Is it my paranoia or have there been more plane crashes than usual recently? For someone terrified of turbulence this was playing on my mind as I planned my flight to the Basel watch and jewellery fair this week. You see, I’ve had some scary flights to Basel over the years.
Once a pilot threatened that we were flying straight into the “eye of a storm”, another time a stewardess shouted over the tannoy system: “Sit down, this is a very dangerous flight” and with a thumping heart I imagined the entire British jewellery industry plummeting into the snow-capped Alps where we’d freeze to death before anyone could find us.
Mindful that I could be in for another nerve-racking flight I investigated a new stress-busting tool, which works in tandem with your smartphone. The smooth pebble shaped device called Sensate vibrates on the vagus nerve lying underneath your breast bone, which holds the key to keeping calm as it wends its way from the brain to the gut, controlling the rapid breath, increased heart rate and blood pressure of flight or flight responses.
The weather report at 5am was promising gale force winds over Western waters – I’ve no idea where those are exactly but I wasn’t taking any chances and grabbed the Sensate before heading to Heathrow.
We all know fear of flying is unscientific and illogical, but the conscious mind doesn’t communicate this to the body to prevent it releasing stress hormones. On a flight to New York recently I eavesdropped as the pilot, who’d emerged from the cockpit, was reassuring the terrified woman seated behind me taking her first flight over 30 years. It was going to be choppy for the next couple of hours. “Don’t be frightened it’s just the weather,” his calm voice said, “think of it as a boat bobbing up and down on the water in the wind”. I stopped listening; he’d pinpointed the reason for my nervousness. There are thousands of boats littering the seabed due to adverse weather conditions.
On board the Basel flight I take my aisle seat, having paid extra to move in case I needed a quick getaway, and they start the safety video, which the comedian Ricky Gervais described as “a bit of a downer” during his recent Humanity tour. “If you do go into the side of a mountain at 500 miles an hour,” he quipped, “the brace position does f*** all.”
I plug the Sensate into my phone, and the low-frequency sound waves begin to pulse gently through my chest, with the Forest music that I’d chosen from the app to channel through my earphones, and soon the combination distracts my mind.
When the vagus nerve is activated apparently it puts the brakes on the stress response and I do begin to notice that I am feeling calmer than usual. When the seat belts sign pings on, the plane shakes and rattles, and my exit is blocked by the drinks trolley (always a panicky moment), so I turn up the volume of the music and the vibration intensity on my phone. This small decision makes me imagine that I have some control over my anxiety and immediately I start to relax again.
“Our cross cultural instinct level is so intense,” explains integrated healthcare physician Stefan Chmelik, whose company Bioself Technology have developed Sensate, “But it’s primitive, like that of a 500 million-year-old lizard which goes into flight, fright or freeze mode.
The problem is that the brain stem is powerful, but not smart, and can’t differentiate between real and imagined threats.” Which means the same life or death response is applied for anything – even too many e-mails in your inbox is classed as a physical danger.
I arrive in Basel with a clearer mind and feeling more at ease than I have before, grateful that I didn’t succumb to gin and tonics like the nervous couple sitting in front of me as I glance in my diary at the daunting schedule of back-to-back meetings. My vagal toning may not be over quite yet.