PMDD at 38,000 Feet

Jan 21, 2021

Let me start by telling you that flying is something I’ve always struggled with and conquering my anxiety is something I’ve yet to tick-off my life goal list. This is despite the fact that I’ve  taken hundreds of plane journeys and clocked up thousands of hours at 38,000 feet! From Australia, to Los Angeles, Japan to Iceland – I’ve traversed the globe in every possible direction. And yet, my disdain for travelling through the air in a winged cylinder, remains.


As you read this, I’m about 1hr into my 4hr 10 min journey back to the UK from Tenerife, after spending the past 6 weeks riding out the second lockdown in a sunnier climate (boosting our vitamin D for the winter and reducing our chances of being hospitalised with Covid-19 – true story).

As I write this, my heart rate, which is usually around 55 bpm, is at 90 bpm. I’m sitting perfectly still. I have a glass of fizz (pretty much untouched, I might add). I’m being well looked after by the crew, who are lovely. M is here. I’m warm. I’m comfortable. Yet, my body is on super high alert and refuses to relax! So, what’s going on and how can this article possibly help you?

Well, if we put to one side previous traumatic journeys from childhood that have obviously left their scar – like, flying to Australia age 12 and experiencing my first ever panic attack as we taxied to the runway, then spending the entire 19 hr journey throwing up! – it’s definitely worth mentioning that PMDD also has a lot to do with how anxious I feel. What’s particularly interesting about today’s flight, is that I’m cycle day 27. I’m sure anyone reading this who has PMDD and a fear of flying just did a massive facepalm. So, yes, this was most certainly a rookie error – flying when my sensitivity is through the roof and at its highest point in the entire month! And, I absolutely feel it. Let me explain.

Airport security: usually a fairly standard, boring, procedure that happens without really thinking about it. However, today was a completely different experience. It felt like people were deliberately banging their crates (where you put your belongings to go through the scanner) which actually hurt my ears and I felt overwhelmed by the sound of that, combined with the voices of the airport security staff. Then my personal space all felt a bit weird. And different. I was acutely aware of people being close to me. And the sense of intrusion I felt irritated me so much that I had to actually walk away and wait for M somewhere else. A screaming baby nearly sent me over the edge (and on that – thank fuck for noise cancelling headphones) and I felt absolutely exhausted after just 10 minutes of the airport experience!

<<< Sandwich break >>>

Before boarding the plane, I decided to take my usual PMDD cocktail of an antihistamine and ibuprofen. What I failed to realise at the time, is that meant I couldn’t take my obligatory Kwell tablet, which is my go-to for plane-related motion sickness (I don’t actually get sick, but feel like I’m on a boat, which leaves me queasy and then makes me feel more anxious. Especially if it’s a bumpy flight). Enter my “I haven’t taken my Kwell and now the flight will be catastrophic” anxiety. It’s safe to say that by the time we actually stepped onto the plane, my body was in a serious state of alert. Based on past experience, I know that when I feel like this before even leaving the tarmac, it can take a seriously long time to calm down.

So, here I am, feeling my usual cycle day 27 PMDD shit of exhaustion, irritability and anxiety, all exacerbated by the amazing adventure that is air travel. Oh and also throw in a bit of self-loathing about actually arranging to travel on this day in the first place – I mean, how could I have been so stupid? I track my bloody cycle so it’s not like I didn’t know this was hell week!

What I’d love to do now, instead of continuing to drone on for the remaining 3 hrs, is give you some helpful travel tips for PMDD so you can avoid the ridiculous mistakes I’ve made and hopefully have a more pleasant journey!

1) Speak to your doctor before you travel to see what they can recommend. There are lots of medications available for anxiety and travel sickness, but if you’re taking other lotions and potions for PMDD (like SSRI’s) it’s definitely worth seeking advice  from your GP to avoid any unwanted side-effects.

2) Travel during your follicular phase and early luteal phase. We have two different energies in these phases, both of which can be tapped into when we travel:

a. If anxiety is your thing, try travelling in the first part of your cycle (before ovulation) when you’ll be feeling better able to cope. If it’s a business trip, this is also a great time for getting work done on the plane, as you’ll have more energy and better cognitive function (thanks oestrogen).

b. If it’s a long-haul journey and you want to sleep, a really good time to travel is the early part of your luteal phase after ovulation. That’s because rising progesterone has a sedating effect, making you feel calm and helping you relax.

3) Try to avoid travelling around ovulation if you know you experience symptoms at this time, and in your late luteal phase. At these times, we’re way more sensitive to, well, everything. What this means is that the whole experience may feel overwhelming, especially if you’re highly sensitive.

4) Take your meds. It can be so easy to forget this when you’re preoccupied with packing, checking out and making your way to the airport. Set yourself up right for the journey by making sure you stick to your usual med schedule.

5) Have something to eat before you fly. Lots of people think that avoiding food is better for butterflies, but that’s not true and ultimately low blood sugar will probably make you feel worse. Stick to something fairly bland that isn’t going to be hard to digest, like tea and toast.

