I started developing a fear of flying in my early teens. It may have been caused by a very bad storm I once flew through or perhaps it was the sudden realization that flying is actually being thrown from one place to another in a giant, loud, metal box. Regardless, the fear has been there for some time now and seems to be getting worse. With family living in both Australia and Europe, air travel on a regular basis is part of my life and it has become clear that I need to harden up!
Sure, I’ve read the statistics and know 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 fear is that there is often no logic to how it presents itself. You might be fine with the flying part, but get sweaty palms when the plane’s at full capacity. Or the small space might not be an issue for you, but imagining plunging to a fiery death any time there’s turbulence, prevents the ‘relaxation time’ the fearless so arrogantly talk about. Whatever your dread, if flying makes you break a sweat, these tips may help:
KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT
Learning the basics of how airplanes work can go a long way toward alleviating your 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).
TAKE THE EDGE OFF… IN MODERATION
I used to self-medicate with wine or a sleeping pill, but one must be very careful not to mix the two together (a lesson 19-year old me learned after a little wine/Valium cocktail!) Take something if needed, just make sure you’re informed about the quantity and any effects before doing so. Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants is also recommended as they can make an already anxious person even edgier. There’s nothing wrong with a little superstition Some may hold on to a favorite necklace, say a little prayer, turn around three times before boarding…Whatever floats your boat really. For me, as anyone close to me knows, the phrase “You’ll be fine” is a mantra I chant pretty much the entire journey. 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 when they see me clutching my necklace and mumbling ‘You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine”, but it beats sitting next to a sweaty, teary mess.
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, an aisle seat will make you feel less blocked in. 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 find the window views a calming distraction from their own thoughts. If I sit on the wing level or any row in front of it, I’m a much more pleasant passenger. I firmly believe that turbulence is felt more at the back of the plane; a theory I developed when seated in the last row during heavy turbulence. I was so terrified I had to hold on to the basin when I went to the bathroom… Luckily I was already seated on the toilet…
POSITIVE THINKING AND DISTRACTIONS
My mind is my worst enemy. Rather than thinking about the excited family waiting at the end of my journey, my brain treats me to a montage of movie air crash scenes. I know it’s the anxiety talking, but it takes a real effort to focus on the positives. We 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. Try exercises like deep breathing, listening to music you like, watching an in-flight film etc. to drown out some of those anxious thoughts.
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 getting 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 and board the plane in ‘peace’.
BEFRIEND THE CREW
Cabin and ground staff deal with anxious flyers every day and I have yet to find a soulless crew member who won’t take your anxiety into consideration – grumpy yes, soulless no. On the ground they may take pity with your puppy-eyed plea and find you that seat you like so much. In the air they’ll check on you during turbulence or even give you a reassuring look or hand on the shoulder.
SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
If your fear prevents you from travelling and you’ve tried relaxation techniques without success, asking your doctor for 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.
As I prepare for my very long flights to Australia in a few weeks I hope I can follow my own advice. Bon voyage everyone!
By Stefanie Selen,
A qualified psychologist who started her career working with trauma survivors and later turned to private practice. As well as a health and wellness professional, Stefanie is also mother of two, wife of one, veteran expatriate and self-proclaimed ‘foodie’. www.lifesrecipebook.com