Fear of Flying
Exploring anxiety's role in body image
Affirmations and body image boosts 👇, but first an essay from me…
More than the media, patriarchy, or genetics, I blame the terrorists for my anxiety. At least, that’s the latest working theory implied by my therapist du jour.
“So, let’s go back to the trauma 9/11 placed on your adolescence” she finally blurted out during a particularly long, awkward pause.
“Did she mix up her notes?” I wondered as I turned bright red, stunned into actual silence. I had never brought up 9/11 in our sessions. I was nowhere near it, and no more affected by it than the other thousands of other kids that experienced it from a distance and turned out just fine1. The feeling of shame from that same school year, when I had to raise my hand with the number of taquitos I wanted for lunch, only to realize I had publicly ordered double what the other girls had felt more relevant.
Should I correct her?
“Sure, let’s dive in,” and smiled agreeably.
I people please even in therapy.
On September 11, 2001 at 8:46 a.m. I was a plucky eighth-grader, sitting in my advanced math class when we were interrupted by a knock on the door and whispers that let the adults know what had just happened. My teacher, who held her lessons with War Room-level importance, shooed the messenger away and insisted we finish up our lesson, not unlike President Bush’s decision to keep reading to the preschoolers. The only difference was that she was teaching pre-Algebra, and he was leading the free world. We “smart kids” returned blissfully unaware to homeroom where we were met with unnervingly tearful teachers and the TV blaring, just in time to catch the second tower falling and for everything to click into place that, no, this was not an accident.
I conceded to my therapist that, coincidently, this was also around the time when the sudden anxiousness around my body image swept in. Maybe she was on to something? Was my new desire to suppress my figure back into its prepubescent shape because I was a girl coming of age in America’s early aughts — a time that propelled a rail-thin Paris Hilton to become a “thing”, or was it because of the fear and anxiety instilled in me by Osama?
“Interesting question...I’ll think on that,” I answered in my most agreeable yet noncommittal way as I rushed to hit “End Meeting for All” on my zoom therapy session.
By college, my physical health took a nose dive, and one day I landed in Campus Health, a place like Disney Jail, that you only know exists if something’s gone terribly wrong. I told the med student, who looked more like he should be taking my Jimmy John’s order than my medical history, that I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest. He quickly delivered me my first grownup diagnosis — generalized anxiety. He told me I was having panic attacks and sent me on my way with a Xanax prescription to take as needed, “you know, for, like, for flying, and stuff”.
“Wait, flying is scary?”, I wondered for the first time. I had flown without issue my entire life, including by myself as an unaccompanied minor at the age of five, back when parents could do that kind of thing in the name of “benign, benevolent neglect” meant to inspire independence. “Of course, it is”, I decided. “You’re hurling through the air in a tin can. And plus, terrorists.”
With my new anxious persona formed, I imagined myself joining the neurotic yet cute ranks of a bucket-hat-wearing Dianne Keaton. “Approachably-anxious” with a side of “fear of flying” became my most interesting personality traits. Bonus, anxiety — which carried far less stigma — was the perfect cover for many of the idiosyncrasies brought on by my growing eating disorder.
“Help me, I have anxiety,” I’d joke in my best Kristen Wig impersonation. I flashed my diagnosis as a hall pass that I’d use to excuse myself from having to endure the hard life lessons that often come with tough feelings like shame, guilt, regret, fear, rejection, and failure. And sure, while I could practice mindfulness, twist myself into crow pose, take my prescription and limit my caffeine intake, there wasn’t much else to be done or expect from me since I’d been let off the hook as someone who just. couldn’t. deal.
The diagnosis was assigned to me as an affliction I was to suffer interminably, a ubiquitous epidemic of our modern times, even though, ironically, it’s a time of great plenty and comfort that’s relieved us of our most uncomfortable moments. A time when you can have toilet paper delivered to your door so you never have to make small talk with an acquaintance while you both pretend not to notice the contraband in your cart.
As my career as a publicist took off, so did my time spent flying. I hit Platinum in my 20s, which meant I logged more than 75k miles in under a year. And before each takeoff, I diligently dosed myself as indicated by a barely-legal med student to thwart the boogeyman of a panic attack catching me when I was trapped in the air. I was terrified of becoming terrified.
The meds worked as promised. I even remained calm when I awoke from a medicated sleep to overhear a flight attendant questioning the passenger next to me, who was using tweezers to build what I immediately assumed was a bomb on his tray table. “It’s my DJ equipment”, he answered. “Oh brother,” I thought as I coolly rolled my eyes and went back to sleep, pitying him for not being adult enough to have had anxiety overtake his hobbies yet.
