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Are You Scared of Flying?
How I beat my fear of flying and learned to love the skies

Jennifer Anniston, Sandra Bullock and Whoopi Goldberg all have something in common with me: we've been afraid to fly.

But I'm getting over it - and I wish everyone else who hyperventilates at the thought of a plane could feel the liberation of finally flying without fear.

It took me years to be able to get on a plane without almost throwing up in terror but those days are gone. I'm more scared of roads than I am of skies.

Scared of flying - aircraft wingFree in the sky: the liberation of flying without fear

I'm not even sure how it happened.

I come from a family of air force pilots. I flew when I was a baby. In college I would book the 'long way' home to enjoy the extra landings and takeoffs.

Somewhere along the line it all went terribly wrong.

I began cancelling holidays with friends so I wouldn't have to fly; I'd sail - even though I hate water, almost drowned once and can't swim; I'd take lots of pills and knock myself out; or I'd fork out the extra money when I could and fly Business Class - because somehow Business Class doesn't crash, right?

My job, first as a journalist and then as a development worker for the UN, meant I had to fly not just in 'safe' places but into corners of Africa and Asia where castoff planes went to die, rust and smoke themselves into a heap.

I was going to have to get a grip on this. 

NOTE: I originally wrote and posted this piece in mid-July 2014, by some unexplainable twist of fate a few hours before terrorists shot down MH17 over Eastern Ukraine. Sadly, I was acquainted with some of the passengers, AIDS researchers on their way to an international conference. Terrorism is with us and will not go away. Planes can be brought down, but from a safety standpoint flying remains the most reliable way to travel, with fewer casualties by far than cars, buses or trains. This horrible crime will not stop me from flying, but my heart goes out to the families of the downed aircraft and my thoughts are with them.

The causes of aerophobia (or aviophobia if you prefer)

To fix this agonizing fear, I first had to find out what it was.

  • Was it really aerophobia, also called aviophobia? 
  • Or was it claustrophobia? 
  • Or fear of heights? (I am afraid of heights so that would make sense.) 
  • Was it fear of not being in control? (Hah - now we're talking.) 
  • Motion sickness? I do get ill when things move so yes, tick that box too. 
  • Fear of the unknown? Yes. 
  • Flying over water? Oh yes! (I feel a lot safer when there's land below - you know, land where you can land?)

I wasn't afraid of panic attacks or of terrorism; as a journalist I went to some relatively untamed places yet sometimes, the flights scared me far more than guns and mortars.

I wondered whether some past event had triggered my fear but no, I couldn't find anything specific - just memories of terrible flights... approaching the runway sideways in London in high winds... smoke in the cabin flying out of Vientiane... a door that wouldn't close in Nigeria... scary, but not enough to create this level of panic.

What really seemed to shake me was turbulence.

I realized turbulence was a normal part of flying but, trapped in a small aluminium cage 10,000 meters up in the atmosphere, it felt anything but normal.

Stormy skies: adds to fear of flyingExperts say turbulence is the Number One fear of flying

I get that. The moment we'd hit a gentle bump my heart would slap against my rib cage and a rock the size of a basketball would lodge in my chest, forcing my breath to build up until it pushed tears out of my eyes.

When turbulence got worse, I got worse.

I would look around and yes, I'd see a few white knuckles but that lady over in 32C, she was reading, and that man in front of me, he was ASLEEP. Meantime I was thinking of my mother and brother, whom I'd never see again, and I hadn't even made out a will and my finances were a mess and I didn't believe in the afterlife and I was so so scared I promised I would lose weight/save money/call home often if only, just this once, I could land safely.

Lighnting skiesIf this is what the skies look like from your window, best to pull down the shade

And then there's lightning, my other great fear. I was caught in what seemed to be an electrical storm over Java one night and could see tendrils of light sizzling everywhere. I know pilots fly at least 20 miles from the center of a storm but I swear I could reach out and touch the bolts. The plane was filled with Dutch tourists and you know you should worry when even the down-to-earth and composed Dutch begin screaming.

My other brush with lightning was a bit of a shock because it occurred below  me over northern Spain on my way to Galicia. The clouds were black and I don't use that word with any literary exaggeration. Black. Ebony. Charcoal.

Whatever scares you - lightning, turbulence, closes spaces - it doesn't matter. Fear is fear. It's irrational and very personal. We will each have to find our own solutions.

