Afraid to Fly: OCD at 31,000 Feet!

afraid to fly ocd at 37000 feetOCD and Flying

By: Dr. John D. Moore

The McDonald Douglas “Super 80” positioned itself on runway 22-L at O’Hare field – her twin engines powering up with noticeable intensity. I was heading westbound to California for the Memorial Day holiday, happy to be getting away from Chicago’s “iffy” weather. It was a cloudy morning, with occasional shards of sunlight piercing through darkly lit skies.

As the jet began to roll down the asphalt strip, the gentleman sitting next to me started tapping his front two teeth with the edge of his smart-phone. His eyes remained tightly shut during the entire take-off.  

“Is everything OK?” I asked, as the front wheels of the jet lifted off the ground. “You seem really nervous buddy.”

Once we became airborne, he released his tight squint, revealing hazel-blue eyes that were somewhat bloodshot. If I had to guess, I would say he was in his mid to late 30’s. I noticed that he had two newspapers perfectly arranged in the seatback in front of him – and I do mean perfect – devoid on any creases.   

Slowly, he turned to me with a cracked voice and said, “I’m OK – I just hate taking off”. He extended his hand and introduced himself as Mike. “I guess I kind of don’t like the whole flying thing to be honest” he added.

He shared that he too was heading out west for the holiday but not for vacation. Apparently, the trip was job related. “It’s a work trip so I have to go” he remarked.

OCD Amplified 

I already knew that my seat-mate had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The telltale sign was the teeth tapping; something he repeated five times with the same level of intensity.

Many people who suffer from this severe form of anxiety find that certain situations seem to activate their symptoms more than others. The less control a person with OCD has during these moments, the more likely their ritualistic behaviors can become. 

“I need to tell you now that I will be doing some strange stuff on the flight John – but I’m guessing you’ve already figured that out” he said, as the aircraft began to make a wide turn. “I just get really nervous whenever I fly.”

As a mental health counselor, I shared with him that I completely understood what he was feeling. I also disclosed that I’ve also had my own issues with OCD – just in different ways. 

FYI: I’ve always been open about my anxiety disorder with people and have publicly encouraged others to do the same. To pretend it doesn’t exist is to live in denial.

What’s the point?

fear of flying
OCD at 37,000 Feet

Leveling Off

Our plane leveled off at 37,000 feet as announced by our captain. He told us that we could expect a mostly “smooth ride” but that we should anticipate some “bumps” once we were over the Rocky Mountains.

News of the potential turbulence activated Mike’s symptoms again as he began to tap his teeth with extreme care, this time rotating his smart-phone 360 degrees each time before clicking his enamel. “Tap … tap, tap, tap, tap.”

At this point he was hyper-vigilant, aware of every sound coming from the fuselage.  

“Man I hate this crap” he said, looking a bit pale. 

It was fairly obvious that he was feeling helpless at this point. He wanted to relax but was unable to do so because he anticipated those bumps coming up that the captain had mentioned. It was then that I encouraged him to try five mindful things to remain calm. I will share each of these with you in the same way I discussed with Mike.




1) Take deep breaths

Close your eyes and draw in a medium to full breath – whatever you are capable of in the moment. With each exhalation, allow yourself to visualize the muscles in your shoulders and back relaxing. Don’t try to force these breaths but instead, let them come naturally.

2) Don’t fight scary thoughts

Whenever you hear something unfamiliar and become afraid, don’t try to fight your feelings. Instead, go with the thought and let it pass. The more you try to stop what you are thinking, the more powerful it becomes. Just go with it and accept it for what it is – a thought. Thoughts cannot harm you.

3) Visualize yourself in the clouds

With your eyes still closed, visualize yourself floating in and out of clouds. Notice that sometimes you feel the wind pressing up against you. Become one with the clouds and accept that there will be times when you feel various intensities. Turbulence is a kind of wind that blows up and down, left and right – forwards and backwards. Embrace the wind and do not fear it.

4) This moment will pass

When plane begins to experience the bumps, it may feel gentle and just the opposite, intense. Regardless of how you experience these chops – remember that eventually the sensations will pass. Focus on your breathing during this period of time and use mindfulness to center yourself on the here and now. If you feel like saying a prayer or meditating at this point, that’s perfectly fine. Let gratitude be part of your experience.  

5) Surrender to the situation

Turn yourself over to the moment and recognize that you have absolutely no control what is happening on-board the aircraft. Here is the deal – you can only control what you are thinking, which directly relates to what you are feeling. By surrendering to the moment, you free yourself of worry and anxiety because you have taken the path of acceptance.

Passing Over Rockies

As we headed over the Rockies, our aircraft began to hit some mild turbulence as expected. Mike seemed to be handling it better than I had thought. He gripped his phone in his palm and closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths – slowly and deliberately.  

Only once did he lift his hand up to tap his teeth but never actually connected the phone to his incisors. There were, however, a few moments where he came very close to doing so. The bumps didn’t last long and the moment passed.

We flew over Colorado, Utah and a patch of Nevada. Before we knew it, we were descending into Los Angeles. “That went by fast”, he remarked.

Final Destination

After landing and pulling up to our gate, Mike leaned over his armrest and said in a relieved voice, “Thanks for the tips bud”. I smiled and said back with a wink. “Yup – just remember that tips are only good if you use them.”

He chuckled as he gathered up his newspapers with care. “Got any suggestions for Vegas?” he added with a chuckle. 

The door to the Super 80 opened and passengers started funneling out. We grabbed our luggage from the overhead bins and made our way down the jet bridge.

He went left and I went right – both of us blurring into a sea of people traversing the concourse. 

I never saw Mike again but knew that we had both experienced a powerful moment – somewhere around 31,000 feet.