I’ve got 99 problems and 86 of them are completely made up scenarios in my head that I’m stressing about for absolutely no logical reason. -Will Ferrell in a recent tweat
Do you ever feel this way? I have an incredibly irrational (some might call it silly) fear that has been difficult for me to overcome. I am severely claustrophobic. This phobia is particularly difficult to deal with when I am on an airplane, and I do a lot of air travel. Although anxiety begins to build when the aircraft door shuts, as long as everything proceeds in an expected manner, I can deal with it. However, if there is a delay in any part of the process of getting into the air or getting to the gate after touching down, I develop a paralyzing fear almost to the point of believing I will go crazy. My chest tightens. My heart rate increases. My breaths become short and rapid. There are times I am right on the edge of my seat ready to shout, “If I don’t get off this airplane, I’m going to die!”
Consciously, I realize these feelings are completely irrational, and I feel embarrassed even revealing this to you. Do you know anyone who has ever been stuck on an airplane for days, months, or years? Or do you know anyone, outside of victims of rare crashes, who has died on an airplane? I am absolutely aware that my fear is out of proportion, but that does not make my panic any less real.
What makes this so strange is that I do really brave and daring things in other parts of my life. For example, I travel all over Africa to places like Sudan and help people who are dying, often running from genocide. I have flown through no fly zones to put myself right in the middle of a civil war. You would think those would be the legitimate things I would be scared of, but they are not. I somehow can be very courageous in those situations and yet let an airplane stop on a runway and my mind goes crazy.
Why? What is it about this situation that drives my brain crazy?!
Just over a year ago while I was working on this chapter in The Rewired Brain, this fear reemerged. I had flown from Los Angeles to Cincinnati, where I boarded a connecting flight to Charlotte. I won’t mention names of any airlines, but this particular night three planes destined for Charlotte failed their safety checks. By the time I crawled onto the third one, it was midnight and the temperature had fallen below zero. The plane moved out onto the runway and then pulled over to the side. It sat there for over an hour without any information from the pilot.
Within the first fifteen minutes, anxiety set in.
Why aren’t we moving? Has the plane’s engine or hydraulics failed due to the temperature? Are we going to stay in this small plane in Cincinnati all night? Does anyone even know we are here? I’ve got to get off this plane! Do I fake a heart attack?
God really does have a sense of humor. I believe this was his way of using one of my greatest, and on the surface, most irrational fears to keep the content of my book real.
I believe God was saying to me, “If you’re going to preach and write it in your book, you are going to have to experience it just like everyone you are speaking to.”
Over the years, I have worked hard through extensive counseling to reflect on this fear. Where does it come from? Why does it appear? I believe it is impossible in many cases to know the exact nexus of such a fear, but based on my Self-exploration, I believe in my case two childhood events are prime candidates.
One, as a child, I was the victim of bullying by some older boys. Every time my family made its weekly Sunday trip to the local swimming pool, these kids got their kicks by holding me under the water, often until I passed out. Two, I was sexually assaulted as a child by a family acquaintance for several months. This individual held me down. In both cases, someone stronger and bigger overpowered and hurt me.
I believe these early events created a heightened and desperate need to be in control of my personal space. When I am not, especially if I am confined in a closed area, I feel the same panic I felt when I was being bullied and abused and subsequently transfer that emotion onto my current situation.
Most of us have been hurt and experienced bad things in our lives. They have created deep scars that leave many of us in perpetual fear and anxiety, with a need to control, and suffering from obsessions, compulsions, habits, dependencies, and addictions. In short, they can ruin our lives. My claustrophobia was yet a symptom of a far deeper emotional injury. However, the great news (And don’t miss this!) is that we can heal from our injuries and traumas. We were all given these incredibly beautiful minds that can be rewired with new brain circuitry that allows us to live with joy, purpose and FREEDOM. I wrote The Rewired Brain to help others move beyond their fears so they could live free.