6) Avoid alcohol before your flight, especially if you’re sensitive to it! It might be tempting to have a drink to calm your nerves, but if it’s a longer flight, you might find you become more dehydrated, feel more anxious and get a corker of a headache once you reach cruising altitude! Also worth noting is that alcohol can also interfere with travel sickness meds, antihistamines and SSRI’s. If you do have a tipple, make sure you drink lots of water (more so than you would usually) throughout the flight.

7) Think about how you’ll spend your time on the plane. For short-haul, this isn’t really a problem because you’re on and off in a couple of hours. For long-haul journeys, I find it helpful to plan what I’m going to do. I usually save any work that needs a good block of uninterrupted time, like creating content, reading or editing, for long plane journeys – and some of my best work is done on said journeys. That might seem surprising given everything I’ve talked about thus far but getting into the flow is probably the best distractor for me! In between writing this article, for instance, I’ve edited copy for our new website – something that’s been on my to-do list for a week, but I deliberately put-off doing until now! Because I have no distractions, I’ve managed to whizz through it in record time and can now check it off my list! What’s more, it passed 1hr 30 mins as I completely lost myself in my work. A very rare occurrence for cycle day 27, but it just goes to show what we can do when we’re in a different environment and headspace!

8) Invest in some noise cancelling headphones if you travel regularly. I mentioned them before, but they are the BEST thing for air travel and I wouldn’t step foot on a plane without them. And there are several reasons for this – first, it’s almost guaranteed that there’ll be a screaming child on the plane, which is a sensory nightmare for PMDD. Second, if you experience tinnitus or motion sickness, simply having the headphones on (without actually listening to anything) can be soothing. Third, it helps if you want to zone out – I’ll often do some visualisations to try and relax, like picturing myself on the beach, or driving along in the car with M driving (helpful when we hit turbulence and I feel scared). There are also countless apps that are super helpful for feeling grounded (pun intended) – I love sleep stories from Calm, especially the one narrated by Stephen Fry! Sam Harris’s guided meditations in ‘Waking up’ are really effective too. Finally, music can be a real source of comfort. So, whether you make a Spotify play list of your favourite tunes, or listen to some calming instrumental vibes, it’s another option to give yourself a bit of TLC.

9) Book your preferred seat in advance, even if you have to pay for it. If you know you’ll feel better having an aisle seat, reserve it. If you know you’ll feel better sitting in the middle of the plane, do it. Taking ownership of some of the few things you can control before the flight will help you to feel more in control during the flight and minimise any nasty surprises (like being wedged into a window seat for 7 hrs, which is your worst nightmare).

10) Wear comfortable clothes, pack layers if you’re a cold person and take something to wrap over you like a scarf or poncho.

17:40 <<<TURBULENCE>>> About an hr away from the UK and it’s BUMPY. But, the crew are all still going about their normal business, happy and calm! So that’s good. It’s also dark outside now which makes it feel scarier. What am I even scared of?! I just don’t like the feeling. Is that the same thing?! Or different?! I’ve got my music blasting, my legs up on my seat, crossed. Turn my little air con nozzle on for some breeze. Come on Clare, it’s fine. You’ve been through this so many times. And you’re almost home. And M is here. It’s no different to being on a bumpy road in the car – just some lumps and bumps. You got this. It’s just annoying more than anything! But, it will pass. And, maybe it’s just winter weather. It is December, after all. There will be clouds, rain, snow, wind. Or, maybe we’re flying over some mountains? Like the Alps – not even sure if they’re on the flight path! Or, maybe we’re crossing a jet stream – very fast moving wind, or wind travelling in another direction – like travelling into it head on or something, which makes it bumpy. I wish the bloody pilot would say the reason! Understanding why it’s happening helps to cope with it. I remember travelling somewhere and the pilot explained the turbulence we were experiencing was because we were crossing a jet stream. In fact, she pre-warned us that it was coming. It helped SO much just to have that information and know why we were being tossed around!  I’m wondering whether female pilots are generally more considerate of the fact that lots of people might find it scary – and they actually give a shit?!

Current heart rate: 98bpm

Ok, the pilot just went into the toilet. That makes my worrying seem slightly ridiculous tbh. Maybe I should speak to my aunty about this. She’s Qantas Cabin Crew and I’m sure she must encounter turbulence on a daily basis!

Moved from the 80’s calm playlist (that wasn’t helping) to dance classics – much better. Apparently if I tap my feet (which are now on the floor) and move in time with the beat, it drowns out some of the plane movement. Current HR: 89bpm. Calming down.

Feel exhausted.

18:09 Seatbelt sign turned off. THANK FUCK.

And with that, I’ve been sapped of my last remaining energy and brain power. Thankfully, there’s only 40 minutes left until we land at Heathrow. Safe to say that I’ll be in bed, asleep by 7pm. But, I need to tackle arrivals and the luggage belt first. Wish me luck, warriors!

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