I have recently begun to have feelings of claustrophobia, although subconsciously I believe that I have had these feelings for some time, but that they had never truly bothered me. I had always chosen the aisle seat in the cinema or theatre, and the aisle seat on a plane and would only contemplate sitting in the middle or inside seat if I had extra leg room or no seats in front of me.

In the past I have experienced two incidents whilst flying, both of which though extremely frightening at the time, I have come through physically unscathed though emotionally and psychologically altered. My first experience was on 15th September 1997, whilst travelling to the Maldives for my honeymoon from Dubai. I had landed in Dubai via manchester and zurich, with no incidents. However this changed on the Dubai to Maldives leg, when the left engine whilst travelling up the runway to take off, burst into flames. What proceeded was a very harrowing experience for me, though not for my new husband of only 2 days at the time. The plane was the new Boeing 777 which had only been in service since March of that year, it was huge, and was only about 1/5th full at the time. I had been sitting in the third section of the plane in the middle seating and had a direct line of vision to the left and right engines through the open windows. It was a night flight, and we had the luxury of a large screen in front of us, that showed the runway beneath the fuselage, and would be of benefit when flying over the beautiful picturesque islands of the Maldives. As we travelled to take off speed, I saw a flash on the runway before me and within a millisecond the left engine was in flames. I couldnt believe it, and took a double take. I tried to stay calm, my husband reassured me, but it was the look on the stewardesses face that scared me the most. I would feel like I was going to panic, but would stop myself, it felt like I was on a rollercoaster ride!!! The plane was so quiet, no-one was talking and it seemed that it took such a long time, till we heard from the captain about what had transpired during take off. He confirmed that the left engine was no longer working, but that we needed to return to Dubai, but before that would have to jettison fuel from the plane, and to do this, we would have to travel to the gulf (a stretch of water in the middle east), so that we would be at a safe landing weight. All in all, it took 55 minutes from take off to landing, what amazed me was that we didnt have to assume an emergency landing position, and that we landed with only one of the two engines actually working........which was pretty fantastic to be honest, what a captain (I can say that now, though at the time he was not my favourite person!!). The thing that most affected me on that flight, was that the air stewardess would not allow me to leave my seat to get some water, even though the water tap in the aisle was only 2 yards from me, ever since this I always carry water with me in my handbag, so I always have it with me for car, train and plane travel. I needed the water at the time, as the panic that I felt inside of me, made my mouth very dry and my tongue just felt 3 times bigger and I so really needed a drink of water.

I am such a resilient person though, after landing in Maldives 18 hours later than originally planned, due to getting on another plane the following day, I began my 'Open Water' diving course with my husband, and four german men, and was the only female. I didnt sleep very well whilst on that holiday, as i kept reliving the flight, and worrying about returning home. Fortunately, I was that exhausted on the return flights, that I pretty much slept through the whole thing!! Only waking to disembark one plane to embark onto another.

The second incident occured in Dubai also, an airport that you might think is doomed for me, but do not fear I have since this 2nd incident landed and took off from Dubai when travelling to Thailand, both might I add without incident. Anyway I digress, the 2nd incident occurred whilst travelling from the Maldives to Dubai in January 1999, for an onward flight back to the UK. My husband and I, had just experienced the most amazing diving holiday, and had achieved our Advanced Diver Course. I had been able to complete a night dive and had dived through a wreck which was positioned 25 metres below the water surface, without any claustrophobia or panic. I was really pleased with myself, and at the time thought I was amazing and capable of anything!!!! However, this changed whilst coming into land at Dubai, it was winter time and there was thick fog over Dubai. We came into land, and as we were probably about 5 metres above the runaway, the plane went from a horizontal position into a vertical position. The noise that the engines made, was so loud and one that I will never forget (at the time I thought they were straining, but have since learnt with some research, that this is normal and that a plane, can handle taking off without incident, even when it is fully loaded with passengers and their luggage!!! without a problem!!!). I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone, all the other passengers just sat there normally, no screaming, whilst I, though not screaming, threw my trusty bottle of water into the air in panic, and was looking to see if anyone else felt the same. No-one seemed bothered by this, and acted as if it was extremely normal (had I been abducted by aliens and been put on a plane with stepford women, men and children????!!!!). It was surreal!! Anyway, the captain eventually came over the tanoy system and explained that we had over shot the runway due to the poor visibility, and that we would be trying to land the plane again shortly. Inbetween this and landing, I was petrified and kept saying to my husband, 'tell them to land somewhere else, tell them to land somewhere else where there is no fog!!' Of course, he never said anything and neither did I, and within 20 minutes or so, we had safely landed in Dubai.

