I Tried Hypnotherapy For My Fear Of Flying. Here's What Happened
I'm writing this from a plane.
I never thought I'd write those words. Six months ago, when I flew from California to NYC after Christmas, I threw up before takeoff. It was during our taxi away from the jetway, the seat-belt light brightly illuminated. With a stranger on either side of me, I reached for the plastic-lined bag in the seat-pocket in front of me—a bag I'd heretofore assumed was mainly for chewing gum disposal—and, as quietly as possible, retched. Faced with sitting between my two disgusted seatmates with a bag of warm vomit on my lap, I chose the only marginally better option: I rang the call button and handed a (understanding, but visibly repulsed) flight attendant the bag of sick. My shame in the moment was alleviated only by my assuredness of the nearness of my death; this is how afraid of flying I was.
After my parents got divorced, I spent much of childhood flying by myself between states, meaning that time spent in airports and in flight was typically accompanied by the distress of leaving one parent and the general insecurity of a life spent in a state of between. I don't remember a specific catalyst for my fear, but I do remember driving through a thick white fog in the eerie quiet that's so evocative of an early morning flight, and asking my mom to take care of my cat when I was gone. I was 9 at the time.
As a newspaper columnist (and a fervent lover of travel), I spent years traversing the globe and tried everything from vodka to prescription anxiety drugs to lavender essential oil to magnesium to make my in-flight time palatable. But nothing worked—the vodka left me drunk and anxious; the drugs, incoherent and anxious. The lavender smelled nice but not nice enough to calm my churning stomach, and the magnesium, which I swear by in my day-to-day life, suddenly seemed to have the efficacy of a sugar pill.
I was hypnotized not because I thought it would work but because I was desperate.
I had a series of flights on the near horizon, one an eight-hour journey to Europe, and, months out, I was already lying awake at night, heart pounding, as I imagined them. Hypnotism was characterized mostly by a somewhat raunchy show I'd seen in Vegas during my 21st birthday—entertaining, amusing but not a valid alternative wellness therapy, like Traditional Chinese Medicine or meditation.
And then I met Grace Smith. Grace is a petite redhead whose soft voice creates an instant atmosphere of ease. Hypnosis, according to Grace, is simply meditation with a purpose, and, after several sessions, I found this to be the most accurate way to describe how being hypnotized felt. During our sessions, which were done over Skype and recorded so I could listen to them later on my own, further enforcing the messaging, she'd have me lie back and relax and she guided me through visualizations. She'd have me imagine descending a staircase of my preference (usually an outdoor one, in the Redwoods) to a place I felt completely safe (for me, a beach with crashing waves and craggy cliffs on the California coast). After having me slow my breath, she'd ask me questions about my childhood, about my feelings of instability. We tackled an accident my mother had when I was 2, a comment a friend made about thunderstorms and turbulence, and even my fear of death. It was most akin to a therapy session done in a supremely relaxed state, although Grace points out that hypnosis concentrates on cementing new visions of the future, while therapy tends to focus on the past.
The experience was nothing like the hypnotism show I saw in Vegas or the ticking clock representations in TV shows or movies.
I always felt present, aware, and in control, and I always remembered everything after. I didn't feel changed, per se, but I always felt preternaturally calm, a sign, Grace said, that the hypnosis was working. The sessions were the highlight of my week, creating a state of intense calm that exponentially surpassed even my beloved morning meditation sessions. But I wasn't sure they were working—as my flight grew nearer, I had more restless nights. My narratively focused mind, so homed in my day job as a writer, went into overdrive, sketching out detailed scenarios of extreme turbulence and engine failure.
And then the day of my flight came. On the way to the airport, I listened to a special recording Grace had created for me, designed to distract and confuse my brain away from its catastrophic thoughts. I boarded the plane and settled into my seat, awaiting the feelings of dread that had come to define the weeks of anticipation and every flight of the last 20 years of my life. I checked the seat-back pocket to ensure a plastic-lined bag was available and eyed my seatmate's long legs as he settled in my beside me, trying to determine how quickly I could sprint to the bathroom, if necessary. But the nausea never came. My heart continued to beat slowly, steadily. My palms stayed dry, and my breath came in long, even inhales and exhales.
As we rolled down the runway to take off, I waited. I waited as the plane struck turbulence that made it bob and weave in the air, a time that used to bring on my most acute waves of panic. Instead, I was able to conjure a fact shared with me by a pilot years prior: that the air around the plane, once it's at full speed, feels more like the consistency of Jell-O than the fragile, invisible, easy-to-fall through space I felt around me on a daily basis. I'd mentioned it to Grace during a session, telling her that I'd never managed to make it stick in my mind. Now, though, in the bumping, jolting cabin, I pictured a tiny toy plane suspended in a tray of cherry-red gelatin. When the tray would shake, the plane would move with it, always safely secured in its position.
When I stepped off the plane, I felt empowered, surging with adrenaline at the exciting opportunities this new life presented me—a big life, as Grace had labeled it in our sessions.
This is my fourth time on a plane, and currently, I'm watching Greenland pass by below me, and I feel peaceful, calm, and in awe that man has created a machine that can show us so much of this beautiful planet in such a short amount of time. I feel, quite simply, like I'm flying.
Want to try hypnosis yourself? Grace made this recording free for mbg readers. If you're still feeling anxious about flying, or life in general, these foods can help. One writer also followed an anti-anxiety diet for a week—here's what happened.