Does the mere thought of flying cause you to clench your fists and break out into a cold sweat? Do you run horrific crash scenarios through your mind while you’re sitting on a runway? If so, you are not alone. Being a fearful flier is a common phobia that cripples countless travelers.
And even though flying is statistically one of the safest ways to travel (there is only a 1 in 11 million chance you will die in an airplane accident, while there’s a 1 in 5,000 chance you’ll die in a car accident), for those with aviophobia (a fear of flying), these stats are not reassuring at all considering we drive daily and only fly a few times a year, if that.
While clinical phobias like a fear of traveling often require effective treatment and care through a trained mental health professional, there are ways to manage and ease your worries on your own when you’re in the air or on the move.
Here are my top 10 tips for the fearful flier:
Educate yourself. For many fearful fliers, learning the basics of how airplanes work can go a long way toward alleviating their anxiety. For instance, understanding how a plane can continue to fly even if an engine fails can help you feel less concerned about your aircraft malfunctioning. GuidetoPsychology.com offers an easy-to-understand explanation of how planes stay in the air, what causes turbulence, and what’s behind those scary sounds during takeoff and landing.
Acknowledge your fear. Human nature is to suppress fear or pretend like it’s not there. But the more we fight fear, the more we fan the flames. Trying to ignore or run from emotions only makes matters worse. It may seem silly, but recognizing that you are afraid and taking a moment to sit with and acknowledge your fear can keep the feeling from escalating. You might say to yourself, “I feel afraid that something bad is going to happen” or “I feel powerless in this moment”.
Pick your seat, but don’t panic if you can’t. It is true that turbulence is felt more keenly in the tail end of the aircraft and is mildest around the wings. If you can, try to get a seat near the center of the plane. However, if you’re not able to reserve a seat in this section, don’t panic. Just remind yourself that if you do hit a patch of turbulence, its effects may feel more powerful to you simply based on the location of your seat.
Breathe. One basic calming technique recommended by doctors and professionals is conscious, deep breathing: in through your nose and out through your mouth as slowly as possible. It may seem obvious, but it works! Breathing also helps prevent (or stop) panic attacks. Try to maintain a relaxed posture without clinging to the chair’s armrests, since this can heighten anxiety.
Look at the flight attendants. If you are worried that the turbulence you are experiencing is going to knock you out of the sky or that that sound the plane is making means the engine is failing, just take a look at the flight attendants. Do they appear concerned? If they are still going about their jobs and don’t look worried or alarmed, chances are nothing is wrong. If the flight attendants are calm, assume all is well.
Avoid caffeine on travel day. Caffeine is a stimulant that can/will make anxiety feel worse than it is. No matter if your flight is at 4 am or 4 pm, avoid it. Caffeine can linger in your system all day. Wean yourself off it for a few days before you fly if it’s too painful to go cold turkey. A stimulated mind can spin out in all kinds of jittery, panicky directions. Just. Don’t.
Practice grounding exercises. Grounding is a particular way of coping that is designed to “ground” you in the present moment and is a powerful tool for combating anxiety. To ground, use your five senses (sound, touch, smell, taste, and sight). Observe your surroundings. What do you see? Notice the cloud patterns in the sky, the colors in your environment, the textures. Experience how your feet feel on the floor, the way the armrest feels against your skin. What can you smell? Hear? Taste?
Separate fear from danger. It is often difficult to separate anxiety from danger because your body reacts in exactly the same way to both. Be sure to label your fear as anxiety. Tell yourself that anxiety makes your frightening thoughts feel more likely to occur, and remind yourself that feeling anxious doesn’t mean you are in danger. You are safe even when feeling intense anxiety.
Come prepared with distractions. One of the best ways to distract yourself during a flight is to load up your iPad with your favorite episodes of Seinfeld or Friends or bring a book that you’ve already started and are deeply engrossed in. Whatever you can do to surround yourself with familiar pleasures from home. Think of it as comfort food for your mind. Do anything that keeps your mind occupied and not dwelling on morbid possibilities.
Above all else, know when it’s time to seek professional help. If you’re losing sleep, feeling sick with anxiety, or avoiding travel at the expense of your own or other people’s convenience, then you should speak with a doctor or a licensed mental health professional for further guidance and support.
Wishing you peace and safe travels!
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