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Read Time 9 min

Overcoming Travel Anxiety

Somewhere, tucked deep in a vault that houses United Airlines’s membership rewards programs, sit 400,000 unused frequent flyer miles with my name on them. That’s the equivalent of 16 trips around the world. To earn the miles I endured a lot of bad food, crying babies and flight delays. Until recently I hadn’t flown since my Parkinson’s diagnosis two years ago.

I was afraid.

The thought of crowded jetways with lots of people lined up at the door produced anxiety. The narrow center aisle and prospect of lifting my bag to the overhead bin got me wondering, “What if my hands don’t work?” Tight seats and even tighter rows are not made for people who are unsteady.

My kids live in Seattle and I’m in San Francisco. Alaska Airlines tells me we’re a mere 678 miles apart. For those counting, that equates to a one-hour and thirty-nine minute flight.

As I thought about the trip, 678 miles might as well have been a puddle jump to Australia. For the first time in my life I was afraid to get on an airplane.

If I’m being completely honest, I was afraid that my bladder wouldn’t cooperate. These days when I get anxious my insides start to gurgle. When I’m on the ground, it’s pretty easy to manage this anxiety – I find a men’s room.

But in the air, once that fasten seatbelt sign lights up, you’re not going anywhere. I never had this problem prior to Parkinson’s, or maybe I did and I never paid much attention. Now my gastro problem rides shotgun everywhere I go.

For a flight that is less than two-hours long I thought that if my stomach was going to give me problems I’d be ok if it happened early in the flight. It would give me a chance to deal with things. Life has a way of not cooperating.

The anticipation of seeing the kids, the apprehension of trying to navigate Seattle, which is notorious for on-going road construction, sent my stomach into a tizzy – twenty-minutes before landing.

I asked the flight attendant if I could use the facilities. Nope, go to your seat and buckle up.

My options weren’t looking good and the more I worried, the more uncomfortable I became. I felt like an infant.

I decided that my best bet was to try Pilates breathing, which has been part of my Parkinson’s exercise program almost since the beginning.

I concentrated on taking deep breaths and exhaling slowly to bring my heart rate down. I elongated my spine as I inhaled and rolled it back as I exhaled.

This didn’t work at first but I kept telling myself to hang in there and work through the process. I had to convince myself to do something I’m not good at – trust it.

After about five or so minutes my heart rate came down and my body started to relax. I was in my Pilates zone and I knew I needed to stay there by continuing to breathe slowly and let the tension in my body go with each exhale.

It worked. After twenty very long minutes we were on the ground and my gastrointestinal distress was over. I felt good again. I never heard the wheels drop. I don’t remember the landing. I never heard the flight attendant welcome us to Seattle. I stayed in my zone.

Doctors, Parkinson’s experts and Brian promote the benefits of consistent exercise and encourage us to keep moving. I learned that sometimes exercise can also take place when you’re sitting still and the skills we learn can be implemented in a totally new way.

The kids and I had a great time. We had great food, walked in the cold and I introduced them to Queen when we saw Bohemian Rohapsody. For an entire weekend no pain, no stiffness and no gastro problems.

And that flight home? Let’s just say I didn’t have anyone riding shotgun with me.

Keep moving.

Kevin Woo is a freelance writer from San Francisco. You can read some of his other stories at

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