How to Understand, Manage and Overcome Your Fear of Flying

overcoming fear of flying

If the idea of stepping onto an airplane gives you a bit of anxiety, you are not alone. One in four people feel a little bit of fear when it comes to flying and some of them suffer a fear so severe that it is diagnosed as an anxiety disorder known as “aviophobia”.

“Aviophobia” comes with a variety of symptoms, from minor to severe and it can affect frequent flyers after years of flying or people that have never flown before.

There are my flight attendants tips and tricks you can use to combat this fear.

Identifying The Fear

First of all identify the symptoms and causes:

Symptoms

The symptoms of aviophobia can range from minor discomfort, such as muscle tension, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal distress and sweating, to more serious changes in emotional status, including feelings of disorientation, anger or irritability.

It can even cause some individuals to have a full-blown panic attack, including feelings of impending doom, uncontrollable shaking, and loss of consciousness.  

So the first important step in understanding why you’re afraid to fly and alleviating these symptoms is pinpointing the source of the fear.

causes of fear of flying
Photo by Sourav Mishra from Pexels

Causes

Let’s first consider the environment of an airplane.

The cabin is a relatively small tube, filled with many people, all of whom are strangers.  The passengers on this small tube then relinquish control to a pilot – whom they have never met – to lift thousands of pounds into the air, travelling hundreds of miles in just a few hours, a mile high in the air.

When put this way, it starts to make sense!

But not all the reasons are directly related to flying.

Yes, you may have experienced yourself a bad flight, encountering violent and sudden turbulences but you can also suffer aviophobia after hearing about other people’s bad stories.

Claustrophobia is also a huge contributor to fearful fliers, as humans don’t spend a lot of time in tight spaces like airplanes.

A stressful period in your life or other personal traumas or events in your life can also be other causes.  Flying for a job that is stressful can lead an individual to associate stress with the act of flying, rather than the job itself.

Or flying to or from a funeral, or after a car accident.

These are all touch points that might need to be addressed when identifying why flying has become frightening.

Fear of heights can also make some passengers anxious, as can the idea of literally giving up the controls to an invisible pilot, the idea of losing control.

If you are starting to show symptoms of aviophobia, the first step then is to locate the source of the anxiety:

Is it the closed space? 

Is it the feeling of losing control?

Or the fact that flying is a complicated feat of engineering and physics that most people don’t fully understand?

Try walking through these scenarios to see what fits.

Learning to Settle the Anxiety

flying anxiety

Being able to talk through issues and identify root causes of fear is all well and good, but what do you do if you are already hyperventilating, or if you personally feel shaky before take-off?  

Here are a few tips for keeping yourself and everyone calm in the face of unfounded fear:

Deep Breathing

Rapid, shallow breathing will only make anxiety worse.

Try any breathing exercise to help you relax.

You can practice belly breathing for example: place one hand on your stomach noticing your stomach rise while you inhale, and then exhale through the mouth and feel your stomach pushing inward naturally. Keep your chest still and repeat until breathing is under control.  This may take several moments!

Talk

Talking can actually help control breathing.  Talking, singing, reciting a poem, reading out loud – all of these things help regulate breathing and re-direct the mind to change focus.

Distractions

playing video games while flying

Read an article in the flight magazines that can be interesting to you.

There are plenty of other mind tricks that can be engaged to redirect the mind:

  • Count the number of shoes you see.
  • Find things that rhyme.
  • If you find yourself staring at the Emergency Exit, rearrange the letters and see how many new words you can find.
  • Hum or whisper the words to “Rocket Man” to keep your mind focused and your breathing steady (laugh now and try it later!).

The Informed Flyer Breathes Easier

cocktip

As mentioned earlier, most people don’t know a whole lot about how an airplane works.

Many passengers are able to just shrug and suspend the need to know.

Other people will be greatly comforted by knowing what that noise is, or why we hit a “bump,” or why the Fasten Seatbelts sign is on.

I, personally, used to get a gut-wrenching feeling when hearing all those clacking and banging noises of the mechanical adjustments during initial climb, but when I finally took the time to talk to a pilot about all the things that happen during take off and climb, it started making sense.

The same is true for anyone nervous about flying.  If any of you become nervous during turbulence, for example, take some time to learn what causes the “bumps” in the air.

Knowing that a plane cannot be flipped or ripped and the wings will not break off even in strong turbulence can do a lot towards easing the mind of a very nervous flyer.