The good news? There are solutions.

How I got rid of my flying phobia - and how you can follow in my footsteps

Having identified my trigger points - turbulence and to a slightly lesser extent lighting - I set about trying to wrestle my enemies to the ground. As a Taurean, I was systematic and did things in order, color-coded lists and all. (And if you happen to be crouched on the ground right now and clutching a teddy bear between two unoccupied rows, hoping no one will notice, you might try some of these tactics too.)

1. Learn as much as you can about flying

This was the single most important step in changing my flights from terror to joy. I started talking to pilots (they gather on online forums, just like travelers) and to air safety experts.

I learned that turbulence is natural, normal and... not dangerous for the plane.

The plane will not fall out of the sky.

NOTE: Turbulence warning: It won't hurt the plane but accounts for most human injuries - from luggage falling, trays flying, heads banging...

If you'd like something slightly more scientific and knowledgeable, here's Patrick Smith's answer on Ask the Pilot. These two analogies worked when I pictured them in my mind:

  • Think of it as being on a rollercoaster - and enjoy. Unless you hate rollercoasters.
  • Think of it as being on a bumpy road, with each air pocket the equivalent of a pothole you're skimming over. (This one worked well for me.)

Lightning, believe it or not, is also normal and strikes more often than you might think (not that this will help your fears in any way). But you'll be fine. Here's why:

  • Being in a plane is like being in a car. The vehicle is an electrical conductor (remember the Faraday Cage from Physics 101?) Electricity - lightning - goes right through it. 
  • Pilots know about storms well before you're in them and you can be sure they're skirting along the least dangerous bit. They want to get home too.

That said - planes still fall out of the sky, don't they?

Not often. The number of plane accidents and fatalities is tiny. When a plane has an accident, the media keeps it rolling 24/7 because many people die at the same time, in a dramatic, often unfathomable way. Crashes that remain unexplained haunt us for years to come.

But if we look at the numbers, all that noise is not really justified. 

  • The odds of dying in an air accident in the US are about 1 in 7178 (compared to 1 in 98 for a car crash)
  • The odds of being killed while flying on a major world airline is one in 4.7 million.
  • In 2010 in the USA, there were 22,000 fatalities from car accidents and nearly two million injuries. There were 14 injuries on commercial flights, and no one died.
  • Since 1970 there have been 58 accidents with fatalities on 16 US and Canadian airlines: that works out to 36.6 events in which at least one person died. Per 16 million flights.
  • Hungry for data? Here's more.

Convinced? Hope you're getting there.

Despite these numbers, people remain afraid of flying. Recent studies estimate that about one-quarter of all flyers still wish they were anywhere but on a plane.

NOTE: Women, it would appear, are more scared of flying than men: in one set of stats, 31% of women expressed fear of flying compared with 25% of men. My take on this? Men probably don't admit their fear of flying as easily as women. If they did, men's fear factor might even be higher than ours!

The more I know about my flight the safer I feel up there. If it's a mess, with bumps and noise and lightning, I'd like the captain to get on the intercom and tell me not to worry, that everything will be fine. It's a bit like a doctor's bedside manner: it can make all the difference.

Some pilots - the Brits especially - are wonderful airline communicators. Others - I'm thinking Spanish and Swiss airlines here - forget there's a planeload of passengers riding along behind them and rarely say anything. I remember one flight from Dakar to Madrid which tossed our little plane around like paper in the wind. Most of the passengers were African and many looked as though this was their first flight. Some were crying; others were praying. It would have been nice for the captain to spend 15 seconds calming people down and if he didn't have 15 seconds to spare, then we were in worse trouble than I thought. 

2. Prepare intelligently for your flight

The panic and clammy hands and rapid heartbeat, at least for me, used to start well before my gate number was posted (and yes, I tend to get to the airport early, very early, 2-3 hours before my flight at least).

There is plenty I've learned to do beforehand that will help get rid of that basketball on my chest. Any one of these actions can help.

