A person looking at a calendar with a plane circled on a day

Fear of Flying

Did you know high altitudes are a trigger for sickling?

Why do higher altitudes trigger crises?

Basically, the higher you go up the less oxygen there is for you to breathe. The human body is amazing though and has a bunch of physiological responses to adjust to the change in the air’s oxygen saturation. Things like making more blood cells and taking more breaths to really soak up that extra oxygen.

People with sickle cell have the same responses overall, but because our blood cells are shaped differently our response just isn’t as effective. Our sickled cells can’t take on as much oxygen as healthy round cells can. So that means we have less oxygen than others at higher heights like when rock or mountain climbing or flying.

Struggling with flight anxiety

It’s never been a problem for me, at least I can’t think of a time I ever got sick after doing one of the previously mentioned activities. Instead, I struggle with a more common flight sickness – anxiety. I flew a lot as a child. From immigrating to America from Nigeria when I was 4 years old and a high school trip to Spain, to nearly annual summer vacations, if you could call work trips and going to my brother’s games a vacation. Point is, most of the time I was just fine.

Motion sickness

I would get car sick really badly, but that went away once I started sitting in the front seat or driving. One time, on our way back from SeaWorld in California I did puke, but I blame the massive burger I slammed down right before take-off.

A new fear

Besides thot, I have no recollection of being afraid of flying. Everything changed in college when I started flying on my own.

I guess when I was with my family I worried less because I knew if anything happened, they were right there with me. But flying alone is really different. My first solo trip was to visit a friend in D.C. not knowing I’d fall in love and that D.C. would be the destination of many future solo trips.

I don’t remember feeling anxious on the flight itself, but more so about navigating the airport all by myself. As a child, I always thought airports were big and scary but they’re really not so bad. It wasn’t until the trips I took for my medical school interviews that I really started to struggle with flight anxiety.

What contributes to my anxiety

I think the situation with my parents’ divorce was the source of my increasing anxiety and it was slowly but surely creeping into other aspects of my life.

That year I was flying out almost once a month for interviews or leisure. I was determined to enjoy my senior year but the anxiety before and during each trip was unrelenting. I started seeing a therapist, more so to cope with my parents' divorce, but we talked about flying too.

Finding ways to cope

We practiced deep breathing and tension/relaxation exercises to help me relax. My hematologist had recommended I get transfusions before flights, but again I had never had any issues with sickling during or after travel.

I used the relaxation tips and they worked well on the ground but not so much on the plane, especially when there was turbulence – I’ve grabbed quite a few strangers’ hands, luckily, they’ve all been very kind. There were a few trips with particularly rough skies that made me grateful to touch the ground again.

My last trip, two years ago was another solo trip back from an internship in D.C. I had the best time, but the flight back was pretty rough. Let’s just say there was a lot of praying. I think it has made me nervous to fly again but it’s time to get back on the horse, as they say. 

Facts and support for nervous flyers

I’ve been talking to flight attendings for tips. Basically, most people don’t really like flying but flying is the safest means of transportation. Other’s treat turbulence like rollercoasters, but I don’t really like those either.

Finding courage

It’s the drop I feel in the pit of my stomach when we take off or the sudden shaking that really gets me. But now that I’m turning 24 and I just went indoor sky diving, I think I’m ready to get back to traveling

Travel tips

Here are some of my favorite travel tips:

  • Fill up your water bottle after you’ve passed through security so you can stay hydrated on the flight.
  • Bring headphones to watch a movie or listen to your favorite tunes.
  • Make friends with the people sitting next to you and the flight attendants if you can so you know you’re not alone.
  • Don’t forget to pack any medications or take any precautions as recommended by your doctor.

And remember, flying is actually pretty safe.

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