For many, airplane travel is fraught with a great deal of fear and anxiety. Let’s face it. The idea of being some 36,000 feet up in the air, above all birds and clouds, isn’t the most comforting thought. Those with anxiety disorders have an especially hard time grappling with the fact that their safety is out of their control. This is where airplane anxiety begins to come in.
Friedemann Schaub, M.D., Ph.D., molecular biologist and physician specializing in cardiology, and author of The Fear and Anxiety Solution, explains that the fear of flying is much more than a fear for most. It’s more akin to a phobia. “For many, this fear is a special form of anxiety disorder. [This] by definition, is a strong fear of a specific object or situation that in reality poses very little or no danger,” he says. “An airplane phobia can also occur in response to a traumatic, anxiety-triggering experience, such as flying in bad weather with strong turbulences or a malfunction of the plane during the flight.” A person may have been completely comfortable using planes for decades. But, he adds that one traumatic event can be enough for a phobia to develop.
For those dealing with airplane anxiety and fear, traveling can be a dreadful experience. Here, Schaub and other experts share their best tips for managing the phobia on your next flight.
Close the window shade.
This may sound simple—and it is. Experts say that not looking at the height that the plane has climbed is monumentally helpful. “The sky is a constant reminder that you are not on the ground and are actually far, far above it,” says Paulette Sherman, Psy.D., psychologist, life coach, and author of The Book of Sacred Baths. “If the windows are closed and there isn’t too much turbulence, there may be times you can distract yourself from the fact that you are flying and do another activity or sleep with an eye mask on.”
Collect and redirect your thoughts.
Kathryn Moore, Ph.D., psychologist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, explains that anxiety is often tied to the preconceived thoughts or beliefs about a certain situation. “For example, when flying, a person may have worry thoughts such as, ‘I’m going to die,’ or ‘I can’t stand this,’” she says. “These thoughts serve to intensify our anxiety.” Instead of allowing these negative connotations to permeate your mind, Moore recommends trying to counteract them. Think positive coping thoughts such as, “I can get through this,” and “This feeling will pass.”
Practice deep breathing and relaxation exercises.
We’ve all been told to “take a deep breath” during a time of great fear and anxiety. Sometimes it can feel as though the person telling us to do this merely wants us to stop. But experts support the benefits of breathing exercises to calm anxiety. “Deep breathing, as a way to relax and release internal pressure, is something we instinctively do,” Schaub says. He recommends taking deep, long breaths whenever feelings of anxiety arise. Make sure to engage your chest and your abdomen. “On the inhale, fully expand your lungs by letting your belly rise. On the exhale, slightly pull your abdomen back toward your spine to push all the air out,” he says. “While a racing mind speeds up our breathing, consciously slowing down our inhalation and exhalation has a calming effect on our entire nervous system.”
This is often hard to do when you’re overcome with such strong feelings of anxiety. But you will be less afraid if you’re able to get your mind off the focus of your fear, experts say. “Distraction is a good technique. Your feelings often follow your thoughts. If you’re focused on a crossword puzzle or watching your favorite movie, your thoughts will tend to be occupied by that activity instead of every plane movement or sound,” Sherman says. “Be proactive. Do things that can distract you on the plane ride, such as a good book or a card game with a travel companion. [This way] you are not so focused on your fear.”
Focus on the bigger meaning.
According to Moore, some people find it helpful to use their religious faith or beliefs. It helps to power them through fearful or anxiety-provoking situations in which they feel out of control. “Praying or thinking of that larger power as carrying you safely is a way to decrease anxiety about flying,” she says. For those who are not religious, she recommends focusing on a bigger meaning of life. For example, your beautiful contributions to the world and what you still have left to do in this life. “Think of how flying aligns with your values and the type of person you want to be. Flying [can be] an activity that helps you become more like the person you want to be,” she suggests.
Read up on statistics.
It’s true that you’re more likely to be involved in an automobile accident than a plane crash. But that fact alone might not be enough to comfort you. For this reason, Sherman recommends reviewing some facts about flying beforehand. This way, when anxiety arises, you can talk yourself down with logic and information. “For example, you can remind yourself that flying is one of the safest forms of transportation and recognize that turbulence is a normal part of flying and familiarize yourself with different types of airplane noises that are also normal,” she says. “You can also remind yourself that you can’t control the plane, ultimately. All you can do is control your response to flying.”