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Fight or Flight: How I overcame anxiety and learned to travel again

A sudden fear of flying almost prevented actor and author Domhnall O’Donoghue from pursuing his passion for travel. Almost…

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Actor and author Domhnall O'Donoghue in Cavan

Actor and author Domhnall O'Donoghue in Cavan

Actor and author Domhnall O'Donoghue in Cavan

The route was Belfast to Edinburgh. It was a straightforward, 45-minute flight and the weather conditions were perfect.

Shortly after take-off, I listened to my friend discuss our itinerary but, suddenly, I couldn’t hear what she was saying. My hands and forehead moistened. I began struggling for breath, almost to the verge of wheezing.

After making my excuses, I fled to the toilet. Desperately needing air, I started tearing my clothes off. When I glimpsed my reddened, shivering body in the mirror, my fears worsened.

If the plane did crash into the North Channel - something I’d irrationally become convinced of - how would my poor mother deal with the news that not only was her youngest son goosed, but his body had been found undressed in the toilet?

“I hope he wasn’t involved in any seedy Mile-High Club business," I imagined her worrying.

That was 15 years ago, when I'd never heard of panic or anxiety attacks, let alone experienced one.

Unfortunately, every subsequent time I boarded a plane, the attacks became as routine as safety demonstrations or inflight hospitality. Difficulty breathing. Chest pains. Palpitations. Dizzy spells. Sharp pains darting around my body.

Doctors prescribed me Valium; friends prescribed me alcohol.

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Domhnall in Crete

Domhnall in Crete

Domhnall in Crete

Eventually, the attacks became so relentless and unpleasant that I avoided flying altogether - my well-worn passport soon became unrecognisable owing to the dust enveloping it.

'My ten-old-year self was mesmerised...'

I was devastated. Travel had been part of my life since childhood.

I’ll always remember our first family holiday outside of Ireland. It was 1993, and I’d barely reached double digits, but I instantly became overwhelmed by wanderlust.

One scorching day, we exchanged the busy beaches of Brittany for the equally busy streets of Paris - and following a morning sightseeing, tired and hungry, recharged in a fancy café off the Champs-Élysées.

“Combien?” my father barked, suddenly roused after learning the price of a portion of chips. His loud Munster accent reverberated around the small and elegant space.

Having spent much of his childhood picking potatoes across the fields of County Clare for a pittance, he was understandably ill-prepared to pay 60 francs – the equivalent of more than €13 today - for just a couple of them.

My ten-old-year self was mesmerised by how different it was to life in Ireland.

Every summer, the O’Donoghue clan would descend upon mainland Europe - full of curiosity and expectation. The high cost of chips rarely changed, but the destinations always did.

These experiences continued throughout my college days as well my initial years as an actor - collaborating with an international theatre company in La Rioja, Spain; participating in a symposium in Budapest; giving drama workshops in Lille or attending auditions in London. Up until my mid-twenties, my suitcases were put to good use.

Until that Edinburgh-bound flight.

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Yoga in Jamaica

Yoga in Jamaica

Yoga in Jamaica

I hadn’t yet been diagnosed, but flying was just one way my anxiety was manifesting itself. On land, I also began experiencing general feelings of danger – randomly sweating and blushing in social situations or battling spirited bowel movements being some of the most common, and embarrassing, symptoms.

As soon as my doctor explained the situation, I immediately made simple but effective changes to my diet and exercise regime and benefited greatly from meditation and visualisation.

Probably the most significant shift was professional. For all the highs of being an actor, there are many lows – limited creative opportunities, financial instability and rejection are all-too-familiar occurrences within the industry. Determined not to live a compromised life, I empowered myself by upskilling and started writing.

As it turned out, my journalism work soon involved flying, too - requests to interview celebrities or take part in press trips to write about destinations or review hotels and restaurants.

'You have to put your trust in someone you don’t know or can’t see...'

Still, despite all the progress I’d made to diffuse the impact anxiety had on my life, I continued to resist getting on a plane. But I was determined to embrace these once-in-a-lifetime invitations and reignite my love of travel.

To allay my fears, I spoke to pilots, including my colleague on the soap 'Ros na Rún', Ciabhán Ó Murchú, who literally took his career to new heights by exchanging cliffhangers for aircraft hangars, and became a pilot for a major airline.

“It’s very understandable having a fear of flying,” he’d always reassure me.

“You’ve no control and have to put your trust in someone you don’t know or can’t see. Every bump or noise - while normal for pilots - makes some passengers question whether everything is safe.

“But flying is the safest mode of transport in the world.”

When we chatted recently, Ciabhán praised the regulation and monitoring of the airline industry and described the training pilots must undertake on an ongoing basis to expand their expertise.

In addition to finding comfort in insights shared by professionals like him, I started making practical changes to my travel. I began preparing ahead of my flight - packing well in advance, for example.

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Zipline World in Wales

Zipline World in Wales

Zipline World in Wales

Along with getting as much sleep as possible the night before, I started arriving at the airport early. Alcohol was replaced with water – and plenty of it. During flights, I distracted myself by reading, writing or listening to music, and became friends with the cabin crew who made me feel safe, protected.

Crucially, I separated feelings of anxiety from actual danger - frustratingly, anxiety often convinces you that you’re in trouble when, in reality, you’re perfectly safe.

The results of these small tweaks were transformative. Panic attacks and standing semi-naked in the plane toilets are now, thankfully, a thing of the past. Travelling at home and abroad is firmly a part of my calendar - or at least it was, until Covid-19 put us in lockdown - and it's the part of my life and career that gives me most satisfaction and pride.

I've incorporated many of these adventures into my three novels - including trips to Chicago, Warsaw, Venice, Tunisia and Istanbul. In 'Crazy For You', my latest book, two of the key locations are the sunny, Caribbean beaches of Jamaica and the snowcapped Alps of Sölden, Austria - personal favourites.

It’s no coincidence that the book's central character is a soap actor who has carved out a sideline as a travel journalist after overcoming anxiety. As they say: write what you know!

As an added bonus, throughout the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been able to implement many of the tools acquired during my challenges with anxiety and aviophobia.

With a world forced indoors, and our definition of normality completely re-imagined, I’ve learned that it’s more important than ever to take care of our mental wellbeing.

Like pesky turbulence, I’m visualising that these trying times will soon pass, too.

Crazy For You (Mercier Press), is out now.

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