The Anxious Mind: How I Overcame Fear To Become A Pilot

This past week I began reading about cognitive behavioral therapy – a treatment pioneered by Dr. Aaron T Beck that teaches practical strategies for identifying triggers, challenging the thoughts and beliefs that lead to distress, and learning how to safely face the situations you fear in order to better manage and deal with your anxiety.

In the first chapter, Dr. Beck summarizes cognitive therapy in one simple statement: “the way we think influences the way we feel, and therefore changing how we think can change how we feel” (page 5).

As I continued to read through this workbook, I was immediately struck by how relevant the information that he was presenting was to my life. In his chapter “The Anxious Mind” he outlines some of the main ways that our thoughts can directly dictate whether our anxiety will decline or persist when it is triggered (his main point being – when we are faced with an anxious moment – that anxiety should naturally decline if left alone).

The main takeaways were that anxiety will persist if we take action on the following behavior:

  1. Catastrophic thinking
  2. Belief in helplessness
  3. False thoughts about threats/danger
  4. Sensitivity to anxiety
  5. Inability to tolerate the unfamiliar or uncertain
  6. Escape and avoidance
  7. Searching for safety
  8. Excessively worrying

Strangely enough, all of the points that he made throughout this chapter kept making me think back to a very specific time in my life: the year that I got my Private Pilot License. 

You see, that was my most amazing adventure to date. And even though it was filled to the brim with many emotions (both good and bad), it quickly became a defining moment in my life. For that reason, I wanted to use myself as a real-life example to show how changing how you think can change your situation.

Having grown up as a fairly anxious person, I think that my decision to begin flying planes was a shock to many people around me. The opportunity was very random and certainly took me off guard (for more on the back story, check out a short article that I wrote for xoJane back in 2016). But with a little encouragement from my fiance, AJ, I decided to give it a chance and face my fears.

When it came to having an anxious mind towards this new adventure, I certainly checked all of Dr. Beck’s boxes:

  1. Catastrophic thinking – the day before my first flight I spent almost two hours online watching Cessna crash videos convinced that I was going to die.
  2. Belief in helplessness – learning how to be a pilot was something that was hugely outside of my comfort zone. The education did not come easy to me (math and science were never my strong suit) and as a woman, I was constantly self-conscious about coming off an incompetent or incapable when I did not understand something.
  3. False thoughts about threats/danger – did I mention that I was convinced that I would crash and die? Cool, glad we have that covered.
  4. Sensitivity to anxiety – the more uncomfortable the situation became, the more anxious I was about being anxious! Why didn’t any of the other student pilots seem anxious or scared? Why was it taking me so long to work up the nerve to fly solo?
  5. Inability to tolerate the unfamiliar or uncertain – even after I became more comfortable in the cockpit, I continued to doubt my ability to fly the aircraft alone and refused to solo for a while. I would literally keep myself awake at night secretly hoping that it would be too windy the next day for me to go up alone. Who knows what I will have to deal with when I’m up there alone?
  6. Escape and avoidance – after my first flight I tried to quit… luckily I had someone (AJ) that pushed me to keep going for a little bit longer. And that wasn’t the last time – after failing my first written exam, I almost threw in the towel again as I was unconvinced that I was not smart enough to learn/understand the practical knowledge.
  7. Searching for safety – for most of my training, I relied very heavily on the presence of my instructor. I had this false sense that having him in the plane meant that things were less likely to go wrong. This attachment ended up costing much more money as I wasted many flights being too afraid to face my dreaded solo hours.
  8. Excessively worrying – for a list of ways that I excessively worried, see above.

Looking back on my experience as a student pilot, I wish I could have appreciated the amount of personal growth that was happening day by day. Instead, I let my anxiety and fears overshadow something that would become the best experience of my life thus far. The fact was that I ended up doing great at everything I was afraid to face: my first solo, my written exam (the second time around, ha!), my oral exam and checkride. Had I taken a moment to change my mindset and believe in myself and my capabilities, I would have been able to enjoy the experience so much more than I did.

This is true in our lives so often: we spend so much time worrying about everything that makes us anxious or afraid that we lose sight of the present moment and miss out on everything that it is offering us RIGHT NOW. It wasn’t until I was looking back on all of my flight lessons and all of the ways that I overcame so many fears and anxieties that I realized how truly impressed I was with myself. Becoming a pilot was pivotal in beginning my journey to become the best version of myself that I can be.  As soon as I was able to see my true potential and abilities, I was motivated and inspired to continue to move forward and push past the anxiety that had been holding me back for so long.

Now here are ways that I could have taken action and turned my negative thoughts into positive thoughts, thus alleviating a lot of anxiety:

  1. Fortunate thinking – I have been given the opportunity to learn how to do something that is absolutely amazing. How lucky am I!?
  2. Belief in myself – I am a goddamn female pilot! If pilots are 1% of people and female pilots are less than 10% of pilots in general, that means I am taking on something that pretty much nobody does and I AM SUCCEEDED AND GROWING – how fucking cool is that?
  3. Practical thoughts about threats/danger – as I got further into my education, this was much easier for me to do. The more you learn about flying, the more that you realize that although there are dangers, you are being trained to be able to take on whatever comes your way.
  4. Owning my anxiety and moving along – of course, there were things that I was doing that were worth being anxious about! But every other student pilot has been in the same situation and overcame it… so can I. I’m not alone. If there is something that I don’t feel confident about, address it, work on it, then move on.
  5. Be prepared for the uncertain – such is life. You can’t control it regardless of whether you are in an airplane or not. The best you can do is be prepared to handle any emergency situation.
  6. Never give up – it is okay to be vulnerable and acknowledge that you are afraid. It is not okay to use that fear as a crutch when there is something that you really want to accomplish. Own the fear and push through it. You will be a stronger person for it.
  7. Embrace the challenge – taking responsibility for my own safety is empowering… knowing that I have been trained to be able to deal with any issues that come up while in-flight means that I am qualified to be pilot in command.
  8. Worry just enough – human error is a major reason for most aviation accidents. By checking my ego at the door and realizing that I will never know it all and that I may sometimes be faced with tough or scary situations, I will be better prepared to push myself to learn and train my mind to be prepared should something bad ever happen.

I AM CAPABLE. And so are all of you. All you have to do is be willing to take action to change your mindset towards your anxiety, and towards your life. 

I will be continuing to share the knowledge that I am learning about cognitive therapy and how I have been applying it to my own life. I hope that you all will continue to follow along and find ways to apply these ideas to your own lives.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to fly a plane to change your life. I used this example because it is something that I am incredibly proud of but it is an extreme example of stepping outside of your comfort zone. As I continue to learn and share, I will be using more everyday examples that I feel would relate to the majority of anxious people.

After all, managing your anxiety is a very difficult thing – trust me, I know. But if we can all take steps together, I believe that we are all capable of overcoming and living our best, happiest, most wonderful life. 

Love love love,

Alyssa

2 thoughts on “The Anxious Mind: How I Overcame Fear To Become A Pilot

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