wasn’t much room for anything else. Even just sitting there and breathing felt stuffy and constricted.
A woman came down the aisle and squeezed past me to sit down next to me in the middle seat. I noticed that she seemed very tense and fidgety.We sat there in our seats, seatbelts fastened, while the plane finished boarding. Beneath our feet, the plane shook a bit as cargo and luggage were being loaded into the plane’s hold. We could hear “thunks” as heavy objects were being moved about.
I started to notice that every time the plane shook, my seat mate would get very uncomfortable. She would stiffen and look out the window anxiously.
Then the faint smell of jet fuel wafted into the cabin.
“Do you smell that?” she asked me, nervously. “It smells like gas! Do you smell gas?”
“Yes, it’ll pass,” I said reassuringly. It was clear she was very anxious.
As the plane pushed back from the tarmac, I noticed how she hid her face in her hands, her eyes tightly closed as if she were in deep prayer. We taxied down the runway, picking up speed, and then we were airborn. The plane shook lightly as we took flight. Next to me, this woman was absolutely terrified. She clutched both armrests and moaned slightly.
The plane did a bobble, and in a bare whisper,, she asked me, “Is this normal?”
“Yes it’s normal,” I replied, trying to be as soothing as possible. I assumed perhaps this was her first time flying. “Does it scare you?”
“Yes. It’s all the shaking that I can’t stand,” she said. She was so frightened her eyes were wet, as if she was trying to fight back tears.
We continued to gain altitude. Every time the plane experienced even the mildest tremor, tremble, bump or shake, the woman next to me would inhale sharply, clench, and then shake her head, almost as if she was upset that a plane would behave that way. Or, perhaps she was upset with herself for having such a reaction to flying. I couldn’t tell.
Once we reached full altitude, I noticed she still could not calm down. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, out of respect for her privacy. I saw how she tried very hard to distract herself by reading the in-flight magazine. She read it with such great intensity, as if the Sky Mall catalog was the most captivating reads she had come across in years. And every time the plane experienced the mildest dip or a slight shake, she’d moan slightly, pop some Starburst candy into her mouth and try to distract herself that way. Or, she would switch to trying to listen to her iPod, and it looked like she was praying.
Unfortunately, on this flight, we did hit some mild turbulence, so the plane did tremble and shake. Each time, it was as the woman next to me was barely holding on inside. She’d grab at her armrests or touch the seatback in front of her, as if afraid she might fall down.
As an empath sitting next to her, I could literally feel her panic, nausea and dread. I started wondering if I should do anything to try to help her. She clearly wasn’t asking for help, and I am always reluctant to offer help when it has not been specifically asked. After all, many times it’s just not appropriate. But it was obvious she was in a bad way.
In the back of my mind, I knew she was experiencing a phobia or situational anxiety that could be fairly easily neutralized with energy work. I have worked with a lot of people on things just like this. But in those cases, they always came in to my office asking for help. This was a different situation. This woman was minding her business and I was minding mine, and I certainly wanted to respect her privacy while we were crammed on this airplane. And yet, given how horribly she was feeling, part of me felt it would be a shame not to at least try to help her in some way.
But what might be the best way to bring it up, in this sort of public setting? There we were, packed like sardines in a metal tube, moving at hundreds of miles per hour, in a cramped setting, one that allows for little to no privacy for anyone. It was certainly not the ideal environment to start a dialog with a total stranger about what was scaring them so much.
Perhaps I could make a very open-ended suggestion, I thought. If it were rebuffed, I could go back to minding my own business, which is what I typically prefer, when flying. The close proximity of so many people packed so close to me is often too uncomfortable for me, energetically, to have me want to start long conversations. Yet I could see how difficult this experience was for her.
We hit a turbulent bump and she moaned again.
“Is this your first time flying?” I gently asked her.
“No. But it’s always like this.”
“You know,” I said, casually, “there is something that might help, if you’d like to try,” I said. I showed her my hands and demonstrated tapping on myself at certain points. “Try this. Just tap here…like this… Easy peezy,” I tapped, showing her. “When you get really scared and you feel like it’s getting overwhelming, just tap.”
She started following my lead, tapping on her hand.
“These are just some acupuncture points that you can tap, to help reset your nervous system. It’ll keep you from getting overwhelmed, when it all just feels too scary.”
We tapped together for a moment, and I watched as she did it for herself. I had decided to only use hand points instead of some of the others around the body because our space was so limited, with winter coats and seatbelts inhibiting our movement. I also didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention from the woman sitting on her other side.
I just kept my voice very low and reassuring. “Easy, just tap, tap, tap. No big deal. It’s ok to be scared.”
The woman kept tapping, her eyes tightly closed. I started to notice that her anxiety seemed to calm within a few minutes of tapping. It was like watching a tightly wound top unwind. Gradually, she was able to breathe a bit deeper.
“Yup,” I said, nonchalantly, when she seemed to calm down. “It can be like that. Just keep doing that when you need to. Just tap. Easy, peezy. No big deal. It’ll help calm you down when you need it.”
Then the plane shook again, and she gasped. So she tapped some more and then it was as if her nervous system calmed down again. I wanted it to feel like the most normal, ordinary thing, to tap at certain points on the hand when scared or stressed. I didn’t want to get into any sort of detailed explanation about it. I also just wanted to give her some privacy so that she could manage her own experience. After all, it’s impossible to have much privacy when you are seated on a plane inches away from each other.
Again, she seemed to calm down somewhat. We had reached our full altitude and for the next 2 hrs or so, she seemed to be holding on ok. I was relieved for her. I could also feel that her nausea had gone away, and for that, I was relieved also, I was curious how it would be for her on this flight, especially on the landing.
And then it came time to land into Atlanta. As we started our initial decent and the sound of the plane’s engines changed, I noticed how she became agitated and frightened again. She touched at the seat in front of her and her armrests.
“Just keep tapping, “ I reminded her gently, as if I was talking to a frightened puppy. “Easy does it. It’s ok to be scared, it’s ok to be scared. Just tap, tap, tap.” She tapped over and over on the points I had shown her.
The plane trembled and bobbed. And yet, I noticed that her anxiety was not as bad as I might have expected. It just wasn’t as intense as it had been, when we were first taking off. She wasn’t covering her face or moaning or closing her eyes. She wasn’t grabbing for more Starbursts or her iPod. She was just tapping, staring determinedly down at her hands.
We landed on the ground with a gentle bump. She gasped, but I could tell she was still ok. Certainly not ecstatic with the whole experience, but ok.
We pulled to a stop at the gate, and she was calm. As we got up to exit, she thanked me. I could tell that she was a bit surprised with herself, that perhaps it hadn’t all been as bad as she thought it would be. I am just glad I could help her through what must have felt a very scary experience for her. I suspect tapping helped her manage her panic and anxiety, and that her next trip will feel easier than this one. That’s usually the case after people have done some work with tapping. Of course, this experience wasn’t as effective as a formal session because we could not get too much into details of the fear, but it was much better than nothing.
I commend my seat partner for her bravery, since most people who are scared of flying would not have gotten on the plane to begin with. And I had a thought — maybe I need to approach Delta airlines on teaching their flight attendants how to help people with this kind of anxiety…
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