  • Don't get to the airport just in the nick of time - rushing just increases stress.
  • Visit the bookshop. That's the single most fun thing I can think of doing in an airport.
  • Have a massage. An increasing number of airports provide them, especially in long-haul terminals.
  • Make sure you're well-equipped: a journal to write in, iPod, pillow, socks, water - you name it. I fly as though I were trekking across the Amazon (I travel light, but I fly heavy.)
  • Reserve a seat on or near the steadier wing area (unless you're in Business Class of course in which case, as we already know, you'll be safe and comfortable wherever you sit).
  • Choose an aisle seat so you can get up and walk around if you start feeling hemmed in.
  • Make sure you drink enough water - enough to keep you hydrated but not enough to keep having to rush to the bathroom.
  • Try to relax. Yeah, I know.

3. Go someplace else - in your mind

Speaking of relaxing, there are many little things you can do. They range from practising mindfulness to reading an inspirational and riveting book to meditating or listening to audio books. Just get your mind off the flight and into something else. Buy a meditation book if you've never tried this - the exercises will both divert your attention and keep you relaxed.

If you're more of an audio woman, Fly Without Fear gets good reviews, although I've only listened to a few snippets. Or use an app (I use Headspace and I love it.)

I've also, with practice, become acceptably good at seeing movies in my mind - you may have heard of that exercise, in which you pretend you're watching a movie reel and put whatever you want on it?

ParisMy movie, Act I

My movie reel usually starts at my destination. If I'm headed to Paris my movie reel will have the requisite Eiffel Tower and Montmartre but it will also have me ripping apart a baguette, dipping a biscuit in a cup of chocolate chez Paul, picking up a book at Shakespeare and Co or window shopping on the Rue de Rivoli. It will be so real I can smell the croissants in the boulangerie.

Most inflight entertainment systems have some kind of meditation or relaxation exercises. Do them. Don't neglect the physical relaxation exercises and the breathing: a tense body does not make for a relaxed mind.

Reams of paper and millions of pixels have been expended writing about de-stressing to fly so I won't redo that research. What I will say that finding a way to calm yourself before you get on the flight is one of the best ways to put that pre-flight time to good use.

4. There's always medication

If you absolutely cannot do this on your own, there's always chemical help. I've gone that route and while meds have helped me get on the plane, I was pretty much useless once I landed. Not helpful if you're traveling for work and have to make sense a few hours after you arrive.

Go talk to your doctor and see if she says sedatives or sleeping pills are in your future. Some prescribe beta blockers to reduce anxiety, or antidepressants - but again, that's between you and your doctor.

On overnight flights I have found sleeping pills very occasionally helpful, but only if the flight actually flies overnight; if it doesn't, I'll end up jetlagged and to me that's even worse.

5. What you eat and drink matters

Pasta - comfort food before you flyPasta. Carbs. Creamy things. That's what I eat before I fly. Comfort food!

Some people think not eating will actually relax them. Evidence points the other way and the common wisdom now is eat, drink and be merry. Well, eat and drink at least.

I usually eat a full meal before flying because most airplane food is awful and the last thing I need to worry about is a grumbling stomach.

If you plan to eat in-flight, here are a few tips:

  • Go for carbs and fats - they'll help you relax. Munch on cheese and choose the pasta option.
  • Avoid caffeine and sugary fizzy drinks - they'll just hype you up and frazzle your nerves.
  • Eat plenty: that stuffy feeling might help you sleep. (It does me, anyway.)
  • Stay away from alcohol. It may soothe your jangled nerves initially, but you'll end up more anxious as a result, until the next drink, followed by even more anxiety. On a long flight with a lot of booze, you can imagine what shape you'll be in when you land. If you're in any shape to land.

6. Online websites and training can help

Some years ago, Swissair offered a weekend fear of flying course. The first day was spent in a conference room, learning theory (it's normal for planes to lift off and wiggle!) and talking to flight attendants about their own experience.

One particularly enthusiastic lady almost had me screaming as she swooned, "I loooove to fly, so beautiful up in the sky!" Yep, and if I thought that, I wouldn't be spending my Saturday locked in here with you. The next day was 'graduation': you got to fly to Zurich and back! Fly when I don't have to?? I don't think so.

So I failed the course, becoming a statistic in the process (99% of attendees beat their fear of flying after this course - I was the 1%). Wait a minute, think about it:

99% of the class passed - I hear they even enjoyed their flight!

There's every chance - 99 in 100, actually - that you will pass the course.

Some courses have great reputations, like SOAR, put together by Capt Tom Bunn, who also happens to be a trained therapist, or Virgin Atlantic's Flying Without Fear in the UK.

A course might just what you need, or maybe just the book version.