As it turns out, the episode that drove me to Campus Health all those years ago wasn’t a panic attack. It was my heart beating out of my chest — tachycardia. I had an extra electrode that was causing my heart to short circuit, and I’d need to have it lasered off.
Once I did, the palpitations ended, but I’d hang onto the meds, diagnosis, and what became very real panic attacks for another few years. Just this past month I broke down in tears of anxiety when my ENT told me I’d need to stick my head in a small but open box for imaging to evaluate my sinus passages. Today I wonder if the anxiety and limits I’ve placed on my emotional resilience would have stuck around if I had been validated and assured on that initial visit, that “yes, you’re right, your heart has the same BPM as a Diplo track, and there’s a simple procedure to fix it”, instead of being told it was a trick my mind and body were playing on me.
The end of eighth grade, which started with 9/11, was to conclude with a “Proud to Be an American” dance. I can see it now — a Top Gun playlist, an American flag step-and-repeat, gold stars hanging from the ceiling, perhaps even some red white, and blue bunting. “But haven’t these kids been through enough?” my mom reasoned with the other members of the PPC. In the end Van Gogh’s, “A Starry Night” was the chosen theme. Terrorism was thankfully left unassociated with one of my last memories of innocence, and 9/11 was reduced to just one memory from childhood, one that I only had to dig up to appease my therapist’s desperate attempt at a breakthrough.
Pick a random day of my life from 13-21 and any therapist worth their salt will have a compelling explanation for whatever I’m looking to explore. Of course, 9/11 left a mark. Most notably, it made me certain that uncertainty was inevitable. But the convenient explanation that was given to me, and later perpetuated by me, that events/people/relationships/society “gave me anxiety” implied that I had an inability to cope effectively. I focused on ways to flip the off switch versus finding methods to engage with my anxiety. Obsession with my body and food became the most effective coping mechanism I could find to endure whatever I couldn’t avoid or medicate. Incidentally, I was stuck taxiing the runway for years, when I could have been soaring.
Here are some beliefs and research about anxiety that resonate with me, ones I keep close while I’m still working on reframing that old identity, and how I’m empowering a more capable self who is learning to better tolerate difficult emotions when they pop up.
Mama’s affirmations 🙏:
My anxiety is a part of me - not all of me.
I can do hard things.
Body image boosts 🚀: Anxiety
What is anxiety? What it isn’t is stress, which is defined as being in response to a trigger or stressor. A search for anxiety will reveal, according to Mayo Clinic, that anxiety is an ”intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.” The other top two results offer you tools to “get prescription anxiety meds from your couch” and “professional therapy for anxiety from any device”. Cool…
The good news is, anxiety is a state that exists inside of us. Therefore, it’s within our control. It’s something we can work to improve our relationship with, even with stressors all around.
Anxiety = uncertainty + an underestimation of our coping mechanism skills.
It’s hard if not impossible to reduce uncertainty. But, the second part — building up our confidence in effective coping skills — is something we can absolutely tackle.
Anxiety’s role in body image
With the prevalence of both anxiety and a negative self-perception in today’s culture, it’s not unusual to hear of people experiencing both. But is there a link?
“Despite consistent cross-sectional associations, few studies have examined the prospective relationship between body image dissatisfaction and anxiety disorder symptoms,” explains a recent study on Body Image Dissatisfaction and Anxiety Trajectories during Adolescence. The study set out to fill that void and found that:
A higher body image dissatisfaction (BID) is associated with concurrent symptoms of multiple anxiety disorders.
For me, some “aha” moments from the study include:
Of course, but it’s nice to see it confirmed by a study: “Body image satisfaction tends to decrease from childhood into adolescence, following the onset of puberty and an increased salience of physical appearance for both girls and boys (Bully & Elosua, 2011)”
Negative body image may cause and/or worsen anxiety “Body image dissatisfaction also may play a role in the etiology (cause) of anxiety disorder symptoms in adolescents…There are theoretical and empirical reasons that anxiety disorder symptoms, as a component of negative affect, also would emerge and/or worsen in response to body image dissatisfaction via sociocultural mechanisms.”
