8 Tips for the Fearful Flyer

I’ve flown my entire life, without any problems, until I started developing a strong fear of flying in my early teens. It could have been caused by a very bad storm I once flew through or perhaps it was that imminent realization that we’re being thrown from one place to another in a giant, loud, metal, fart box. Regardless, it has been there for quite some time now and it seems to be getting worse over the years. As someone who has family living in both Australia and Europe, and a husband who loves to travel, taking airplanes on a regular basis has just become part of life. Despite the constant urge to research viable train connections, it has been made clear that I just need to take that spoon of cement, be a big girl, and harden the bleep up!

Sure, I’ve read the statistics and I’m very well aware that I am more likely to be killed by a cow (random) than when flying.  I even attended a course for airplane wimps (not its official name) which helped to an extent. But the kicker about having a fear is that there is often absolutely no logic behind how it presents itself.  You might be fine with the flying part itself, but get sweaty palms when you see the plane at full capacity. Or the small travel space might not be an issue for you, but images of plunging to a fiery death anytime there’s turbulence might hinder some of that so-called relaxation time all the fearless ones so arrogantly talk about.  Whatever your dread, if taking the plane makes you break a sweat, these tips might be useful for you.

  1. Know what to expect.

For many fearful flyers, 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 take-off and landing). I know for one I won’t relax until I hear the first “ping” after taking off, and will fully settle into my seat after the second “ping” noise. The “ping” (in my mind) is the pilot’s way of informing cabin crew that we’re safe and well on our way… for now.

  1. Take the edge off… in moderation

Before flying with my daughters, I used to self-medicate with wine and/or a sleeping pill. Of course, one must be very careful not to mix these two together. A lesson 19-year old me learned after a little wine/Valium cocktail. We experienced a ‘touch and go’ whilst landing in London and after 5 minutes in the air the Captain assured us we’d just circle around for a bit before landing again…. to which a very intoxicated me slurred (loud enough) “That’s what they said in ‘Die Hard’ and that plane crashed” (much to the amusement of fellow passengers). I apologized profusely to the friendly flight staff who assured me I was not their first. So don’t hesitate to take a little something if needed, just make sure you’re informed on quantity and effects before doing so. Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants is also recommended as they might make an already anxious person even edgier.

  1. Nothing wrong with a little superstition

Some of us hold on to a favorite necklace, say a little prayer, turn around three times before boarding the place, whatever floats your boat really. For me, the phrase “you’ll be fine” is somewhat of a mantra I chant pretty much the entire journey. Anyone close to me knows this and the more people who say it to me before take-off, the more secure I feel about the flight. I may bother a few fellow passengers along the way when they see me clutching my necklace and mumbling ‘you’ll be fine; you’ll be fine; you’ll be fine” like a lunatic; but it beats sitting next to a sweaty, teary mess.

  1. Choose the right seat for you.

Most airlines and agencies allow you to request a seat when you book your flight. If your main concern is claustrophobia, request an aisle seat as you’ll feel less blocked in by other people. You’ll be able to get up and move around the cabin and it also makes it easier to avoid looking out the window if those high altitude views make you nervous. Others prefer the window, because those ‘views’ calm them down and can distract them from their own thoughts. If I sit on the wing or any row in front of it, I’m a much more pleasant passenger. I solidly believe that turbulence is felt stronger at the back of the plane. A theory I developed when seated in the  very last row during heavy turbulence while I was in the bathroom. I had to hold on to the basin because I was terrified… luckily I was already seated on a toilet because … well… you know.

  1. Positive Thinking and distractions rather than gloomy hypotheticals

If you’re a fearful flyer like me, my mind is my worst enemy. Rather than thinking about the excited family waiting for me at the other end of my journey, my thoughts tend to drift more towards images of a burning wreck…suitcases scattered… a baby crying for its mother… *gulp* or my brain treats me to a montage of all the air crash scenes I’ve seen in movies. I know it’s the anxiety talking, so it takes real effort to focus on the positives and we might need to ‘train’ our brain into grounding ourselves and finding ways to refocus and relax. Thinking about where you are heading, who you will see and how fun it will be, is a good start. Don’t read any headlines or watch any documentaries/films with air cash themes in them. Try to work on relaxation exercises like deep breathing, listening to music you like, watching an in flight film etc. Finding positive ways to distract yourself will help drown out some of those anxious thoughts.

  1. Don’t rush yourself

Running around fearing you’ll miss your flight or looking for documents will only add to your anxiety. Prep ahead of time and have all documents printed, filed away and easily accessible. Arrive on time. You might be a pro at going through airport security but that doesn’t mean the chatty family of 7 in front of you is. It’s always better to stand around a bit before the flight, board the plane in ‘peace’, stow away your hand luggage and settle into your seat; rather than running onto the plane as they call your name before closing the doors. Of course, unless you like the thrill of last minute stress and not wanting too much time to overthink, then my friend, please do rush away.

  1. Befriend the crew

Cabin and ground staff deal with anxious flyers every day and I am yet to find a soulless crew member who won’t take your anxiety into consideration…. a few grumpy ones yes, but not soulless. On the ground they might take pity with your puppy-eyed plea and find you that seat you like so much. In the air they’ll check in on you during turbulence or even give you a reassuring look or squeeze on the shoulder. Often meeting the people, you consider responsible for your safety can reassure you that they are competent in doing exactly that. In saying that, my irrational little brain refuses to meet the pilot in case they don’t live up to my demanding expectations though. Baby steps…

  1. Seek professional help

If your fear particularly hinders you from travelling and you’ve tried several relaxation techniques without success, asking your doctor for more information on anti-anxiety medication or contacting a mental health professional might be a final option. Learning techniques through NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) with the assistance of a licensed therapist can help you figure out the root causes of your fear and how to overcome them.

So with these tips in mind, I prepare for my very long flight(s) to Australia in a few weeks and I hope I can follow my own advice as much as I like to dish it out. “You’ll be fine Stef”.

Bon voyage everyone!

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