The site Flying Without Fear is also helpful and full of resources that explain the ins and outs of flying, as are Fearless Flight and Fear of Flying, which offers a free course.

7. Use 'soft' methods like hypnosis or EFT

And now, here's what worked best for me. Remember - we'll each have our own solutions and success stories.

This doesn't mean my way is the best way, but it does mean you have to test everything until you find something that works.

I have many friends who swear by hypnosis. It worked well for them, but I tried something else.

I used EFT.

This is a simple tapping technique called Emotional Freedom Technique: you tap your fingers gently around your eyes, lips and neck - there's a specific system and you just follow along. Or, you can go to a professional EFT practitioner.

I wish I had an exciting story to tell about how, nearly overnight, I was instantly cured by EFT and began flying with a smile forever after. That would have made a far better story but reality was different.

I tried it for a few sessions. Little by little, the anxiety began to lift. I went from terrified to nervous to irritated.

And then I had a wonderful surprise.

Flying in the cockpit to stop being scared of flying

I was flying to Geneva and a friend of mine, a pilot for a European airline, got me into the cockpit for the flight.

And it was the most fun I've ever had!

I finally realized what had scared me: not knowing! Not knowing what was going on during turbulence. Not knowing what was going on when the engines revved up. Not knowing how to decipher the look on a flight attendant's face.

My two hours in the cockpit dispelled all those fears. I was encouraged to ask questions. Each time something strange happened, I was told what it was and why.

I'm now convinced my phobia was about CONTROL - my inability to control the situation, of course, but my ignorance of it.

So now, given what I know, I think I've solved the issue of fear of flying, not just for me but for everyone. If I were in charge of global aviation and I wanted people to actually enjoy flying (and fly more often as a result), here's what I would do:

  • I'd have a camera in the cockpit to show passengers how relaxed the pilots are when things we consider dangerous are just routine for them.
  • If that's not possible I'd do snippets, short videos of pilots dealing with difficult circumstances - jokes and all - and I'd make them available on the inflight entertainment.
  • I'd generalize those cameras that show landing and takeoff on your screen - everyone should have that! (Some airlines have figured this out and now do offer visuals.)
  • I'd have a group EFT session pre-flight for anyone scared of flying, with a professional in attendance. Just show up an hour early for your sessions. Make it part of the airport's offering rather than vaguely point people towards a chapel.
  • I'd let people order their food ahead of time and choose what they really want from a list - a bit of control over some small aspect of what happens up there.
  • I'd make it easy for passengers to choose their in-flight entertainment. With your electronic ticket you should get a link to the entertainment menu so you can pore over it before you fly. I know it's all available if you search for it online but many people don't know that, and the list is often hard to find.
  • I'd provide flight simulator time for particularly stressed passengers. I'd see this as a good investment.
  • I'd establish a rule obliging the pilot or copilot to be on that sound system within 5 seconds of an 'incident' or a perceived incident - big bump, turbulence, funny sound or otherwise. No one minds interrupting to sell us duty free - interrupt us with information please. Your soothing voice proves (or at least hints) someone is in control.

All right, so a few of these might be a tad unrealistic but... why not?

A few tips on avoiding panic attacks

You've read this far and your heart is still beating to the sound of conga drums but you're on the flight, buckled in and yes, girl, you've made it! The doors are closing and you are STAYING ON that flight! Just remember...

  • You CANNOT open a door in flight. The air pressure is too strong. It is physically impossible. For you or anyone else.
  • Pilots are highly trained to respond appropriately to an emergency. Flying the plane isn't difficult - all that training is about coping with emergencies until their behavior becomes automatic.
  • Tell the crew! It's a silly thing and easily overlooked but if a flight attendant knows you're scared, he or she will pay extra attention to you.

I'm still not the happiest person in the world when I fly and I'll probably never swoon at the thought of hovering above the clouds. But... it's OK. Not bad. Sometimes even fun. My nails don't dig into anyone anymore. I can breathe, and at times I even enjoy the view.

And my life isn't shortened anymore by the stress I used to feel each time I had to fly. Now I'm just grateful to get to the airport because my chances of having an accident on the way there are higher than those of having an accident in the air.

Once I'm at the airport, I feel the most dangerous part of the journey is finally out of the way.

And I can relax.

Have you ever been afraid of flying and how do you cope with it? Please let me know in the comments below.

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