Why? Because BID creates potent fears and threats, that then bring on anxiety, and “safety behaviors” or ineffective coping mechanisms to gain control and prevent feared outcomes, which in turn compounds anxiety: “Perceived pressures to conform to sociocultural body ideals, weight- and shape-related teasing or rejection, appearance-based social comparisons, and body surveillance are conceptualized as potent social evaluative threats…these cognitive vulnerabilities are posited to elicit anxiety symptoms directly and also result in the implementation of safety behaviors that seek to gain control and prevent feared consequences (e.g., self-weighing to ameliorate weight gain fears) that then paradoxically exacerbate anxiety.”
Key takeaway: “Assessing whether adolescents have higher levels of body image dissatisfaction also may be important when identifying which adolescents are at higher risk for exacerbated SAD and PD symptoms.”
The missing piece
It’s great that we live in a time where we’re quick to validate anxiety’s existence and crippling capability. In fact, just this week the US Preventive Services Task Force has advised that adults under the age of 65 should be screened for anxiety.
But what’s missing in most of this conversation is the ability to hold space for hope, and the empowerment of people with anxiety to assure them that YES — you can overcome this.
I’ve applied this mindset from Dr. Becky, which I learned while researching ways to alleviate my daughter’s back-to-school anxiety, to myself and found there are two parts that need to be present for my anxiety management:
Acknowledgment that my anxious reality is valid.
Confirmation and confidence that there is hope for a future without this anxiety, even if I’m unable to access it today.
Beyond just being validated, building this confidence in myself, with my family, friends, and therapist is key to my ability to embody a “sturdy pilot” mindset during turbulent, anxious times.
Framework before tools
Having a framework to understand anxiety is more valuable than any tool or trick you’ll find on TikTok. Tools might feel more valuable right away, but when you have a framework to think about the messy feelings associated with anxiety, you will be able to develop your own tools and words for your unique situation.
Dr. Becky’s approach, which you can learn more about by taking her Parental Anxiety workshop, uses a framework that teaches you how to be at home with yourself in the midst of anxiety vs. focusing solely on ways to reduce or replace anxiety and worries.
One of her suggestions is to think of anxiety as on a dimmer — don’t shut off bad feelings by flipping a switch, instead work to “improve your tolerance for discomfort or distress”. Dr. Becky’s book and community give you more instruction on how to build this dimmer for your kids, but it’s also an incredible framework for adults that focuses on connection and removing aloneness, without focusing on the outcome. This builds resilience.
Another framework that’s helped me a ton is Parts Work. It suggests that we are all made up of different parts of ourselves. No part is bad, but balance is important. Each part is necessary to help us survive different aspects and times in our lives. In my case, my eating disorder was a maladaptive strategy that formed to help me survive a particularly tough time, and that’s OK. It was a part of me, not all of me.
You can use the Parts framework to befriend your anxiety and talk to it before going into moments you know are especially tough. You can tell it, “Of course, you’re here, anxiety, that makes sense. I know I can’t make these uncomfortable feelings go away. And, I’m going to get through this uncomfortable moment anyways because I can do hard things.”
I’ve summed up these approaches into a framework you can use to map out the complicated feelings that come up alongside body image anxiety. Use it, and let me know how I can make it better.
Body Image Anxiety Framework (free download).
In other news 📰:
If you didn’t know it by now, I’m obsessed with Dr. Becky. For any other fan girls out there, check out her newly published Sunday Routine in the NYT here. Of course, she enforces, and her kids abide by, the “our day starts at 7” rule.
Here’s a new report in the BBC on how comments about our looks cause lifelong insecurities, and how to teach kids to feel confident about their bodies instead. “Family relationships can play an important positive part: one study showed that a good relationship between mothers and their adolescent children can reduce the negative effects of social media use on body dissatisfaction. Limiting children's time on social media can reduce "appearance comparisons" as well as improve mental health.”
SELF reports on how diet culture is more than food-tracking. “To be blunt, diet culture isn’t going anywhere. Although the anti-diet and fat-acceptance movements are growing, the belief that we’re all meant to control our food intake and strive for a certain body type is still the dominant one—and, again, it’s rooted in systemic problems that can’t be resolved without fundamental social and political changes.”
A quick programming note: If you read this far…thanks! This one took a while to publish after I wrote it. So many of you responded after my last post on Willpower that my words helped you. Then, imposter syndrome crept in. How am I qualified to help? What if I minimize something in my past that feels so impossible to someone else? At the end of the day, I’m only sharing my experience of working toward a better body image, and the resources that helped me along the way, not some elite expertise. But, it turns out, my experiences (or at least parts of them) are common ones that many of us share. I’m still working out the framework for my beliefs on these topics, and appreciate you joining me in figuring out where my thoughts stand today and seeing how they evolve through this project.
I was not “just fine”.