10 WAYS TO MANAGE A FEAR OF FLYING

I can happily admit that I am not an expert when it comes to certain aspects of traveling. When it comes to having an extreme fear of flying as a world traveler, however, I’m your go-to girl

I can vividly remember taking my first flight as a child. I was six years old, and my parents took me to Disneyland. The flight from San Francisco to Anaheim was less than an hour long. I sat in the window seat, next to my Dad, who pointed out the many aqua blue pools in the Los Angeles backyards upon landing. And I loved it.

Fast forward eight years later, and I am on a London bound flight {once again with my parents and now younger brother}. During the entire 12 hour journey, I sat wide awake, sweating, alert, panicked, and anticipating the worst. I will never truly understand what happened over those eight years that instilled this fear of flying. My best guess is the most obvious factor involved in my case: anxiety.

I have always had anxiety. It started in the form of ‘stomach aches’ before school every morning when I was in Elementary. I would anticipate these aches, and they would be very real each morning. The pain was there, whether or not I had brought it upon myself. I’m sure my parents believed it to be nerves, and to an extent it was.

But growing up, my anxiety was very closely related to other factors in my life. To this day, my skin reacts when I have lost control of my anxiety. In Middle School, I began having mind-numbing migraines at the same time each day {it was math class right before lunch}. I would grow anxious every afternoon, anticipating what was to come. And inevitably, it would indeed come. Going to the school nurse every day, and requiring an adult to pick me up and take me home, was embarrassing to say the least. 

But at that time, it was out of my control.

And so, when it came to boarding a capsule the size of a small building, with the expectation that it should fly miles above the ground, my 14 year old mind could not rationalize it. And to be fair, my 27 year old mind still has a hard time rationalizing it, regardless of how many statistics you spit out to me or physics charts you explain in great detail.

Here is an insight as to how my flights used to take place {and admittedly, occasionally still do}:

Days prior to flying, my anxiety would kick in. The only thing on my mind was my flight, and the potential hurdles I would endure. Sleep was normally out of the question, and talking about it always made it worse. Silence would normally be the only way I could get on to the plane without breaking down. It didn’t matter whether I was flying alone, or with loved ones. The anxiety remained the same, I just got better at hiding it.

Now, I am not a religious person by any means, but I prayed to God before I boarded each and every flight. I would peel off every layer of clothing, until I had the bare minimum on, solely because I knew I would sweat through anything I was wearing. Before take-off, I would listen intently to the safety demonstrations, locating the nearest emergency exit. And when seated in an emergency exit row, I would always ask to be removed and relocated, for the safety of everyone on board.

Take-off was, and still remains, the most terrifying element of every flight for me. That, and of course, turbulence {dun, dun, dun}. During take-off I would grip the arm rests, constantly look out the window {during each turn I believed that I was falling to my death}, grind my teeth, and of course, sweat profusely. Let’s just say, you wouldn’t want to be the one sitting next to me.

I wouldn’t eat over the entire duration of the flight, and would rarely watch movies. I just sat there, wide-eyed and miserable. The panic didn’t subside. With any small movement or unfamiliar sound, I was on edge. I simply couldn’t relax. And this continued for years.

And yet, here I am. I have traveled to 27 different countries worldwide, boarding so many flights that I lost count long ago. I lived abroad in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and now South Korea. My number one passion in life requires me to face my biggest fear in life, over and over and over again. Because of this, I have learned to manage my fear of flying.

Let me be clear, I have not conquered my fear of flying.

It still remains a very true fear of mine to this day. That being said, I grew exhausted of flying in the manner I was. Travel is such a significant part of my life, something had to be done. Here are 10 ways in which I am able to manage my fear:

1.  Forgive yourself

First and foremost, you need to accept your fear, and then forgive yourself for it. I used to attempt to hide my fear of flying when traveling with friends or family. I felt ashamed that I was in a state of panic, when everyone else around me was seemingly peachy. 1 in 3 adults in America have a fear of flying. That means 33.33% of passengers on board your plane are experiencing similar feelings to your own. All I’m saying is, you’re not alone.

2.  Fly with an airline you trust

Before booking my flights, I always do my research. As in, I take the time to check each airlines’ safety rating from two different online sources. There are a few airlines that I consistently fly with if given the option: Air New Zealand, Emirates, British Airways, Jet Blue, Air Canada, Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa to name a few. We all know flying is the safest form of mass travel, and most airlines are completely safe to fly with, however flying with one of these trusted airlines tends to give me peace of mind.

3.  Noise cancelling headphones are your new best friend

TRUTH. Out of {ear?} sight, out of mind? If I can’t hear it, it must not be happening. Sounds tend to trigger my anxiety when I am flying, “Did the engines just shut down?” “Is the captain pinging the flight attendants to tell them to prepare us for an emergency landing?” “I just heard the wing crack in half”. Having a pair of noise cancelling headphones at hand seriously eliminates the possibility of unnecessary panic.

4.  Date a pilot

Okay, so this one might be easier said than done. But if you get the opportunity, I highly recommend it as a tool for managing your fear of flying. Even if you just befriend a pilot, it’s the same general concept. I dated a {now} Air New Zealand pilot from the period of time that he was studying aviation at University up until the point that he was teaching others how to fly. You can imagine the insight I received from that relationship. He was my greatest resource on flights, explaining every sound, movement, and stage of flight. It brought me comfort knowing he felt confident on our flights, as it was coming from a trained pilot.

