For most people flying planes is fascinating. Some, however, struggle with fear of flying. In this article we provide some specialist advice on how flying anxiety can be cured.
Aerophobia (fear of flying) is the second biggest fear after public speaking among common people.
For those people, it doesn’t help if friends or family tell them that flying is the safest mode of transportation. Your chances of dying in a plane crash are in fact about one in 10 million compared with a one-in-272 chance of dying in a car crash.
For seasoned flyers, boarding a plane and buckling up for an hours-long flight are like communiting by train, but for some people, this can be a daunting, mental challenge. Throw in some turbulence — which, let us take the time to remind you, is a completely normal sensation, albeit uncomfortable — and we’re talking full-blown panic.
If you want to conquer your fear of flying, we have collected 18 advice from specialists.
1. According to Dr. Martin N. Seif’s Freedom to Fly Now Workshop it’s important to figure out what frightens you and examine how your anxiety reaction is triggered. Your goal is to identify your particular triggers, so you can manage your fear when anxiety levels are low. Learning what sets you off makes it easier to turn it off.
Figuring out what triggers your fear in the first place is an important first step toward conquering flight anxiety. Different aspects of flying can trigger different fears depending on the person – for instance, one person may be afraid of turbulence and feel nervous during a perfectly normal takeoff, while an individual with germaphobic tendencies may be more concerned about the spread of germs in a confined space.
“The common denominator for more than 90 percent of flight phobics is the fear that they will become overwhelmed with anxiety during the flight,” says Seif. “It helps to recognize that your phobia is irrational, but you need to be able to pinpoint the cause of your fear before you can take that next step.”
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2. Step onto the airplane with knowledge
Anxiety thrives on ignorance, and feeds off “what if?” catastrophic thoughts. But once you become knowledgeable, your “what if?” thoughts are limited by the facts. Become familiar with the facts. They will not eliminate your anxiety, but they will help you manage it.
3. Check the turbulence forecast
While turbulence is a perfectly normal part of flying – it happens when the plane encounters normal weather patterns like air currents or clouds – the idea of shaking while in the air can be very unsettling. Turbcast was designed by a pilot and analyzes weather patterns as a pilot would, giving fliers an inside look at factors like air pockets and thunderstorms that can cause turbulence in the first place. Translation: The more you know about what causes that shaky feeling and how much of it you can expect while you’re airborne, the less you’ll be afraid of it.
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To manage anxiety when turbulence hits, learn about airplanes and how they are designed to handle turbulence. Focus on managing your anxiety, rather than when the turbulence will end or how severe it might get. Remind yourself that you are safe.
4. Try to meet the pilot
Former commercial airline pilot Tom Bunn suggests you first tell the attendants on your flight about your phobia before your board. At the gate, ask politely. “If the gate agent will not board you early, ask the agent to point out to you where you will be getting on the plane, then position yourself right by the entrance,” he says. “When boarding for first class passengers, elderly passengers, passengers with kids or people who need extra time (that’s you) is announced, immediately step forward and board.” Once on the plane, find a flight attendant who isn’t busy and explain your phobia.
Also, Dr. Seif agrees it’s a good idea to let others know you’re not too keen on flying – you may be able to speak to the pilot briefly while you board the plane or receive extra attention from flight attendants during the flight. If you’re traveling with friends or family members, talk to them about what makes you nervous so they can help alleviate the tension, but don’t let the conversation spiral into a contest over who has had the scariest flight experience. Sometimes just knowing that others are available to help you in case your anxiety surfaces is enough to help keep that anxiety in check.
5. Bring a photo of your destination
According to Captain Steve Allright of British Airways’ Flying With Confidence program, visualizing your destination and imagining yourself there can be a powerful antidote to stress – and can help keep you focused on the prize at the end of the journey. You can do this with or without a photo, but having a physical image to refer to – whether it’s a picture you’ve downloaded on your phone or a postcard – can help to keep your mind from wandering. Allright says another method is to “imagine yourself in a safe place, somewhere you feel comfortable and safe. Your bedroom, perhaps, or on a beach. Take yourself there with your eyes closed and relax.” The idea is to take your mind off the little things that make you nervous about flying and focus on the positive aspects of your journey.
6. Bring a notebook and pen
Captain Bunn recommends bringing a notebook and pen to write down your thoughts and feelings rather than bottling them up inside of your head. There’s enough going on in there as is.
7. Anticipate your anxiety.
Anticipatory anxiety is what we experience in anticipation of a fear. It is often the most intense anxiety you will experience during your flight, but it is not an accurate predictor of how you will feel on the flight. It is frequently far greater than what you actually experience.
8. Separate fear from danger.
It is often difficult to separate anxiety from danger because your body reacts in exactly the same way to both. Be sure to label your fear as anxiety. Tell yourself that anxiety makes your frightening thoughts feel more likely to occur, and remind yourself that feeling anxious doesn’t mean you are in danger. You are safe even when feeling intense anxiety.
