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Just between the two of us, I’m not a great flyer. I’ll do it (of course), but usually with white knuckles and a clenched jaw.

I wasn’t always this way, but after having kids I worried more about getting home safely. So here I am…

I know my fears are unfounded. Flying is still the safest mode of transportation out there. My rational mind knows it, but my lizard brain takes over in unexpected turbulence, during a bumpy takeoff or hard landing, if the plane is old, I’m flying a less well-known/budget airline, birds are spotted in the area, it’s snowing/raining/sunny, I inexplicably think about the movie Alive, the Pilot looks drunk, or the woman next to me is wearing a green sweater…

So, pretty much all the time.

I’m not alone. At least 40% of Americans are afraid to fly (a.k.a. aviophobia) and 3% won’t fly at all.  Think about how many vacations, weddings, family reunions are missed because someone can’t get on a plane. 

I’m nowhere near the 3%, but my pre-flight experience is often filled with anxiety rather than excitement about the trip. Over time, I’ve come up with some strategies to help ease the worry. A few are below (along with some others that might help). What works for me may (or may not) work for you.  If your fear turns into a full-on phobia, it might be time to seek professional help.

EIGHT TIPS FOR FEARLESS FLYING

LEARN HOW PLANES WORK

The best way to combat fear is with knowledge and science always wins. Learning the physics of flying may put some of your most significant fears to rest.  For example:

Will my plane fall out of the sky?

No, planes can’t just fall out of the sky because air has mass and the plane moves through the air like you move through water. A plane’s wings are designed, so the air moving across the top of the wing moves faster than air moving below the wing. When air moves faster, the pressure of the air decreases, so there’s more pressure below the wing. The difference in the upper and lower pressure creates a force on the wing that lifts it into the air.  Now, don’t you feel better?

Will turbulence hurt the plane?

No, turbulence is completely normal and causes no danger to the plane. Pilots often say turbulence for a plane is similar to car driving over a pothole. Unpleasant, but not life-threatening. The most common type of turbulence is “Clear Air Turbulence” which is caused by flying from fast-moving air (a jet stream) to slower moving air (air). 

Severe turbulence is very rare, but keep your seatbelt fastened (seriously, more than 50 injuries a year are caused by turbulence), and you’ll be OK.

What if someone opens a door in mid-flight?

They won’t. Regardless of what you see in the movies, the pressurized cabin makes opening a door mid-flight impossible.

IDENTIFY YOUR TRUE FEAR

Are you terrified of flying? Could you have claustrophobia instead?  A fear of heights or even motion sickness?  Maybe you can’t stand being so close to strangers for long periods of time?  Identifying the fear will help you find ways to address it.

VISUALIZATION AND MINDFULNESS

Visualization is a tactic recommended by therapists to help cope with anxiety. Imagine the entire flight from a safe takeoff to a safe landing. If a disruptive, negative thought comes up, turn it around or dispute it with facts (flying is super safe, I love to fly) and send your mind back to imaging a safe takeoff and landing (or sipping a piña colada on the beach at your destination).

Meditation and mindfulness also helps with a fear of flying. Studies show that daily meditation helps lower stress and anxiety in general and could help with acute fears.  When you’re fearful on a flight, pay close attention to what’s happening rather than where your imagination takes you. For example, when the plane hits turbulence, acknowledge the turbulence and the worry/discomfort caused, but don’t freak out. Instead, change your thoughts from “We’re doomed!” to “Time for a snack/movie/nap.”

BE ON TIME

Give yourself enough time to drive to the airport, check-in, go through security, and make it to the gate without running.  Seriously, nothing gets cortisol levels up like fear of missing a plane.

AVOID ALCOHOL AND CAFFEINE

Skip the caffeine for obvious reasons, but also avoid alcohol. Yes, alcohol will make you feel relaxed for a while, but it also dehydrates, causes headaches, and disrupts sleep when you fly.

Also, pack some healthy snacks and buy water before boarding the plane.  Low blood sugar, too much sugar, and dehydration will make you feel lousy and up the anxiety level.

KEEP BUSY

Keep yourself busy with something you enjoy.  Avoid work if possible (unless you love it). Anxiety and boredom cause the mind to wander into dark, scary places. A good book, movie or TV show are all worthwhile distractions.

FLY AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN…

According to experts, avoiding a phobic activity only makes it worse.  Plus you’ll miss out on life’s adventures by not flying. So find some strategies that work and then book a flight.

TAKE A CLASS

If you fall into the 3%, consider taking a class to help overcome the fear (Whoopi Goldberg completed the Virgin Atlantic program to combat her 30-year phobia). Many airports around the country offer fear of flying programs.

PS – I know plenty of people who take prescription drugs for anxiety before they fly. Do what you gotta’ do, but that’s between you and your doctor.   🙂