5.  Confide in the flight attendants

I used to watch as the flight attendants would rush to the back of the plane, probably to address a bread roll complication. I instantly panicked, assuming the engines had failed and they were rushing to implement emergency procedures, completely forgetting to inform the passengers on board. The flight attendants are there to ease your anxiety, not create more of it, regardless of the scenarios in your head.

During one flight, the flight attendants continuously looked out the window at one of the wings. One after another, it felt as though the entire cabin crew had wandered back to take a look. It was becoming a scene, and eventually one of the pilots left the cockpit to analyze it. You can imagine the terror that fell over me when he emerged in my cabin. You should be in the cockpit! Why are you here? This can’t be good. Well, I’ve lived a good life. 

When he returned to his post, I immediately approached the closest flight attendant. He could sense the panic in my voice as I asked him what was happening. He reassured me that it was nothing to worry about, and simply a fluke in the system, alerting them of one of the doors… blah blah blah. It didn’t matter what he told me at that point. He was confident and relaxed, which then made me feel confident and relaxed, even if the door was about to fall off and we would all be sucked out of the plane at any moment.

If you approach the flight attendants before a flight explaining that you are a nervous flier, they normally go out of their way to assure you are well-looked after.

6. Breathe

It’s a simple tip, but one that I tend to forget while on a flight. I’m not one for meditation, and I’m not a yogi, however I do believe that controlled breathing is an important skill to have. And it’s relatively easy. Just inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth, when you start to feel panic arising. It seriously works wonders.

7. Download your favorite show, podcast, movies, etc. prior to flying

One of my favorite things about flying {and they are far and few between} is the guilt-less movie-“binge”ing I get to partake in. Like I mentioned previously, there was a time I refused to even engage in movie watching on planes. The only thing that would settle me was my favorite show on this earth: New Girl.

Even now, I watch at least an episode of New Girl every single day. And I’ve seen every single episode at least 50 times {no exaggeration}. I instantly feel comforted when I hear the familiar banter between the characters I so dearly love. And it works the same way when I open my laptop to Schmidt, Winston, and Nick on a plane. If you have a beloved show or movie that instantly brings you comfort, invest in purchasing it to watch in flight. It makes all the difference.

8.  Sit in an aisle seat

… for multiple reasons. The first being it physically removes you from being the window-licker of the airplane. That’s usually me, face constantly against the window pane.  I would try closing the shade on the window to avoid looking out. But the moment we hit a bump of wind, the shade would immediately be up with my eyes glued to the sky in case I was going to catch something the pilots missed. Up and down, up and down, up and down. When you can no longer physically look out the window, it eliminates the desire to do so. Remember? Out of sight, out of mind. At this point in my flying ‘career’, I actually prefer the window seat. Not because I get myself riled up, but because it’s truly beautiful.

An aisle seat also allows you to physically get up and move around the cabin, which is important whether you enjoy flying or not. I find moving around the cabin distracts me momentarily, and provides a bit of freedom from my current state of {usually} horror. It’s a chance to regroup and {if you’re like me and forget to do step six} breathe a little.

9.  Kick off your shoes

Literally. Get comfortable, even at the expense of those around you {though let’s all have some common courtesy people}. Taking off your shoes may feel inappropriate, but I’ve gone as far as taking off my bra in an attempt to relax on a flight. Pack some warm, fuzzy socks in your carry on. Maybe a miniature pillow and some lavender scented oils. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t worn a sheet mask on a plane. If you struggle with anxiety, you’ll try anything. And trust me, the passengers around you would prefer you with cucumbers on yours eyes as opposed to the sweaty, panic-ridden mess you would be.

10.  Admit defeat

And finally, the most important thing that helps with managing a fear of flying: surrendering. Mostly because you don’t have a choice. If you’ve committed to walking onto the plane, settling into your seat, and buckling your seat-belt, you’ve already surrendered. At that point, you have no control over what happens on the flight, for better or worse. Sure, you could spend those 12 long hours contemplating an escape route should you experience a water landing, or you could catch up podcasts. You could spend 14 hours in a cold sweat, with every vein in your body on the cusp of bursting, or you could write a few blog posts.

Either way, the outcome of what happens to you on that plane remains the same. You must let go, and stop attempting to control everything. Which, coming from someone that struggles with anxiety, is like telling an alcoholic to just stop drinking. I get it. It feels impossible. And it takes practice, trust me on this one. Lots and lots of practice. That means lots and lots of flying.

I still get panic attacks on planes, I’ve cried in front of strangers during turbulence, and I never truly feel at ease during take-off. But I have moments now, where I will completely forget that I am thousands of miles above the ground. I eat most of the meals served on my flights, and sometimes dabble in an orange juice or two. A five hour flight is considered a short flight in my eyes, and I have comforted others with their fears en route. I can sleep for a few hours on planes now. I have even fallen asleep during take-off once! If you were to ask me ten, even five years ago, if I would ever fall asleep on a plane {let alone during take-off}, my answer would be hell no, how would I know when the oxygen mask {that will inevitably fall down} falls if I was asleep? Needless to say, I’ve come a long way.

I’m not sure if I will ever conquer my fear of flying. But I still have a lot of world left to see, and only one way to see it.

Over to you, do you have a fear of flying? If so, what helps you cope?

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