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 (almost) without fear.
It took me years to be able to get on a plane without almost throwing up, in spite of my love of travel.
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 and I developed severe flight anxiety.
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 work, 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 smoke themselves into a heap.
I was going to have to get a grip on this fear of planes, this flight phobia, and figure out how to get over fear of flying quickly.
THE CAUSES OF AEROPHOBIA (OR AVIOPHOBIA IF YOU PREFER)
To fix this agonizing plane anxiety, I first had to find out what it was.
- Was it really aerophobia, also called aviophobia?
- Or was it claustrophobia?
- Or fear of heights or vertigo? (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?)
As a journalist I visited some relatively untamed places and the flights often scared me 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. I did survive, after all.
What really seemed to shake me was turbulence.
I knew turbulence was a normal part of flying but, trapped in a small aluminium cage 10,000 meters above the earth’s crust, it felt anything but normal.
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 family, 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/exercise regularly if only, just this once, I could land safely.
And then there’s severe lightning, my other great fear. I was caught in a massive 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 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. And I watched the sparks and the lightning dance, grateful to be above it all.
Whatever scares you – lightning, turbulence, closed spaces – it doesn’t matter. Fear is fear. It’s irrational and very personal.
We each have to find our own solutions.
The good news? There are solutions.
HOW I GOT RID OF MY PHOBIA OF FLYING – 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 clutching a teddy bear between two unoccupied rows, hoping no one will notice, you might try #3 or #7.)
1. Overcoming fear of flying by learning as much as possibly about flight
This was the single most important step in transitioning from nervous flyer to relatively calm. I started talking to pilots (they gather on online forums, just like travelers) and to air safety experts. I read up on airplane anxiety and picked up plenty of fear of flying tips.
I learned that turbulence is natural, normal and… not dangerous for the plane. Nor is lightning.
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 think (not that this will necessarily reduce your flight anxiety). 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 bothersome bits. Hail dents the fuselage and costs a lot to repair, so pilots avoid hailstorms.
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 so many people die at the same time, in a dramatic, often unfathomable way. Crashes that remain unexplained haunt us for years.
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 are one in 4.7 million.
- In 2015 in the USA, there were 35,000 deaths from car accidents. In 2016, 325 people died from aircraft accidents worldwide – or one death per 10.7 million passengers.
- 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. For 16 million flights. And – flying keeps getting safer.
- In 2016 there were 2.1 accidents per 1 million commercial flights, down 25% over 2015.
If you REALLY want to stay safe, sell your car.
Despite these numbers, too many people remain terrified of flying. Recent studies estimate that about one-quarter of all flyers still wish they were anywhere but on a plane. I’d bet the figure is higher.
NOTE: Women, it would appear, have a greater fear of planes than men have: 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 and Americans 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 couldn’t spare the 15 seconds, we were in worse trouble than I thought.
2. How to deal with fear of flying: 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 very early, 2-3 hours before my flight at least).
There is plenty I’ve learned to do beforehand to help get rid of that basketball stuck in my chest.
Any one of these actions can help.
- Don’t get to the airport 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, music, charger, 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. Shift your flying fear and go someplace else – in your mind
If your mind is busy, it won’t keep telling you you’re scared to fly. Distractions 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. Distract yourself. I travel with my Kindle and read several books at once.
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.
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?
My movie reel usually starts at my destination. If I’m headed to Paris my reel will have the requisite Eiffel Tower and Montmartre but it will also have me ripping apart a baguette, nibbling a macaron from Ladurée, picking up a book at Shakespeare and Co or window shopping along the Rue de Rivoli. It will be so real I can smell the croissants in the boulangerie.
Reams of paper and millions of pixels have been expended writing about de-stressing to fly so I won’t revisit that research. What I will say is that finding a way to calm yourself before you get on the flight is an excellent way of putting that pre-flight time to good use.
4. There’s always fear of flying 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 still terrified up there and 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 (suffering from jet lag is enough without adding to it), or if you have a lot of flights to take.