9. Skip coffee and wine
Captain Allright says to avoid both caffeine and alcohol, as they can leave you feeling more dehydrated during the flight, as well as aggravate anxiety issues. Nervous fliers should avoid a seemingly comforting pre-flight alcoholic beverage, since alcohol can also make it harder for your body to adjust to being airborne and bring on a nasty bout of jet lag. Instead, opt for water and a light meal pre-flight, or carry along a light snack like carrot sticks, nuts, or an apple to keep you feeling nourished.
10. Learn to know frightening sounds
“On some takeoffs, we reduce power after reaching about one thousand feet,” says Captain Bunn. This is usually within 30 seconds of take-off. “[The sound] can be frightening if you don’t know what it’s all about.”
11. Recognize that common sense makes no sense
Anxiety will trick you into thinking you are in danger when you are perfectly safe. Your gut feelings in these instances will always tell you to avoid, but if you follow these feelings, you will always be reinforcing your anxiety.
As a rule, do the opposite of what anxious feelings are telling you to do. Fight what the anxiety is telling you to do, but embrace the discomfort that anxiety brings.
12. Distract yourself
In a nutshell – distraction works. Airlines now provide the little comforts of home – like televisions, music channels, and magazines – to help distract you from noises and bumps during the flight and make you feel more at home in a strange place. One of the best ways to distract yourself during a flight is to bring a book that you’ve already started and are deeply engrossed in or a season of your favorite television show. Todd Farchione, Ph.D., of Boston University’s Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders says if people associate televisions with being safe at home, and there’s a television on the plane, they will feel similar familiar feelings of comfort.
13. Turn to white noise
Those stock headphones that came with your iPhone have got to go. Swap them for noise cancelling headphones ASAP.
“Music keeps the auditory channel of your mind occupied,” says Captain Bunn.
White noise, a soothing album or podcasts that focus on positive content can all be beneficial, but the main point is to hide the sound of the aircraft.
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Interestingly, Bunn has created his own audio content to keep passengers calm, offering a play-by-play of what you’re likely experiencing before and during your flight. There are eight tracks.
14. Educate fellow fliers how to help you
Other fliers need to know what frightens you, along with what helps you most to cope with anxiety during a flight. Your task is to be clear about your triggers and ask specifically for what you find most useful.
15. Embrace safety information
No, your plane is not going to crash (and whatever you do, do NOT start envisioning disaster scenarios). But knowing that you’re prepared for anything can be empowering. Watch an airline safety video while you’re still in the comfort of your home so that you can “master” the procedure in your head (Air New Zealand did an especially entertaining take on the safety video, featuring characters from The Hobbit, as well as a hilarious safety video starring fitness guru Richard Simmons). Once you’re on board the aircraft, take time to read the airline safety card in the seat pocket in front of you. If it makes you feel better, you could even go so far as to book your seat in the back of the plane, which has been repeatedly shown to be the safest part of the aircraft in the event of a crash.
16. Value each flight
Exposure is the active ingredient in overcoming your phobia. Every flight provides you with the opportunity to make the next one easier. Your goal is to retrain your brain to become less sensitized to the triggers that set you off.
17. Use this breathing technique
Captain Allright says deep breathing is very important during takeoff and other points during the flight where you experience anxiety. “If someone is very anxious, it is actually very difficult to change their breathing pattern,” he says. “Try holding your breath and then breathing deeply, or better still, force yourself to breathe out for as long as you can and then take a long, deep breath.” Seif and Farchione both recommended taking deep breaths, since this triggers the calming response and can help to prevent hyperventilation. Try to maintain a relaxed posture as well, and not cling to the chair’s armrests, since this can heighten any anxiety you may be feeling.
18. Have relaxation remedies handy
Some doctors prescribe anxious fliers with fast-acting anxiety medications like Xanax or Valium, Vival, Sobril or other types of the benzodiazepin-family, but Farchione warns that you should be aware that each has its own side effects and that you may feel tired for hours after the plane has landed. If you don’t have a prescription, herbal remedies like St. John’s Wort or Scullcap may help calm nerves too, according to an article by USA Today. Bring the medication or the herbal remedy, but hold onto it as a “last resort” option. When you feel jitters coming on, start by employing a minor relaxant, such as sipping chamomile or peppermint tea. Farchione says that doing the things you associate with being calm and content will help remind you to remain calm as you fly. You may find that simply knowing the medication is there in case of emergency is comforting enough – and you can reap the benefits without the side effects.
Flying Anxiety Cured – Conclusion
Giving up control and getting on a plane can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. If you try any of the suggested advise above, you might be on your way to more pleasant air journeys.
Flying Anxiety Cured, compiled by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top): © Flightdeck experience