I did take another flight within 10 days to Paris for my 30th birthday treat from my husband, on a Boeing 737, but as soon as I landed in Manchester, I told my husband that I would never fly again. I kept my word for nearly 8 years, until Id had enough of cruising and missing out of tropical climates and of course diving!!! So, my first flight for nearly 8 years, was to Barcelona, the Doctor had given me beta-blockers to take 3 days before the flight and diazepam/valium for during the flight, if I felt anxious. You will never guess what happened, 2 days before my 1st flight in 8 years, those potential plane terrorists were caught and the airport security increased 100 hundred fold, this was when you couldnt take anything on board a plane, other than in the hold. It was weird, everyone in my family and my friends were really worried for me, but I told them 'that if I was going to blow up, then at least it would be quick!!' Security controls were tight and it took ages, the queues in manchester airport to get through to the airside of the airport were massive, that I felt that it was probably the safest time to fly, and that there was no chance of a terrrorist attack. However I took the 5mg diazepam whilst waiting to go through into the departure lounge, and I think people actually were discussing me, believing that I was drunk at 8am, and how disgraceful I was. I didnt care, I was so chilled out, though maybe not as steady as I would normally be, thankfully I had no hand luggage to concern me or overbalance me!!! Anyway I took the flight, and returned to Manchester 7 days later without any medicinal assistance.......yesssss!!!

Since then I have flown to Thailand, the Maldives, Egypt, Marbella, oh and the Atlantic, yes over the Atlantic (never to be believed, as flying over water was my greatest fear), but I did it, though I may have taken 1/2 diazepam on the outward flight, but nothing on the inward!!!

This now leads me to present day, my claustrophobia and fear of having a panic attack. These feelings have been building for some time in me, I had a claustrophobic feeling during a dive in the Maldives during my 10 year wedding anniversary and would have most definately died, but for my husband who calmed me down, and took me to the surface gradually. Although I love diving, I have decided that I would no longer go diving, as it is too claustrophobic for me now, and as I have seen most of the wonders of the sea (whales, dolphins, sharks, manta rays, turtles, octopus and zillions of fish), that I have hung up my mask and fins!! This leads me to two occasions when I felt trapped within the past year, which I feel has made my originally subconscious claustrophobic feelings now a reality.

The first was when I was in an underground car park in spain, it was extremely hot/stuffy in there and I had turned off the engine, exited the vehicle, when the lights went out. I had never been in the car park before, so did not know where the lights were. I was scrambling with my keys to get back into the car, to turn on the headlights, so that I could fill the car park with light. I lived, but 3 days later became trapped in a tiny toilet wen the lights went out. Id helped the previous occupant to exit the toilet, so the door was very stiff anyway. I later realised that the light was set to go off to save the environment, and that it was a push button type that slowly popped out, and when did so the lights would go off. I hadnt located the light button, before entering the toilet, so when it went out I was looking for a normal switch, not a push button, whilst trying to get the door open. Even typing this now, is bringing on anxiety. So, even thought the majority of people reading this will be more terrified by my exploding engine, aborted landing stories, I myself am more terrified of getting onto the plane, and the doors closing and being trapped inside!! My next flight is this coming saturday 12th september, to celebrate my 12th wedding anniversary we are going to Altinkum, Turkey for 7 days. I only hope that armed with my valium, stress releiver ball, lavender essential oil, relaxation music on my ipod and DS I can get through the 4 hour flight without my anxiety level exceeding 5 and cope without experiencing a panic attack at all. WISH ME LUCK??!!!

Thanks for reading my story

Nikki xx

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Comment by Nicoli Bowler on September 10, 2009 at 7:20pm
I just wanted to say thank you to everyone that has read my blog and commented. Your comments have been so helpful, and it is nice to know that there are people out there routeing for me. I really want to go on this holiday, and do not want to be concerned about the return flight whilst on holiday in Altinkum. If I can get through the outward flight without incident, I am sure that I will feel a lot more confident on the return flight.......maybe I wont need any of my crutches!!!

Thanks Martin for the comment about the pilot's window, I didnt know that!! I am going to board the plane as late as possible though, and will turn on the air conditioning overhead, so that I will feel fresh air straightaway. Hopefully this will help!!



Martin your advice
Comment by Captain Keith on September 10, 2009 at 7:58am
Hi Nikki

What a great story and what interesting and useful comments have been added.

