Feeling uneasy when boarding a plane is a problem that plagues many fliers. In fact, as many as 40 percent of all people experience some form of anxiety related to flying, set off by anything from fear of heights to strong bouts of turbulence or horrific stories of past disasters.
If this sounds like you, know that your worries are common. But that doesn’t mean they’re founded in any actual danger.
Get the facts
Statistically speaking, air travel is the safest form of transportation in the world. This means that if you’re comfortable riding a car, logic dictates you should feel even safer boarding a plane. But that is not the case for most nervous travelers, for whom the fact that flying is incredibly safe is too abstract and just not enough to offset their worries.
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Instead, reading more concrete examples attesting to the safety of air travel may be more helpful for those suffering from airplane anxiety.
- By 2018’s statistics, a person would have to fly every single day for more than 16,000 years before experiencing a fatal plane crash.
- Airplanes are not just built to withstand turbulence, but they barely flinch in the face of much more significant stress. For example, the wing tips of an Airbus A350 XWB can bend up to 17 feet above their resting position without causing any damage.
- Every flight you take is monitored by at least eight air traffic controllers: three during takeoff, three during landing, and two for each air traffic control sector your plane passes through. This means that a cross-country flight can have dozens of professionals watching it and helping it avoid hazards like inclement weather and other aircraft.
- Airplane engines are some of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery ever built, and the likelihood of them failing is minuscule. But even if all the engines of an airplane failed at once, it could still land safely.
Know your triggers
Cold, hard facts can be helpful to some, but they’re unlikely to calm flight anxiety entirely. In addition to safety statistics, nervous fliers should also arm themselves with awareness of their own specific triggers.
“Our determination of what feels safe or not has nothing to do with our reasoning qualities,” says Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders. “Our anxieties are triggered from a part of our brain that’s not rational.”
Sief argues that “fear of flying” is a blanket term that encompasses a whole constellation of more specific fears, including that of heights, crashes, terrorism, enclosed spaces, germs, and many more. Thinking about which particular fears apply to you can help you keep your anxiety in check.
Separate danger from anxiety
“Anxiety is the feeling that you’re in danger when you’re really not. It’s a false alarm system,” explains Seif. “There’s nothing about this that’s rational—every person who comes to see me realizes that they’re more afraid than they should be.”
Therefore, it can be helpful to remind yourself that you cannot trust your anxious brain when it comes to flying-related thoughts. Make the effort to remain grounded with simple observations to disarm the panic responses your brain tries to force upon you.
First, think about the people you know: your friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances. Have any of them ever been killed in a plane crash? Have any of them experienced even a non-fatal aviation accident? The answer is probably no. Remind yourself that this is because airplane mishaps are so vanishingly rare, most people don’t know a single person who has faced one.
Then, when you’re on the plane, look around at your fellow passengers and you’ll likely be able to see at least one baby or small child with their parents. If flying was truly as dangerous as your anxiety wants you to believe, no parent would ever bring their child on board. Therefore, flying must be safer than you currently realize.
Next time you’re in the car, bring along a partially-filled water bottle and notice how the ordinary bumps and potholes on the road cause the water to jostle around violently. Keep that movement in mind when you’re on a turbulent flight. Notice that although the bumps may feel significant, the drinks in cups or bottles around you will only move very slightly.
Finally, flight attendants take to the skies for a living, so they know exactly what parts of a flight are expected or unexpected. Next time you get nervous, take your emotional cues from them—it’s likely that mechanical sounds, changes of altitude, alert lights in the cabin, and other signals are no cause for alarm. If they seem calm and relaxed, you can give yourself permission to relax as well.
Accept your anxiety
You may feel that the anxiety of being in the air is the worst part of flying, but Seif says many people experience 70 percent or more of that anxiety even before they step onto a plane. If that sounds familiar, the key to regaining your comfort is accepting your anxious feelings, rather than fighting them off.
“The best way to handle anxiety is to try to figure out ways of leaving it alone,” says Seif. “Anxiety lives in the future, and the closer you stay to the present, the more manageable your anxiety becomes.”
Before your flight, try not to dwell on your anxiety at all. Dreading a flight is often the biggest source of stress for nervous fliers, but we can only control how we feel and what we do in the present. Reconnect yourself to the current moment using your five senses, and acknowledge that anxiety will arrive when the flight actually happens.
When you’re at the airport, avoid using mind-altering substances like alcohol to self-medicate your anxiety—they can help dull your senses, but don’t address the underlying problem. Instead, accept your anxious feelings and avoid engaging with them. You can also use some of the facts mentioned above to remind yourself that you are safe.
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Once you’re on the plane, you will probably start feeling the physical effects of heightened anxiety: sweaty palms, tense shoulders, or a racing heartbeat. Your body is responding to a false alarm telling it that danger is near—but it really isn’t. Do your best to make your body as comfortable as possible, eat and drink water as you normally would, and distract your brain from intrusive thoughts using any in-flight entertainment available.
As soon as you land, note how comfortable and easy your flight was compared to what you initially feared. This is also a good time to reflect on the mental process you went through: you expected to feel anxious, you felt anxious, and then you were released from that anxiety by arriving safely at your destination.
Seek professional help
A small percentage of people have a truly debilitating fear of flying that can be classified as aviophobia, an officially recognized anxiety disorder and one of the most common phobias. If your fear of flying is impacting the way you live your day-to-day life, the best solution is to seek out professional help.
Many therapists are trained to diagnose and treat anxiety disorders with a combination of talk therapy, medication, and practical exercises. If you find yourself dreading vacations or even canceling trips due to your fear of flying, it’s probably time to enlist an expert. There’s no magical cure that can eliminate anxiety right away, but putting in the work with professional guidance can turn flying from a dreaded chore back into an exciting adventure.