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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.

Managing Fear of Flying

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.

Managing Fear of Flying

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.

Managing Fear of Flying

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.

Managing Fear of Flying

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.

Managing Fear of Flying

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.

Managing Fear of Flying

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.

• Breathe

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.

Managing Fear of Flying

• 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.

Managing Fear of Flying

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.

Managing Fear of Flying

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.

Managing Fear of Flying

Are you a fearful flyer? Tell me what steps work for you in the comments — and which of these you might be trying!

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20 Comments...
  • Lily
    September 6 2017

    I’ve been struggling with fear of flying my entire life — through the over 50 countries I’ve visited, study abroad, grad school overseas, and two years in the Peace Corps! It’s nice to know I’m not the only frequent flier with anxiety out there. Your solutions here are all things I’ve used as well, especially the “chat with a flight attendant” technique. They’re usually very interested helping. And of course, Klonopin has been a lifesaver, especially on ultralong flights to Africa or Asia. But we definitely don’t need to let our fear of flying stand in our way!

  • Marni
    September 6 2017

    Thankfully I’ve never had a fear of flying, though several of my friends and family members do. Whenever I fly with them, I make sure to sit beside them and offer my hand for them to squeeze the second it gets a bit bumpy. One of the things I always try to tell nervous fliers is one you said yourself – you don’t hear about the thousands of flights that make it safely to their destination every single day. Plus, you take more risk getting in your car or even getting out of bed than you do on a plane. I hope it gets easier or at least more manageable for you, Alex! I can’t imagine having a fear of flying when you have to travel as frequently as you do.
    Marni recently posted..Eastern Canada Road Trip, 2017 – Recap

  • Leigh
    September 6 2017

    I hate that this appears to be an age thing, but it definitely seems to pop up in late 20’s/early 30’s. My catalyst was a flight out of Denver (age 32) that caused what I later learned was a panic attack (had never had one, so I didn’t know!) It became serious enough that I canceled a business trip the morning of because I was up all night with anxiety about the flight, googling driving and train routes instead.

    Happily, serious panic (I would google rental cars and train routes every time I had to fly) only lasted a few years. I take Xanax, but am back to being a pretty cool flyer. Fingers crossed it stays that way!
    Leigh recently posted..Career Break Month 1 Recap

  • Kim
    September 6 2017

    I am also a late in life anxious flyer. Well anxious doesn’t really cover it – I am a first class white knuckler that has been known to literally walk out of an airport because I just couldn’t get on the plane. I used to love flying but 2 back to back turbulent flights, one with injuries stopped that love in it’s tracks. My saving grace is xanax. I take it the night before I fly and right before the flight. It’s been a life saver for me as far as travel goes. No more missing out seeing new countries and no more being miserable trying to get there.

  • Erin
    September 6 2017

    I have a slight fear of flying mixed with a sleeping problem…i hate the takeoff but LOVE landing.

    Last big flight I did which was from Toronto to Munich on way to Malta….i got some Xanax. So i got on the place, got some wine, and took my xanax, and STILL barely slept.

    Sometimes I think your mind can overpower these drugs…lol

  • Jill
    September 6 2017

    I never had any flight anxiety whatsoever…until I moved to Colorado. Almost every flight west is guaranteed to be turbulent, since we have to fly over the Rockies to get there. And wouldn’t you know it, all my family and friends live on the West Coast!

    I tend to do okay in turbulence as long as I can see the ground from the window, so my least favorite flights are the kind where we’re just barreling bumpily through thick clouds and rain at 700 miles an hour. Eek. I think I’ll try writing down some of those mantras in advance of my next trip…
    Jill recently posted..A relaxing weekend in the Eastern Algarve

  • Megan
    September 6 2017

    This is really helpful. I’ve flown quite a few times before and always enjoyed it, but it’s been a few years and in the interim I’ve developed pretty significant anxiety in normal life. I’ve got my first flight since that began this weekend, so I’ll have to try some of these out! With my everyday-life-anxiety I’ve definitely found that building associations, like with your song, works really well. I do that with certain scents- I’ll use lavender and cedarwood essential oils when I’m relaxed/happy/sleepy, and now it really works to calm me down when I’m getting panicky.

  • Leah | Nomad'er the Distance
    September 7 2017

    Thanks for sharing! I don’t get flight anxiety but I definitely get travel anxiety and you’re right — it snowballs. I found myself crying in the middle of a Whole Foods before my flight to study abroad in Thailand.
    Leah | Nomad’er the Distance recently posted..Vegan Camping Meal Ideas

  • Emma
    September 7 2017

    Thanks so much for this Alex – I’m actually in the process of developing flight anxiety (it’s been getting steadily worse in the past year, not helped by the fact that my lifestyle has changed so I now board a plane roughly once every 3 weeks..) and I really think your stats on crashes will help me. I’ll be using your mantras on my flight tomorrow!

  • Anton
    September 7 2017

    I can’t get on a plane without looking at the flight radar app! Thanks for sharing this, I agree with you and recently have began speaking to the attendants before and during the flight as well. I’m constantly amazed at how blazee people are about flying.

  • Ijana Loss
    September 7 2017

    I’m one of those people who rolls their eyes during turbulence, but I’m 21 and I hope it doesn’t get worse for me as I get older! If it does however, this is a fantastic resource, you did a great job providing info here. And side note, great job figuring all that stuff out too, cause a lot of the time when anxiety is involved it’s really hard to think critically and rationally to formulate a plan to help yourself.