I'll be thinking of you on saturday because I shall be running a course and we sometimes chat about all the successes there have been....and you'll be joining that long list.

I agree with Martin you don't need luck...just remember to use the strategies that you know work for you. Go and have a great holiday and maybe we'll see you on the October course so that you'll never have to go through this sort of anxiety again.

Like Martin added and because you asked...Good Luck and happy landings

Comment by Martin Brown on September 10, 2009 at 2:53am
Hi Nikki,

Sounds like you've been through a lot the last few years, on and off planes - I can understand why you're feeling nervous. I've experienced a lot of the things you mentioned (though not the exploding engine I'm glad to say) - I loved diving when I tried it but then felt trapped the 2nd time, had the whole Spanish light thing take me by surprise, and I find it easy to raise my anxiety just thinking about these situations. I've been on planes that almost landed then shot up again as well (I just about crushed my gf's hand!), been on planes that were hit by lightning, landed in fog, had to jettison fuel over water to emergency land etc - I'd like to say I coped with these events but I really didn't do very well...

Anyway, I don't know if there's advice anyone can give you that will help, but I thought I should tell you that I used to be totally claustrophobic on planes too and have managed to get it under control. Maybe it's thinking how many doors there are, or that there's often a window in the cockpit that the pilot can open if absolutely necessary (did you know that?), or maybe it's sitting closer to the door to feel I could get out if I needed to, but I've been on planes a lot this year and while I still hate when it's windy, I'm not nearly as bad with the enclosed space thing. I'm not telling you this to boast though! What I mean is, if you try to keep calm, and remember all the facts you can find out on this website (and forget the other 'information' from the news etc) you can help yourself to see things differently.

I used to 'arm' myself with distractions, relaxations etc too until someone pointed out that the period before the flight when I was frantically re-arranging my various helpers was when I seemed most nervous. I still take everything I think I might need (and like you that's a long list!), but now I decide on one thing to use at a time, and if I need anything else before or during the take off I MAKE myself get it as slowly as possible. This seems to stop me simply making myself worse...

If there's one thing I recognise from your experiences it's this though - you seem to feel everything is gradually getting worse, and you have no control over it. If that is how you feel, then that's the frame of mind you need to change, and it's well within your power to do so. The feelings of claustrophobia aren't just happening TO you - your state of mind is helping them along; when you really believe that you can change this you'll notice improvements. It might just be a minor victory like enjoying the landing, or forgetting you're on the plane for a few minutes, but if you grasp these and build on them they can really help.

I suppose what I'm saying is you can DEFINITELY do it - others have, and if you've been brave enough to do all those adventurous things before then you can certainly do this. I'm not going to wish you luck for the flight, since you don't need it: the plane will take off, cruise for a bit and then land safely with or without you being lucky, as you know. But I do wish you a good flight and hope you can keep calm: believe me, each flight doesn't have to be worse than the last, and there's no logical reason to think that this will be a hard flight. Remember too that even if you do panic a little bit you don't have to let it take over you - no one enjoys the experience, but you know it's only temporary, and you know you're safe really.

Okay, I said I wouldn't, but good luck... but more importantly though, I hope you have a great holiday!

Comment by Nicoli Bowler on September 10, 2009 at 12:06am
Hi Leila,

Thanks for reading my blog, and for your handy hints. Since writing I have downloaded some relaxation tracks and read some articles on flying and claustrophobia. They have recommended that I get onto the plane at the latest time possible, as it is beneficial not to be sitting in an enclosed space, whilst watching people boarding, crowding the plane and tryining to put luggage in overhead compartments.

It also suggested, as you have kindly written, that it is better to look out of the window until take off, as it enables your brain to remember the open space outside which is helpful in keeping calm.

The flight is getting nearer, and I am ok at the moment, I just hope I feel this way travelling to the airport, at checkin, once into the departure lounge and when on the aeroplane. I just have to keep telling myself, that I will be fine, that my anxiety level is never going to be 0, which is normal, as flying does increase my anxiety level.

I will write on my blog, when I return to let you know how I coped.

Thanks again

Nikki x
Comment by Leila Rasheed on September 9, 2009 at 9:40pm
Hi Nikki,
GOOD LUCK!! I have had panic attacks before, on the London Underground and other places. They are horrible. I don't know what to suggest to get over them, though as I said on the other thread, yoga is really helpful for relaxation. Maybe also try looking out of the window? It helps you to feel that you are not trapped if you concentrate on all the space outside (at least, it did me on my recent flight)
I am sure your flight will go fine.


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