04/17/2015 04:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bridges, Planes and Panic Attacks: Getting Over Fear


I'm not sure when I first realized I was afraid of flying but it wasn't long after I entered college. I'd worry for weeks and weeks as the departure date would get closer and closer. I distinctly remember having diarrhea EVERY TIME I'd arrive at the airport. I also remember seriously thinking "we're all going to die" when we'd board the plane and I'd wonder why other people in line didn't seem more concerned about this possibility. (The way my fearful mind worked, it actually seemed more like a probability.)

And once I'd get to my destination I'd have to worry about getting back home the whole time I was away! Even when I wasn't flying, I'd have nightmares about it. I'd wake up so relieved to realize I didn't have to get on a plane. I even remember feeling nauseous driving near airports and seeing low flying planes coming in for a landing.

Then when the four planes crashed on 9/11 I announced to my family with a great sense of justification and relief: "That's it. I'm NEVER flying again." About five years went by with absolutely NO flying (and a LOT of driving) before my young daughter came to me and said: "Daddy, I'm the only one in my whole class who has NEVER been on an airplane."

Just prior to this announcement, I'd had a panic attack driving through a tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (That's when I realized that this fear of flying was part of a more generalized problem I was having with anxiety.) Once you've had a panic attack, you NEVER want to have another one - not even for a minute - and basically you will do anything you have to do to avoid it: Which is why some people become agoraphobic. They never want to leave the house for fear of having a panic attack and embarrassing themselves in public. So this new factor was making me even less likely to want to fly.

At that time, I was experimenting with a numerical approach to managing and tracking stress based on a scale of 0-10 and exploring the fairly unique idea that stress is cumulative. There was nobody writing about this back then and barely anyone talking about it now either. I can assure you, that experts agree that every time you experience a stressful event, cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine are dumped into your blood stream and it sometimes takes hours for your stress hormone levels to return to "normal." "Normal" stress levels vary for everyone and even for different times of day so that's why I put the word normal in quotes.

But these levels are also relative. So if you started your day at say a stress level of two -- and this a subjective, self reported scale -- after a stressful event, you might feel your stress levels rise to a 5 and it would take up to two hours for the your stress levels to revert back to a two. So when a series of stressful events hits you in rapid succession -- your stress levels build in a stepwise fashion- cascading upwards. So this makes the third or fourth or fifth stressful event (even if it's milder than the first) harder to cope with because of the CUMULATIVE effect of the prior events on your rapidly escalating level of stress.

Quite honestly I think this explains why police occasionally overreact under pressure. Any first responders' stress hormone levels are going to be elevated by just arriving at the scene of a crime or an accident. When you add in an altercation and a chase on top of these ALREADY elevated stress hormones, you've got recipe for disaster just waiting to happen.

The Tappan Zee Bridge going over the Hudson River in New York State.

For some reason my panic around driving through that Pennsylvania tunnel had morphed into a fear of driving over really long bridges. (This is not uncommon with panic attacks.). So this fear of bridges pretty much locked me into staying on the East side of the Hudson River. There were no short bridges over the Hudson.

But there was one not- too-long bridge on I-95 between me and a friend's house where I would occasionally go to play tennis. I could make it over that shorter bridge even WITH my newly acquired panic disorder. But the fear of panic attacks was starting to run my life. This bridge however, while within the limits of what I could take, would still cause me to get to maybe a seven or eight stress level when I crossed it going south. But miraculously it never bothered me coming back north, after tennis, and I was starting to wonder why. Then my number system helped me figure it all out.

On the way down I was almost always in a hurry, running a bit late, at the end of a hectic day, and the thought of playing a competitive round of tennis provided an extra jolt of adrenaline to my already elevated levels of stress. All this mixed together to raise my stress levels to maybe a five or a six BEFORE hitting a single tennis ball and before arriving at that bridge. Add in the mental stress of worrying about whether I was going actually "make it" over the bridge and I'd come close to having a panic attack (maybe an eight or a nine) in the roughly 30 seconds or so that it took to go over that half mile long bridge.

But when I'd come back, I'd have played three sets of tennis, I'd be physically exhausted, I'd have feel good chemicals, like endorphins, flowing through me, and I'd be happy from having spent a few hours with my friend doing something I really enjoy. And I wasn't in any hurry to get back. So I'd hit the bridge going northbound at a very low level of stress, maybe a zero or a one. I would "think" the same thoughts about the bridge possibly collapsing but I wouldn't have ANY of the same corresponding anxious "feelings" in my gut.

That's when I realized that I could proactively ALTER my reaction to that bridge by controlling how I felt when I ARRIVED. I just had to arrive at a zero or a one and I would barely even feel it, no matter what direction I traveled in. I began to wonder if I could do the same thing with my fear of flying. If I could arrive at the airport at a zero or a one maybe getting on an airplane wouldn't be so scary after all.

So I decided to see if I could pull this off. I booked a flight for California out of JFK in New York that left around 1 p.m. so I'd have plenty of time to get to the airport on the day of my flight. The evening before we were set to go (of course I was bringing my daughter along) I packed my bags and went to bed at a reasonable hour. I woke up refreshed. On that morning I went to the gym to work out and do yoga. I took a relaxing shower afterwards. I allowed two hours for an hour-long drive to the airport. I didn't want rushing to the airport to elevate my stress levels. We got to the JFK two hours early because I didn't want delays in the lines to elevate my stress levels either. I really tried to make it as relaxed a day as it could possibly be.

When the airline attendant called out that it was time to board, I was genuinely surprised out how relaxed I felt. I had used mindfulness techniques to keep my mind in the present moment as much as possible while waiting, focusing on my breathing. My body wasn't buying any thoughts of panic that might have crept in because it was GENUINELY relaxed. (So I avoided a vicious feedback loop that you can establish between a tense body and a jittery mind.) This whole idea of starting out my day at a zero or a one had really worked. I said a little prayer as the plane hurdled down the runway, but I really wasn't that scared AT ALL as the plane ascended into the heavens.

That's me at the Taj Mahal a few years after my first flight.

Since that day about eight years ago, I've flown all over the country and around the world with absolutely no problems. I've been to Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Italy, France, England, India and Nepal. I fly now about once a month and never really experience any fear at all.