Today, flying is both the fastest and easiest mode of transport between countries. But many of us are terrorized by the mere thought of boarding a plane. Why is that, and how do we deal with this anxiety?
For the majority of us, air travel has become a necessity; we jet between countries to study, work, go on holiday, and meet new people.
The Federal Aviation Administration report that their Air Traffic Organization unit manages more than 42,000 flights and 2.5 million passengers every single day.
Although somewhere around 10,000 planes are airborne and safely carrying their passengers to destinations across the world right now, many of us — including myself — feel sick just thinking about stepping onto a plane.
This fear can range from having the jitters when boarding the flight to a full-blown panic attack that puts you off from booking any flights, ever, even if that means you’re missing out on plenty of opportunities to progress in your career or have the time of your life on a sunny beach.
But anxiety should never stand in the way of making the most of our lives. I, for one, can’t afford to give into this particular fear. For years I studied abroad, 3,000 miles away from my family, and now my work is abroad, too. To top it off, my partner’s family lives in yet another country, and I love to travel whenever I have the opportunity.
With that in mind, here are some ways to cope with your fear of flying before and during a flight that I have found helpful. Still, you must keep in mind that we’re all different, so you must experiment a little and find the strategy cocktail that works best for you.
Fear of flight, or aviophobia, is characterized by an often extreme avoidance of planes, or anything associated with flying, including airports. Someone with severe aviophobia might “organize [their] life around avoiding flying,” as psychologist Patricia Furness-Smith says in Flying with Confidence.
When actually stepping onto a plane, fearful fliers will likely be afraid of one or more of a range of things, from the noises and sensations associated with take-off or landing, to the queasy feeling that often comes with a sudden or prolonged turbulence.
It’s important to learn what triggers your particular flight-related anxiety — for me, it’s typically turbulence — so that you can take steps to anticipate it.
A good knowledge about airplanes, how they work, what causes the sounds you hear during the flight, why we experience physiological sensations such as blocked ears, and how the crew are trained for their job really helps to ground the awareness that you’re in good hands, on a safe mode of transport.
Learn about your fear and your flight
If you can afford to, consider booking a place on a course that addresses fear of flying. If not, there are plenty of free resources both off- and online that you can use to educate yourself about flying. Videos can be a good place to start. One example features a commercial airline captain who explains what happens during take-off and landing, and how turbulence is uncomfortable but safe.
Instead of indulging in scary, unrealistic fantasies, learn what’s really happening when the seatbelt sign is switched on.
Additionally, consider what other sources of anxiety your aviophobia might be linked to.
It’s important to treat these baseline anxieties, but just knowing that they’re there also equips you to deal with them better on a plane.
For instance, if possible, I like to take the aisle seat, which makes me feel less restrained and gives me more freedom of movement. I’m also uncomfortable with heights, so I avoid looking out the window.
Try to control things that are within your grasp by eliminating any related sources of stress as much as possible, since you don’t need to be worried about missing your flight as well as being anxious about being on that same flight.
Prepare in advance as thoroughly as possible. Make sure you have plenty of time to get to the airport, and pack your luggage appropriately, so you don’t have to deal with repacking two large suitcases at the last moment.
Wear comfortable clothes to minimize your sense of bodily discomfort, bring along any medication you may need, and make sure to stay hydrated while on the plane.
Other than tending to your basic needs when it comes to physical comfort, you should also pre-empt your anxiety so as to avoid adding to your general sense of unease. I like to think of my fear of flight as an unruly toddler that needs to be constantly placated in unfamiliar and uncomfortable conditions.
Furness-Smith has a similar take on things. She likens aviophobia to “an imp,” a little naughty creature that likes to cause distress and needs to be kept in check.
“Imagine your phobia as a mischievous little imp. The sole purpose of these small creatures from German folklore was to bug and harass humans by misleading them. […] An imp is not really a dangerous enemy, more like an irritating child that needs to be disciplined and controlled.”