Additionally, pilots are prepared for turbulence. 

Not only can they spot it on the radar, but they are also trained in how to make adjustments to smooth out the ride as much as possible.

This doesn’t mean that the physical disruption of turbulence will be any better, but being armed with details can help the mind focus on facts rather than feelings. 

Note: If you are seating at the back of the plane turbulences are always worse, so always try to pick a front seat. If you couldn’t, just talk to the flight attendants. Explain them your fears and ask them if it’s possible to change to any other seat at the front. They will do everything possible to make the flight easier, friendlier and safer for you.

Also keep in mind that small aircraft (like Cessna 172, ATR42 type) are more susceptible to turbulences.

You should know that before every first flight, the pilots will review the weather conditions and choose the safest route.

If needed, they’ll go around a storm or above cumulus clouds to avoid turbulences.

During the flights, they use the weather forecast and the radar system to predict turbulences.

ATC (Air traffic controllers) will also warn them if any other pilot encounters turbulences in the area. 

But please, don’t freak out if you experience turbulence in your next flight. It’s impossible to completely avoid them, because they could be unexpected and even happen in blue sky.

But despite whatever you may immagine in your head, turbulences will not make your plane fall apart and you will obviously not crash for this reason.

Believe me, turbulences are completely normal. I understand that they can be unconfortable but there are only caused by air movement.

What to Avoid

A wise person once said, “Do not lean into your emotions.”

This is really critical when it comes to flying because there are very strict limitations on space and the amount of time you can spend dealing with panic.  It might be tempting to tell yourself or a passenger to “snap out of it!” but the reality is that isn’t going to happen.

Avoid getting emotional when anxiety runs high.

When you feel a panic attack coming, stop and breathe in slowly for 4 seconds, hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds and release or breath out for 8 seconds.

Repeat and repeat focusing on doing it perfectly.

Definitely do not try to self-medicate with alcohol or caffeine. This is not the time to make matters worse in any manner!  

Helpful Hints for Success

overcoming fear of flying tips

Unfortunately, no one will be cured of aviophobia immediately, but here are a few tips to help you chill-out.

  • Wear comfortable clothes.
  • Arrive early to the airport, to not to be overstressed.
  • Book a comfortable seat, if possible at the front of the plane.
  • Get some food and snacks for the plane, they’ll distract you later.
  • Board the last one, because queues can be slow and sitting inside the plane surrounded by strangers for a long time can be a bit overwhelming.
  • Talk to the flight attendants before takeoff, tell them that you don’t usually fly and there are plenty of things that are racing through your mind.  Our job as flight attendants is much more than just serving snacks and drinks. While we can’t cure every single nervous passenger we encounter, we can extend some basic empathy to help you get through your flight.
    Just make sure you mention what we can do to make your flight more comfortable: an aisle seat, or taking a peek at the cockpit, or maybe a pillow… I’m sure your flight attendants will help if they can.
  • Talk to your inflight neighbor, they will be seated next to you the entire flight so they can help when flight attendants are not around.
  • Remember:
    Don’t be afraid of turbulence, it’s part of the experience of flying.
    Airplanes are designed to fly in all types of conditions, and turbulences are absolutely normal, they will not make your plane fall apart.
    I promise.
    Air travel is the safest form of travel.
    So don’t let your imagination run wild and stop thinking about crashes and things that could happen.
    Airplanes don’t just fall out of the sky, they will glide even without their engines. It’s even possible to use the plane’s altitude and glide safely to the ground.
  • Low-cost airline does not mean low safety. If they are trusted companies from the first World, their safety and security standards are the same for all airlines. They simply can’t cut on safety.
    Anyway before booking a ticket with an airline you never heard about before, check it out first. There’s a list of banned airlines in Europe, where some companies are judged to be unsafe and not meeting the international aviation safety standards. As you can see, they are mostly from Third World countries (Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Gabon, Afghanistan, Nepal, Iraq…) but last year, Moldavia, the first European country was added to the list.
  • During the flight distract yourself (use meditation apps, sleep or eat, talk to people, watch a movie, listen to a podcast…). There are so many ways. 
  • If none of this help, find a therapist or sign up for one of the courses. 

But don’t ever let your fear put an end to your travel plans. Being exposed to your fears is the only way to conquer them.

So, get on that flight and enjoy your vacation!

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