How to Control a Fear of Flying

You’ve probably heard the cliché statistic: you are far more likely to die in a car crash than in a plane crash.

For someone with a fear of flying, that statistic is of little consolation – take it from one who knows. For the last six years my fear of flying has seemed to increase the more I fly. I’ve shaken, cried, and even hyperventilated on flights, much to the horror of the passengers next to me. Even on short trips I would be nearly paralyzed with fear for the duration of the flight. For a certified travel junkie, it’s more than a small problem. As my fear has grown, so has my awareness of ways to handle it. I haven’t been able to eliminate my fear, but by following these strategies, I have managed to keep it under control.

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Know Before You Go

swissa330onboardThe internet is a valuable tool when it comes to learning more about how planes fly. Search online and you can easily find an in-depth explanation of the principles and mechanics behind flight and why planes won’t just randomly drop out of the sky. You can watch videos of planes being tested in extreme conditions and read all about the measures that are in place to make flying safe and the new developments that make aviation safer every year.

Of course, it’s hard to remember all this when your heart is pounding a million times per second and your palms are dripping with sweat. The most useful bits of information I try to remind myself are these:

Think of turbulence like a car hitting potholes, or like a boat on rough waters. There’s lots of shaking, but the plane was built to withstand it. It is extremely unlikely that turbulence would ever bring a plane down. Even in very rough turbulence, the plane is most likely only moving up and down in the sky by a few feet. The biggest danger in turbulence is that an unrestrained passenger will be injured, so when the flight attendants tell you to buckle up – do it. To get an accurate picture of the severity of the turbulence, put a half-full glass of water on your tray table and notice how much it moves. Even if the turbulence feels bad, the water probably won’t even come close to spilling. I also take heart in knowing that because of the route the plane takes when flying over the Atlantic, we’re actually flying over land the majority of the time.

Keep Things in Perspective

I live in Chicago and have one of the nation’s busiest airports nearby, so every day I see and hear several dozen planes overhead. Around the world, close to 25,000 planes fly each day, which amounts to nearly 10 million a year. When compared with those figures, the number of incidents that do happen is minuscule.

Pilots and flight attendants take to the skies hundreds of times a year – they wouldn’t fly on a near-daily basis if they felt it was risky. When my plane begins to lift off, I remind myself of these numbers and think of how many planes have already taken off and landed safely in the last few hours. If they’ve all been fine, I reason I will be too.

Your Flight Attendant is Your Friend

southafricanattendantIf you are uneasy about flying, let the flight attendant know. I’ve been on several flights where the attendant then went out of his or her way to reassure me when we hit mild turbulence.

Having the flight attendant remind me that everything is okay and seeing that he or she is completely calm helps me realize that turbulence is routine and we are not in danger. Don’t be embarrassed to inform the attendant of your fears. Many people are fearful of flying; there is no reason to be ashamed.

Medical Help and Alternative Therapies

Sometimes fear is a physical reaction that no amount of rational thought can control. Knowing that flying is safe doesn’t stop my heart from pounding and panic from setting in when we take off. If all else fails, talk to your doctor. Some people have found hypnosis to be very helpful in retraining themselves to be less fearful, while others require medication.

My doctor prescribed Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, and it has made a huge difference. I still get nervous but the physical symptoms have significantly decreased. There are some dangers involved in taking anti-anxiety drugs while flying, so be sure to only take prescribed medication and don’t mix it with alcohol.

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Stay Busy and Choose Your Seat Wisely

sleepingonplaneSome people only experience fear during take-off and turbulence, while for others the terror lasts for the duration of the flight. Even a short hop can feel like a never-ending journey if you have nothing to take your mind off your fear. Be sure to bring a full arsenal of distraction like books, magazines, headphones or an iPod, or take advantage of the in-flight entertainment system. On long-haul flights, the easiest way to pass the time is to get some sleep. Bring the creature comforts that will help you relax and fall asleep – a neck pillow, eye mask or soft blanket. If you aren’t taking anti-anxiety medication, your doctor can prescribe a sleeping aid or you can take some Tylenol PM to help you sleep. Again, don’t mix drugs and don’t combine medication with alcohol.

When you can choose your seat, pick the spot that helps you best deal with your fear. Some people like to have the window seat so they can see what’s going on (and make sure the plane is still the appropriate distance from the ground) while others prefer an aisle seat. If they can’t see out the window, they can pretend they aren’t 35,000 feet in the air.

>> read the Four Reasons to Travel with an E-Reader

Face Your Fear

cockpitTackling your fear head-on may help conquer it. Flight schools around the country offer hands-on flight lessons during which an instructor will explain all the mechanics of flying and walk you through a pre-flight safety check. Students have the chance to control the plane during take-off (with the instructor’s hands on the dual controls at all times, of course) and perform simple maneuvers in the air.

My husband surprised me with a flight lesson for my birthday, and while going up in the small plane was initially terrifying, by the end of the flight I had calmed myself and even taken the controls. I don’t know that it cured my fear, but I definitely think it helped. Seeing all the preparation that goes into a flight and feeling the responsiveness of the controls in a small plane gave me a greater appreciation for the safety of commercial aircraft.

For some people, a fear of flying can never be conquered. But if you follow these strategies, you may be able to control it. Flying may not be pleasant, but it shouldn’t be a nightmare that keeps you from exploring the world.

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Cabin by caribb on Flickr , Flight attendant by Blackwych on Flickr, Cockpit by nicolacassa on Flickr , Sleeping by John and Keturah on Flickr

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Older comments on How to Control a Fear of Flying

Ryukyu Mike
10 July 2009

Well written and informative. I still feel safer on a boat; I can swim!