  • Kelly Borglum
    September 7 2017

    Love that you shared this! Thankfully I don’t have any anxiety surrounding flying (actually there may be something wrong with me, because I find turbulence a bit relaxing…like it’s rocking me to sleep! hahah not joking at all) but I do get other travel-related anxiety that I need to talk myself down from at times. Particularly when I’m visiting a new destination solo, and am not really sure what to expect!

  • Vee
    September 7 2017

    Thank you so much for writing about this. As someone who travels quite frequently and used to love flying, my new found fear is very disconcerting. I have found that getting onto a flight exhausted and chilling out to my favourite tunes helps me manage the anxiety. Nothing ever prepares you for that mid-fight turbulence though and my desire to run into the cockpit to check that they are on it! I have found that deep breathing and accepting what will be will be, helps ease the anxiety. Thanks for the song recommendation, will be adding that to my inflight play list.

  • Jessica
    September 7 2017

    I had a similar thing happen that you’re talking about and other people have mentioned in the comments – suddenly becoming a nervous flyer, which happened when I was 25ish. Before, flying didn’t bother me, but more recently I’ve occasionally cried on flights because I’m so worried.

    I’m definitely thankful for these tips and will have to try more of them! Having a glass of wine or a beer definitely helps me take the edge off the nerves, and it’s also helpful for relaxing enough to be able to sleep if it’s not too bumpy.
    Jessica recently posted..15 Perfect Things to Do in Summer in Barcelona

  • Liz
    September 7 2017

    This happened to me completely out of the blue in my early 30s as well – in fact, it was during a time in my life when I was traveling nearly full time for work and loved flying.

    I tried medication, but eventually sought help from a therapist b/c I couldn’t be medicated and then hit the ground running for work meetings.

    Here are the 3 things that helped the most:

    1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – including addressing some of the fears/life things I was taking onto the plane with me and desensitizing to turbulence by watching turbulence videos on YouTube (terrifying at first, but worked!)

    2. Recognizing that my body discomfort during turbulence (nausea, gassiness, muscles clenching) was creating a lot of the panic/”something’s wrong.” So now I eat simple foods, avoid too much caffeine or alcohol, focus on relaxing muscles and express sympathy for my body (“Body – I’m sorry you are uncomfortable, but you are safe.”)

    3. The “I see, I hear, I feel” game. During turbulence, you first name five things you see: “I see the exit row sign, I see a blue shoe…,” then five you hear: “I hear the plane engine, I hear a baby crying…” and finally five you feel: “I feel my foot in my sock, I feel my hand on my phone…” It makes your mind slow down and be really present instead of wandering to panicky spirals of “what ifs”

    I’d say now I truly enjoy a calm flight, have no pre-flight anxiety and tolerate turbulence somewhere between “annoying” and “don’t like this, but I can get through this”

  • Jessica
    September 7 2017

    Omg, I’m glad I’m not the only one! I fly all the time, but ever since I had a 13 hour flight recently (my first long haul in years) I got weirdly claustrophobic and started thinking of all the things that could go wrong.. and have carried that anxiety into my flights since then. So weird!
    Jessica recently posted..Swimming with Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres

  • Allie
    September 8 2017

    I also developed anxiety over flying late in life. I did take a flying lesson once – it was really cool and I didn’t feel scared at all. However, it hasn’t helped with being a passenger. For me I think it’s more of a control issue. When turbulence starts I don’t know what’s happening in the cockpit and I can’t do anything. If I were to see the pilots acting like it’s no big deal I’d be a lot more relaxed. Something that helps a bit is to look at the flight attendants faces. If they don’t seem worried, why should I be?

  • Katie
    September 8 2017

    I had the exact same problem Alex. I never used to be afraid of flying but after a couple of very scary flights – an aborted landing due to high winds, flying into a cyclone and into a thunderstorm – I developed a full blown phobia. There was a 2-3 year period where I would stress for days about flying, had to take valium before flying, and hyperventilated a couple of times on particularly bad flights. Thankfully I am a lot better these days although I still hate turbulence. My coping mechanisms include listening to calming music or distracting myself by watching a movie, crossing my fingers (I literally feel safer when I do this), deep breathing and repeating a mantra over and over in my head, like ‘We will land safely and everyone will be OK’. One thing that helped me get past the phobia stage was actually getting completely out of my comfort zone and doing a flightseeing tour in Alaska in a 10 seater plane. I was always terrified of small planes but it wasn’t actually that bad.
    Katie recently posted..Digital Nomad Life: Month Twenty Six

  • Dominique
    September 10 2017

    I think I’m starting to develop a fear of flying as well. That’s coming from someone who (like you) used to love the “me-time” on a plane.

    I had some stressful mid-air turbulence bouts during my recent trip to Malaysian Borneo. One of them had the flight attendants lying down flat on the floor in the aisle. That’s when I started reevaluating my desire to travel and the dangers that come with it.

    I hope this is not something that will stick. Flying is a means for me to travel the world, however, I will try to limit flights within a country as much as possible…
    Dominique recently posted..Biesbosch National Park – Searching for Beavers

  • jay
    September 13 2017

    I am so happy you wrote this !! I used to love flying too but somewhere in the past 2-3 years I have developed a serious fear. For me it’s the turbulence I’m good with everything else but the minute we hit anything, I find my self gripping my seat belt, blasting my music and chanting a word to keep me from freaking out. But like you traveling is what I do. I am on a plane at least twice a month and I hate that now this is something I have to deal with. Everyone assumes I love to fly since I travel so often too. These are seriously some great tips and I am heading to Florence next week so I am going to try them out !! thanks for being so open I wish more people spoke out about the setbacks or downsides of traveling.
    jay recently posted..Tea Time at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse | Colorado

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