It’s hard to believe these days, but once upon a time, I was a fearless flyer.
I’d giddily look forward to being in flight as my “me time” when I could disconnect from the world and relax. My more anxiety-prone friends would vie to sit next to me since I’d just laugh and reassure them when they started white-knuckling the arm rests. I’d simply roll my eyes when hard turbulence hit because it made it difficult to work on my laptop. I was a calm, happy flier.
Then, in the summer of 2016, I took a flight from the Manchester to New York that was going smoothly until suddenly, the plane jolted sideways. Passengers yelped and cried in fear, and flight attendants walked down the aisle after smiling at us to restore calm. I spent the next hour rigid, panicked, waiting for the plane to dip sideways again.
By the time we landed, I was shaking, and all I could think about was the fact that I had at least six flights stretched out in the six weeks ahead of me and there was nothing I could do to avoid them. I was already riddled with stress over work and my travel schedule, and now I was hopelessly fixated on the flights I had no choice but to board. It’s my job to travel, after all.
I won’t sugar-coat it: it’s been a rollercoaster since. When I confessed what was going on via Instagram and via Facebook, I was amazed how many of you confessed to late-in-life fear of flying, too. Everyone’s phobias are so different. Mine is mid-flight turbulence. Typically, take off bumps are okay-ish for me, and once that landing light comes on I’m laughing. But the bumps in-between threaten to turn me inside out with fear.
After an initial few months of misery, I started to find coping mechanisms that worked for me. Sometimes, flights fall through the metaphorical anxiety cracks, but overall, I have found that I can avoid traumatic in-air panic attacks if I follow these steps. Some of them might seem crazy, but, well, they work for me!
One of the biggest hurdles? Letting go of the idea of flights as productive work time and giving myself the space and time to focus on self-care instead. Do what you gotta go to get there in once piece. Good luck to you, fellow flight anxiety sufferers! And don’t forget to tell me what works for you, in the comments.
Step One: Reduce all other stress factors
Since my fear of flying emerged, I put serious intention into boarding a plane as relaxed as possible. For me, a lifelong “cut it as close as you can-er,” that means getting to the airport early, checking in ahead online, and getting through security stress-free with Pre-Check. I try not to let myself dwell on thoughts about the upcoming flight — the greatest fear is fear itself, after all — and instead switch my focus to my excitement about the destination when my mind wanders pre-flight. Or I will tell myself, “this is going to be a safe and smooth flight, and I am going to enjoy it.”
Anxiety snowballs — set yourself up for success by starting from zen.
Step Two: Choose the right flight — and seat
Right now, I’m all about getting on the plane pleasantly exhausted so I’m relieved by the time I get to my seat, zonked out for take-off, and in deep chill mode by the time I inevitably wake up mid-flight. That means red-eyes, when I can, or staying up late the night before and going to a crazy workout class before heading to the airport if I can’t. Bonus! Late night or early morning flights are also a smoother ride — statistics show turbulence is much lighter either post-sunset before the day heats up, especially in the summer.
Experts also recommend choosing a seat over the wing for the smoothest ride. And while we all can agree that middle seats are hell when you’re flying solo, you’ll just have to experiment to figure out if you find aisle or window seats most calming. Personally, I go window for long flights I plan to sleep on and aisle for short jaunts I predict I’ll mostly be awake for and don’t want to risk any claustrophobia added into my anxiety cocktail.
Step Three: Talk to your flight attendant
Before boarding, I try to find the most sympathetic looking flight attendant and confess that I’ve been really struggling with anxiety around turbulence lately. Sometimes, they’ll dryly inform you of whether it’s predicted to be a bumpy ride or not, other times, you’ll luck out with a rockstar who says all the right things, and comes back with a smile when you hit rough air.
One of my friends is a flight attendant and talking to her about my late-in-life flying anxiety was incredibly helpful. First, she assured me she gets passengers reporting the same phenomenon all the time, which made me feel less crazy. Second, she gave me a ton of reassurances of things that I already knew or suspected, but they came from a voice of authority and thus were easily turned into mantras that I now use in-flight (more on that below.) Recently, during a layover after a terribly turbulent flight, she gave me a little pep-talk via text that helped make boarding the next flight bearable. You might not have a flight attendant on speed dial, but you definitely have a few on every flight you take. Let them help you.
If you find that this step really makes a difference for you, be sure to book aisle seats so you can make easiest visual contact with a flight attendant or chat quietly to them if necessary and possible.