Research has demonstrated that high-altitude hypoxia, which is a slight decrease in oxygen supply, might naturally increase a sense of anxiety, so while you’re in no danger whatsoever, you may feel unease as if you were under threat.
One study suggests that some fearful fliers might mistake this physiological effect for aviophobia, as their brains try to make sense of the feeling of anxiety by ascribing to it the most immediately available cause: flying.
One way or another, then, anxiety is misleading, so you must not allow it to take over and drive you into a panic attack. This, however, does not mean rejecting your anxiety and trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
Embrace your fear
I know this might sound like just the opposite of what you should do, but trust me on this: when fear starts to mount, rather than pushing it away, begin by accepting it. I’ve realized that the more I try to pretend it isn’t there, the worse the terror gets.
What ultimately happens is that I become afraid of being afraid, augmenting the anxiety in a vicious cycle. The initial fear is often much less severe and easier to calm than the pit of terror into which denial can throw me.
Jonathan Bricker, Ph.D. — a psychologist from the University of Washington in Seattle — explains that anxiety tends to get worse the more you try to push it away.
“The more you don’t want to feel worried,” he said, “the more that feeling will come back.” He suggests a visualization exercise wherein you “mentally pack [anxiety] into an imagined carry-on bag, which you can store above and below you — the idea being that ‘the anxiety is with me, but I bring it with me and still travel wherever I want.'”
When you do feel anxiety start to take hold and you’ve acknowledged it, you should immediately take steps to prevent it from escalating. First, you can act directly on the physiological symptoms, such as the racing pulse and shallow breathing, which may also make you feel sick and faint.
Acting on the physical signs can also trick your mind into feeling more at ease. One way to do this is by learning some mindful breathing exercises, such as the ones outlined on the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley website.
They advise bringing your conscious attention to your body and to how it feels, then focus on breathing normally. As your mind attempts to wander away to fearful scenarios, bring your attention back to your breathing until you become calmer.
Another technique that may help you is box breathing, wherein you take and hold deep breaths to allow your pulse to slow down and relieve your sense of agitation. This technique requires you to inhale slowly through the nose to a count of four, hold that breath for another 4 seconds, then slowly exhale to a count of four.
Remember why you’re doing this
Something else that can help you with your fear of flying is simply regaining a sense of excitement and purpose. In a previous Medical News Today article, I cited a study from the Harvard Business School in Boston, MA, that suggested that we overcome anxiety through reappraisal.
That study explains that there are fewer degrees of separation between anxiety and excitement than between anxiety and calmness, so it’s much easier to trick your mind into thinking that your racing heart is caused by your enthusiasm at the thought of getting to your destination.
Additionally, reminding yourself why you’re on a plane in the first place may help to boost that sense of excitement and the motivation to go through with it.
If you’re heading home for the holidays, think about the joy and peace that being with your loved ones will bring. If you’re taking a break from work or school, picture all the fun you’ll have at your destination.
“Focusing on the higher purpose of your trip puts the fear into perspective,” said Bricker. If you can latch onto the happy outcome and understand that only a few hours of discomfort separate you from it, that can help to minimize the fearful proportions that flying has taken on in your mind.
Most important of all, once you have taken the steps to face your fear, book that flight, and board it, you must not stop at that first achievement. Repeat, repeat, repeat; with each new flight, you are normalizing the event and preventing anxiety from controlling your life choices.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America say that desensitization is a crucial step to overcoming any persistent fear, so they emphasize that you must “value each flight,” since it allows you to make flying a routine occurrence that doesn’t warrant feeling any anxiety.
So, even if you still feel a little shaken from your most recent experience aboard an airplane, try not to let it deter you from planning your next flight.
Finally, remember that overcoming fear — any fear — is a long and laborious process, and that you will have good times and bad. Enjoy the good, and don’t let the bad take you back to square one.