Being on lockdown sucks for the majority of us. The extroverts are ready to run outside, the introverts are sad about having to go outside, and people like me who straddle the fence between the two are full of mixed emotions that fluctuate by the hour. So, when I found myself in a situation where I had to take two international flights last week, I thought I was ready. I took smiling selfies at the airport and was happy to visit Paris again (for the one-millionth time).
I thought as long as I had a mask and a face shield, I was prepared for the long 8-hour flights.
I was wrong, a mask and a face shield were not enough.
Although I didn’t know it then, things started to unravel at check-in. The person wanted to take my carry-on luggage. “Excuse me?” I asked why and then explained that I not only had my laptop and iPad in my carry-on, but I also had insulin and there was no way I was going to put my bag under the airplane.
“Okay, we’re just trying to reduce movement on the airplane, and if some people can avoid bringing carry-on luggage that would be best. When you’re on the plane, your movement will be restricted.”
The word restricted lingered in my head and reminded me of my first claustrophobic episode. It was mid-flight on a trip from Germany to America back in 2001. Since then, I always sit in an aisle seat.
While waiting at the gate, I observed everyone wearing masks, so nothing was alarming there. But once we were on the plane, my anxiety started to rise. While I love sitting on the aisle because it helps with my claustrophobia, my shoulders are often brushed against by people passing to reach their seats. During “normal” times I am only slightly annoyed when it happens frequently, but during this pandemic, I was horrified just thinking that folks might be putting COVID-19 particles on me. This furthered the mental unraveling, but I hadn’t registered it as such.
The announcements before take-off went something like this.
“Thank you for flying with us today. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we ask that you not get out of your seat during the flight except for an emergency. If you need something out of the overhead bin, get it now and place it under the seat in front of you. If you need to use the lavatory, do it quickly and do not congregate in any place. Do not walk around. Only one person can wait near the lavatory when it is in use. You must wear your mask at all times, the only exception will be during meals. If you sleep, you must wear your mask. If you do not have on your mask, we will remind you to put it back on. Hope you enjoy your flight.” The announcement sounded like a military order. It was terrifying and this is when I began to feel the anxiety levels rise.
Since it was a night flight, I slept for a few hours. However, twice when I woke up my mask was broken and laying on my chest or on the ground. I don’t know if I was suffocating during my sleep and snatched it off my face as a natural reflex or what? But, when it happened a second time, that’s the narrative I told myself. The mask was killing me and I was unconsciously saving myself. I decided not to sleep anymore. Then, I realized that my 3rd mask was in my luggage in the overhead bin. Along with my noise-canceling earphones and antibacterial wipes. I couldn’t get up to get either.
COUGH. SNEEZE. YAWN.
Oh my, I started hearing all these sounds from other passengers. It was haunting. I starting thinking about the recycling air that I had been breathing and would continue breathing for many more hours.
COUGH. I turned my head to see where it was coming from. It was from a man three rows back and guess what…he’s not wearing a mask. The cough was so violent that it woke him up from his sleep and he saw me looking at him. COUGH. He does it again. He doesn’t cover his mouth. I turn around quickly knowing that his germs are in the air heralding in my direction.
SNEEZE. I hear someone on the left side of the airplane. COUGH. Another one, this time from a woman.
I LOSE IT! I was having a full-fledged anxiety attack now. I grabbed my broken mask and twisted the string around my ear and wore my face shield which was crumbled. I must have smashed it too during my sleep. I put on the free disposable earphones given to me by the flight attendant, found the relaxation music station, and turned the volume up as high as it can go. I tried to calm myself down by drowning out every sound around me. Usually, I focus on deep breathing, but there is no way I was going to breathe that air in deeply. That’s when it hit me that the very thing that I use to calm my nerves (deep breathing) was part of the reason why I was riddled with anxiety.
I was a complete mess. My blood sugar went through the roof. I knew it already, but I checked to confirm. The final few hours of the flight were miserable for me. By the time we landed, I felt like I had ran a 5k.
But I had to take another international flight a week later and here’s how I prepared.
First, I prayed for a calm mind throughout the journey to the airport and during the flight. I centered myself before leaving the house and left early enough to be calm and patient during check-in and security check. I placed my favorite calming aromatherapy mix behind my ears and on my wrists (I mix lemongrass, lavender, and peppermint).
- I packed a small bag inside my carry-on with extra masks and wipes that could be easily removed from my larger carry-on and placed under the seat in front of me.
- I made sure to have my noise-canceling earphones close to me at all times.
- I brought my own blanket (I realized that I didn’t trust the cleanliness of the ones on the airplane).
- I downloaded calming music on my phone so that I would have my favorite tunes ready.
- I wiped down everything around me before getting comfortable on my plane.
- I immediately began tuning out the sounds around me so that I couldn’t hear every cough and sneeze.
- I wore my compression socks since walking around the plane freely to stretch is not an option.
It helped that on the second flight we were more spaced out than on the first flight. By doing the steps above, my second flight was a success!
I hate that I learned the hard way that I needed more than a mask (I needed to have my mind in the right place), but I share this in the hope that you can be prepared mentally for your next international flight.
*If you have any additional tips to help make traveling during this COVID-19 pandemic less anxiety-ridden, please leave your comment below so that others may read it.