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.
Life is too short not to explore the world so I'm sharing a few tips to help you cope.
(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 unsettling turbulence than it does with heights. I’ve been to the tallest building in the world and watched the sun rise from mountain peaks high above the clouds. Once you identify what particular aspect of flying scares you, it may be easier to deal with and understand.
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 increases 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. Go to the gym, meditate or take a warm bath. I cannot condone self-medicating but you can see a doctor for a prescribed sedative to promote relaxation and over-the-counter meds may help calm your 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 use 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. Plant your feet, place both hands on the armrests and focus on counting until the turbulence subsides and you feel calmer.
5. Understand That Turbulence is Normal
On a stop-over in Switzerland a flight attendant said something that really helped. She told me to think of turbulence as road bumps. It is completely normal and quite harmless. Even while driving the journey isn’t always 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 or middle of the plane where turbulence is felt less also helps.
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 may also help you relax.
7. Travel with a Companion
Having emotional support is always helpful and if need be your travel buddy can talk you through rough patches while functioning as a familiar point of stability.
8. Find Motivation
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 become. It may never feel natural (we aren’t birds after all) but start with short trips and 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 17 hours to China and it definitely enhanced my confidence. If you have the means to splurge on a first class ticket a little luxury can make the journey more relaxing. 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 career so chances are you won't either.
11. Face it Head-On and Don’t Cower
Facing your fears head-on gives you a sense of control and helps calm your nerves. I usually opt for a window seat 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 on an aircraft but knowing what to do in case of an emergency makes you feel 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.