Step Four: Do research
Once my fear of flying hit, I did a metric ton of research — reading pilot interviews, news stories on the safety regulations of the airline industry, studies into how much turbulence planes can withstand, and beyond. Sensationalist headlines about crashes used to be what flashed in my mind when turbulence hit — now they have to compete with cold hard facts. Many of the statistics and quotes from my reading and research have become my tried-and-true mantras that I filter through mid-flight.
This is one of those cases where the more you know, the better you’ll feel! I’ve actually been seriously considering taking flying lessons to really go for the gold on this step — though of course, I’d have to tackle some serious anxiety first.
Step Five: Stay calm under pressure
At this point, for me, if I’ve checked off all the previous steps and the ride remains smooth, my heart rate might remain the same it would if I was zonked out on the couch watching TV and I pretty much fly the way I always have — happy and relaxed. If we hit a few bumps, however, I switch my focus to managing any anxiety that might bubble up.
Deep, slow breathing literally tricks your brain into believing you’re calm even when you’re anything but. I dig into my yoga practice and focus on slow, meditative breathing when I feel anxiety creeping in.
• Find a comfort
I found that while “distract yourself!” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to those with a fear of flying, it was totally useless for me. If I’m just trying to brush off some take-off bumps and jostles, fine, I can keep flipping through a magazine, but if we hit serious turbulence? Forget it. Reading or working only adds to the chaos building up in my mind — I need to close the laptop, put down the crossword puzzle and sit quietly and focus on my coping mechanisms. Your mileage may vary!
There are exceptions. While I will also turn all music off in severe anxiety situations, for milder cases, the song 10,000 Emerald Pools has become a go-to. I don’t know why but there’s something I find incredibly soothing about it. When I realized that I was organically gravitating towards playing this when I needed to self-soothe, I started playing it at home when I was completely relaxed — stretching or doing yoga, reading, taking a bath — so that it would have an even stronger relaxation association. Find what works for you.
• Create mantras
When all else fails, I sit quietly with no distractions, accept the reality of the bumpy situation I’m in, and cycle through various mantras that I’ve found bring me comfort.
“These are just speed bumps,” I tell myself, and pretend I’m in a car, where the bumps and jostles would be nothing more than an annoyance.
“The pilot also wants to get home tonight,” or, “the crew has probably already flown this route three times today,” I tell myself, and remember that the experienced team knows what they’re doing and won’t put us in danger.
“Turbulence is a matter of comfort and not safety,” I tell myself, remembering an interview in which an experienced pilot explained that he avoids it out of sympathy for his passengers and his desire not to spill coffee on himself rather than out of concern for the safety of the plane.
“Feeling anxious doesn’t mean I am in danger. I am safe, even though I am feeling intense anxiety,” I tell myself, remembering that only one in ever 1.2 million flights result in an accident and of those accidents, there’s a 95 percent survival rate in plane crashes from 1983 to 2000. If we don’t take steps to manage it, the body will react to anxiety the same way it does to actual danger.
“Ugh, what a hassle. I wonder what I’m having for dinner?” Remember my friend Caitlin, the flight attendant? She once told me that while she felt terribly for her passengers who suffered from anxiety, she didn’t really even know what it felt like to be afraid of turbulence. I found that so fascinating that I’ve latched onto it. Sometimes, when I’m on an extremely turbulent flight, I literally pretend to be her — confident, slightly irritated at the hassle of a work inconvenience, planning out my evening.
Step Six: If all else fails, have a drink
Like literally, one. I used to never drink on planes (unless headed to Vegas, duh) because again, I used to love to use that time to focus on work and loved landing hydrated and ready to rock. But these days, if the flight attendant tells me it’s going to be a bumpy ride, I’ll order a vodka soda or a sparkling wine and juice and just let myself indulge in a little liquid relaxation instead.
Step Seven: Get help
If your fear of flying is seriously affecting your life — preventing you from seizing work opportunities, making you hesitate to visit friends and family, putting your travel plans on hold — get help. I encourage you to talk to your doctor about the possibility of medication, various exposure therapies, or flying anxiety programs (there are dozens out there!) if you can’t find relief through DIY solutions like those outlined here. While I haven’t tried them yet, I’ve considered online courses, books, smartphone apps, and even hypnosis.
There’s no shame in any of that game! Personally, I have a prescription for Clonezapam and I’m not afraid to use it (my worst flight in recent memory was one in which I accidentally had checked my medication — won’t be making that mistake again.) Don’t let the stigma of anxiety medication or any other radical flight anxiety therapy stop you from getting where you need to go.
Are you a fearful flyer? Tell me what steps work for you in the comments — and which of these you might be trying!