I travel frequently for work and leisure so you may be surprised to learn that I used to have a fear of flying. It's true, even people who spend a lot of time on planes can be totally uncomfortable in the air and all it takes is one scary experience to trigger ongoing panic.
The problem I had was not a phobia since it did not disrupt my life or stop me from boarding an aircraft but it still made me very uneasy in the air.
My issue isn’t really the height (although I’m not a fan of that either), it has more to do with the idea of plummeting to the earth from 30,000 ft with no control. Every bump, air pocket and bad weather system made me nervous but I’ve gone from clutching the armrest in panic to coping increasingly well.
Since this fear is very common, I’ve decided to share some tips on how I dealt with the anxiety because life is too short not to explore the world.
(Photo edited from Google Images, original source unknown)
1. Identify the Source of Your Fear
As mentioned above, my problem has more to do with the idea of falling out of the sky and turbulence than it does with heights. I’ve been to the top of the tallest building in the world and watched the sun rise from mountain peaks above the clouds even though it made me weak in the knees to look down. Once you identify what particular aspect of flying scares you, it may be easier to deal with the root cause and learn to understand it.
2. Put Things in Perspective and Think Rationally
When you leave home you enter a world full of dangers beyond your control. Your environment can be perilous yet you find the courage to live. If you consider the statistics you’d realize that there is a higher chance of being injured in a motor vehicle or crossing the street than being in a plane crash. The conditions you face on a daily basis may be more hazardous than flying; in fact it is still one of the safest ways to travel. Take solace in knowing that there is a higher probability of arriving at your destination safely. You can’t predict or control the future and worrying about it is a waste of mental energy that causes stress.
One of the worst aspects of flying is not the flight itself but the anxiety you feel beforehand. Anticipation of getting on the place can be worse than the actual journey. Before your trip do something enjoyable to help you relax whether it’s going to the gym, meditating or taking a hot bath. I can’t condone self-medicating but you can see a doctor for a prescribed sedative and over-the-counter meds that cause drowsiness may help calm the nerves. Keep in mind that you must be alert when checking-in at the airport and this method should not be used frequently nor is it a permanent solution.
4. Breathing Exercises
When turbulence gets rough and panic starts to set in, I do simple breathing techniques. Take a deep breath in, hold for 4 seconds and release while counting down from 10. When you get to 1 begin again and repeat if necessary. Often times I am more focused on counting than the turbulence and eventually it stops so I can relax.
5. Understand That Turbulence is Normal
On a stop-over in Switzerland on my way to Florence, a flight attendant said something that really helped me. She told me to think of turbulence as road bumps. It is completely normal and quite harmless. Even while driving the journey isn’t smooth so don’t expect the air to be. Thinking of it this way helped put my mind at ease and sitting at the front of the plane where turbulence is felt less may also help.
6. Occupy Your Time
One of the worst things you can do is sit idly and worry. Take your mind off the fear by reading, working, playing games, watching movies or sleeping and you may forget your discomfort altogether. Listening to your favorite music or something soothing can help you relax.
7. Travel with a Companion
Having support is always helpful and if need be your travel buddy can talk you through it and be a familiar point of stability when you feel on edge.
8. Find Motivation
It could be a big job interview, wedding or a dream vacation but sometimes air travel is the only option. The places I’ve visited and the amazing experiences I’ve had ignite my passion for travel even more. Focus on the destination and remind yourself that it will all be worth it. This may not eliminate your fear but positive thinking is highly underrated.
9. Keep Flying
The more flights you take the more comfortable you may become with the idea. It may never feel natural (we aren’t birds after all) but start small by venturing to closer destinations and when you’re ready, begin extending your journey and flight time. “The best way to treat the symptoms is to bring on the symptoms and do it anyway” meaning flying is the best way to overcome your fear of flying. The longest I’ve ever flown was 14 hours to Dubai but I’m psyching myself up for a 17 hour trip to Asia in the near future (wish me luck). If you have the means to splurge on a first class ticket a little luxury can make the trip more relaxing and enjoyable. When I book a personal pod I can lie down to sleep, stretch out and get comfortable. To read my article on flying first class click HERE.
10. Know How Things Work
Sometimes knowing a bit about aviation can help put your mind at ease. My friend Jason is a pilot and I learned that there is a lot of continual training that goes with the job. Pilots and crew are trained and tested to handle emergency situations including flying in turbulence and bad weather. The planes are highly advanced and Jason even learned how to recover, regain control and prevent disorientation if the plane flips or nose dives. Most pilots never experience a crash in their entire career so chances are you won't either.
11. Face it Head-On and Don’t Cower
I find that if I face things head-on it helps me feel in control of what is happening to me. I usually opt for a window seat and instead of closing the shade I open it wide so I can see what is going on during take-off and landing.
12. Pay Close Attention to the Safety Instructions/Video
You don’t actually have much control over what happens to you once you step onto an aircraft but knowing what to do in case of an emergency can help put your mind at easy and make you feel more prepared.
Keep in mind that almost everyone feels uncomfortable during a rough flight and it is completely normal.
Disclaimer: Although I have a degree in Psychology this article is based on personal experience and should not be used in place of seeking medical help for your individual problems, fears or phobias.