In addition, there are clear and present dangers linked to flight anxiety remedies. They may enhance the risk of deep vein thrombosis by increasing the amount of time you are immobile. They can also intensify the symptoms of fear and drive up your pulse. And in the unlikely event of an emergency, chemically induced sleep is not where you want to be.
Go talk to your doctor and see what she has to say.
5. What you eat and drink matters
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 get off the plane.
- If none of the above speaks to you, bring munchies – fruits, nuts, dried fruit. And munch your way across the ocean.
6. Use ‘soft’ methods like hypnosis or EFT
Here’s something else that really helped me. Remember – we’ll each have our own solutions and success stories and you’ll have to do your own experimenting.
I have many friends who swear by hypnosis. It worked well for them, but I tried something slightly different.
I used EFT to reduce my flying anxiety.
This is a simple tapping process called Emotional Freedom Technique: you tap your fingers gently around your eyes, lips and neck – there’s a specific pattern 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 magically cured by EFT and began flying with joy forever after. That would have made a far better story but reality is slightly different.
I tried it for a few sessions. Little by little, the anxiety began to lift. I went from extreme fear of flying to scared of planes to “I can do this”.
And then I had a wonderful surprise.
7. Imagine you’re sitting in the cockpit
I say imagine because in these days of heightened security, pilots will no longer invite you to “visit the cockpit”.
It wasn’t that long ago that 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 also my ignorance of it.
8. 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 instructor 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 from Geneva 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!
So the odds are seriously in your favor. There’s every chance – 99 in 100, actually – that you will pass the course.
In the intervening years, I was able to shed my fear of flying by using a combination of many of these methods. But in late 2017, my fear came back with a vengeance. Back to the drawing board for research until I discovered a course called SOAR, by Captain Tom Bunn, which pulled together a lot of the techniques I already knew into a coherent fear-busting plan – but most important, IT WORKED!
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. If you’re not feeling ready for SOAR, try one of these, or buy the SOAR book just to dip your toe in.
MY MESSAGE TO THE AIRLINE INDUSTRY
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 pointing people towards a prayer room.
- 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 (rather than having to pretend I’m Indian or vegetarian to get a meal of my choice).
- 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 make a fear of flying course like SOAR available for those afraid of flying.
- I’d provide flight simulator time for particularly stressed passengers. I’d see this as a good investment. Some of us would certainly be willing to pay for this.
- 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 – major bump, severe turbulence, unusual sound or otherwise. No one minds interrupting to sell us duty free – so interrupt us with information please. Your soothing voice proves (or at least hints) someone is in control. Now I’ve heard that in some cases – an aborted landing, for example – pilots are actually not allowed to talk to passengers right away… But even understanding those rules would help; at least we wouldn’t be worrying about what was going on up there.
All right, so a few of these suggestions might be a tad unrealistic or maybe not even legal but… why not dream?
SOME LAST-MINUTE FEAR OF FLYING TIPS
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. So stop getting nervous each time someone walks past the door.
- 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. You don’t have to fly the plane from seat 28F. The pilot actually knows what to do.
- 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.
- You know that airsick bag? Breathe into it if you’re hyperventilating.
These strategies all served me well for years. And then, for some reason, things changed. As I prepared for a trip to Colombia, suddenly that sickening pre-flight anxiety crept in.
“I hate flying,” I kept thinking.
“I am afraid to fly,” I told myself a little more truthfully.
And there it was. A week from that admission, I would be taking 12 flights in ten days. Over mountains. Through winter storms (of course I’d checked the extended weather forecasts). And sometimes in planes smaller than your average Australian insect.
Since this was a professional assignment, I had little choice. The clock was ticking – and I needed some fear of flying help. This is when I decided to take some fear of flying classes – and I found SOAR. (Click here to read about how it worked for me.)
I’m still not jubilant 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.
My life is no longer shortened by the stress I used to feel each time I had to fly. Now I’m just grateful to get to the airport because once I’m there, I feel the most dangerous part of the journey is finally out of the way.
And I can relax.
— Originally published on 28 June 2014