If you are afraid to fly, there are a number of steps you can take to overcome this fear. Your very first step needs to be motivation: facing anxiety is indeed uncomfortable, so you need to become determined to choose air travel as the easiest, quickest way to reach those far-away destinations. Then, follow these simple (but not easy!) steps.
A. Start by trusting the airline industry.
No self-help skills will assist you in your goal unless you choose to feel safe on commercial flights. Many people feel much safer in a car than in a plane. But this is an illusion. In reality, you are 19 times safer on a plane than in a car. You just feel more in control when you are on the ground and able to pull over whenever needed. The facts clearly show that the airline industry has earned the right to be called the safest form of modern transportation available. People frighten themselves by thinking of the POSSIBILITY of a problem during a flight. Instead, think of the PROBABILITY of a problem. You have one chance in 10,000,000 of dying on a plane. (Given that probability, if you flew every day of your life, it would take 26,000 years before your time would be up!) Compare with this: you have one chance in 14,000 of dying in a car and one chance in 2 of dying of cardiovascular disease! But statistics may not be enough for you. Actively seek out information about air travel, including pilot training, aircraft construction and maintenance, the air traffic control system, the monitoring of weather systems, and all the normal sights, sounds and sensations while on a flight. Once you have the facts, you will be able to rest assured.
B. Accept your feelings.
When you begin to get anxious and panicky, accept these symptoms. Don’t fight or try to hold them back. If you struggle against your anxious feelings, you will cause an increase in the symptoms you are trying to reduce! …your heart will race more, your palms will sweat, you’ll feel more lightheaded and dizzy, your stomach will become more tense. So when you notice your symptoms, tell yourself, “It’s OK I’m feeling this way. I expect to be nervous right now. I can handle this.” Then work on believing those thoughts, not just repeating the words.
C. Handle your worries.
Even after you decide to trust the airline industry, your mind may continue to scare you with “what if…” thoughts. (“What if something does go wrong!”, “What if people see that I’m nervous!”, or “What if I have a panic attack!”) When you notice those thoughts, actively choose to stop them. Reassure yourself with supportive statements, such as, “Turbulence may feel uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous” or “These negative thoughts aren’t helping me right now; I can let them go.”
Our breathing patterns are medically proven to influence our physical symptoms. Use straightforward and simple breathing skills to relieve your body’s stresses and quiet your mind. They will help you to quickly clear unwanted thoughts and let you enjoy your flight with a quiet mind and a calm body. Here’s one you can use, called the Calming Breath. Completely exhale, then take a long deep breath. Hold your breath to the count of “three.” Exhale very slowly, saying the word “relax” under your breath. Now rest for about 15 seconds. Let your muscles go limp and warm, loosen your face and jaw muscles, and quiet your thoughts. Repeat that process two more times.
Why should you spend time learning how to relax muscles? We have over twenty years of research now in the field of relaxation. This research supports the notion that if you can loosen the muscles in your body, your anxiety will reduce automatically. This is a great way to alleviate some of your symptoms! Here’s one simple technique, called The Ten-Second Grip. Grip the arm rests of your seat tightly, while you contract your upper and lower arms, stomach and leg muscles. Hold that grip for ten seconds as you continue to breathe. Let go and take a nice long Calming Breath. Repeat this two more times. Shift around in your seat, shaking loose your arms, shoulders and legs. Gently roll your head a few times. Close your eyes and focus on your gentle breathing as you invite your body to feel relaxed, warm and heavy for the next half-minute.
F. Take supportive actions.
There are many things you can do to increase your comfort. Start by reducing your caffeine and sugar intake on the day before and the day of your flight. Refrain from drinking alcohol before or during the flight. Pack a bag of pastimes for the flight: a good book, crossword puzzles, your favorite music and snacks, and so forth. Get to the airport early; don’t rush. Watch planes takeoff for a while to get an idea of the motions you might expect. As you board the plane, greet the Captain and look in the cockpit. Consider mentioning to the crew and the flight attendants that you sometimes get afraid on flights. At your seat, get comfortable; do some quieting exercises, talk to your neighbor. As others board, watch faces, notice relationships, greet people as they go by. During take-off, wiggle your toes for 30-50 seconds or take 3 Calming Breaths. During the flight, ask the flight attendants about any sensations that bother you. Pull out your pastime bag and get occupied with a project. When the seat belt sign goes off, stand and stretch or take a walk. In other words, get involved; don’t sit and quietly concentrate on your worries while checking your watch. When you get anxious, review the major points of this sheet: remind yourself you can trust the airline industry, accept your feelings, handle your worries, breathe (!), relax, and again take new supportive actions. And drink lots of water or fruit juices to avoid dehydration from the dry plane air.
Reid Wilson, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who directs the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Chapel Hill, NC and https://anxieties.com/. He is author of Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry and the self-help book Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks. He is co-author of Stop Obsessing! How to Overcome Your Obsessions and Compulsions, and Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children, as well as Playing with Anxiety: Casey’s Guide for Teens and Kids. He designed American Airlines’ first national program for the fearful flier and currently serves as the expert on anxiety for WebMD’s Mental Health Community. He blogs for Psychology Today at “All about Anxiety.” He is a Founding Clinical Fellow of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) and Fellow of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT). In 2014 he received ADAA’s highest award, and received the 2019 Service Award by the International OCD Foundation.