Over the holidays, I flew from Seattle, Washington, to San Jose, California. You might recall bad weather created air traffic nightmares: Airports were jammed, baggage was lost, and flights were cancelled. While waiting for my flight, I thought about all the things that could go wrong, which, until I stopped myself, created gigantic fear in my mind about making the trip and is something most people call flight anxiety.
I have read, to some degree or another, millions of people experience fear when flying, and this causes them to drink alcohol or take tranquillizers to cope. It can last for years unless a person deals with it. Flight anxiety can also be a problem for people of all ages and ranges from light fear to absolute panic. It develops for a variety of reasons—scary stories reported by the media, strong bumpy turbulence on a flight, or other stressful or traumatic incidents in life that may be completely unrelated to flying.
Flight anxiety symptoms are similar to those of general anxiety and treatments vary. Symptoms often include excessive, ongoing worry and tension, as well as an in ability to control those feelings. A person may also experience restlessness, hyperventilation, muscle tension, headaches, sweating, heart palpitations, and nausea. Popular treatment options are cognitive behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization, and medication. However, I propose a comprehensive, holistic approach. In other words, I think implementing mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional activities prior to, and during the flight, can help alleviate flight anxiety symptoms.
Let’s say your friend has invited you to go to Las Vegas for the weekend to see Bette Midler at Caesars Palace. You would love to go, but it involves a two hour plane flight, and you have been deathly afraid of flying since the September 11th, also known as 9/11. The incentive to see Midler, and the knowledge you have a chance to overcome your flight anxiety, convince you to say yes, albeit with great trepidation. So, let’s explore tips you can implement prior to and during the flight.
Prior to the Flight
If you were to fly to Las Vegas, given your fear, the flight would surely be a white knuckle event. Most likely you would be so upset you could not enjoy the trip. So, my goal is to not only help you feel comfortable when flying but also to help you look forward to the flight. The best way to do this is to prepare ahead of time by putting some new thoughts, practices, and understandings into place using mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional aspects.
- Flight anxiety has a lot to do with self-talk, what one says to oneself, and, in this case, it’s about flying. Make a list of your fears, turn them around, and make them positive affirmations. If your fear is that the plane will crash, research the number of plane crashes in recent years and create a new thought such as “planes are very unlikely to crash,” or whatever statement resonates for you. Repeat the new thought hundreds of times daily.
- I particularly like the process of well known author and speaker, Byron Katie. She suggests asking four simple questions: 1) Is it true? 2) Can you absolutely know that it’s true? 3) How do you react when you believe that thought? and, 4) Who would you be without the thought? Then apply a “turnaround” thought or belief to the original thought.
- Educate yourself about the reality of flights and crashes. Look at the safety records of various airlines and chose the safest one.
- Learn safety tips and be prepared just in case. That is very affirming because if you know what to do when unscheduled events occur, you’ll feel more self-confident about taking care of yourself in any situation. For instance, you may feel sure of yourself when using the computer because you know how to run the programs and fix the glitches. Wouldn’t the same be true, if ahead of time you knew how to use the flotation device and the oxygen mask on an airplane? Sometimes success happens because we respond spontaneously and immediately, which means practice and understanding is helpful.
- Be in good health because it ensures health issues won’t generate anxiety and concerns. For example, if you have a disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and are going to be on a plane for a couple of hours, that could add to your anxiety.
- If claustrophobia is an issue, choose an aisle seat or one next to the exit so you have more space.
- Take a short flight ahead of time for practice. The idea of a short flight idea is based on the systematic desensitization theory. If flying to Las Vegas for two hours is more than you can bear, then think about steps that would be easier and list them sequentially. For instance, the easiest action might be going to the airport, the second easiest might be buying a plane ticket, the third easiest might be sitting on a plane, and so forth. Your goal is to get comfortable with flying, one small step at a time, and by examining each step, it alleviates fear.
- Learn to meditate. Meditation is a calming technique that requires you to focus on a word, your breathing, or a sound. It also helps distracts you from thinking about the flight.
- List every step in the process from making the reservation to getting home and unpacking your suitcase. Close your eyes and visualize the whole trip occurring successfully several times a day. Spiritual experts say that what you focus on expands; so, focus on how you want this flight to go and how you want the trip to turn out.
- Thoroughly explore the fear. Write out the words “I am afraid of flying because….” Then add as many endings as you can think of, and, when you run out of endings, write the sentence again and start over. Explore what it is about flying that makes you nervous. Is it being trapped in a small space? Fear of an accident in the air? Or anxiety about heights? Try to be as specific as possible. You want to acknowledge the fears so that you can address them.
During the Flight
Once you make it to the airport, and it’s the day of the flight, you may have to deal with flight anxiety once you get on the airplane and during the flight. So, you need to continue to take control of your thoughts and not allow them to overtake you and produce fear. I cannot guarantee the following ideas will work, but they are possibilities for alleviating anxious feelings.
- Focus on the affirmations you created before the flight and acknowledge that you are safe. There are a couple of good reasons for saying affirmations: a) they take your mind off negative thoughts because it is impossible to think two thoughts at the same time, b) if you hear something long enough your thinking begins to change, and, c) spiritual experts say that what you focus on expands. So, focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want.
- Let the flight attendants know of your fear because they will likely provide additional support.
- Travel with someone. This person can be a support system for you, and they can also be someone to hold onto and to talk to as a diversion. Moreover, you may feel better if you are not flying alone.
- Bring a book, a crossword puzzle, your IPOD, or a computer to distract yourself.
- Keep reminding yourself to relax. To accomplish this, simply repeat the words “I am relaxing” or “relax” over and over. This is a distraction technique, and you are telling yourself what to do. As you say the word or words take deep breaths. Another technique is to say the word “peacefulness in” as you breath in and “tension out” as you breath out. The goal is to support rather than scare yourself.
- Walk off nervous energy in the airport, so that you will be more relaxed during the flight.
- Rely on meditation and prayer. This is another way of distracting yourself and keeping yourself calm. It also proves particularly powerful for those people who believe in the prayer. If you want to learn more about the prayer, read The Power of Prayer.
- Bring a lucky charm or a special stuffed animal. Doing so is like bringing a friend, and it can make you feel safer, give you courage, and help you meet the challenge of flying.
- Hold on to someone. Having physical contact with another person and having someone you can talk to can help lessen anxiety.
OMG, The Flight is Tomorrow
All well and good you say, but I have a flight tomorrow, and I don’t have time to do the things listed above. Then I suggest:
- Mentally. Challenge the fear by repeating an positive affirmation during the entire trip.
- Physically. Take care of claustrophobia issues, and bring things to distract you, such as crossword puzzles, books, etc. There are also several remedies people can use to alleviate anxious feelings. For instance, kava-kava stands out because in tincture form it quickly relieves anxiety. Flower essence are also excellent anxiety relievers. Probably the two best essences for flight anxiety are rock rose (for deep fear or panic attacks) or white chestnut (for a chattering mind). Flower essences also work quickly because all you do is put one or two drops under your tongue, and they immediately enter your bloodstream. As with all medications, you need to follow package directions, and, you should also be aware there can be interactions or side effects. For instance, kava-kava should not be taken by someone with liver problems or Parkinson’s disease, so check with your health care professional before taking any herbal or flower essence remedy.
- Spiritually. Visualize yourself getting to and from your destination safely because that automatically increases your chances of success.
- Emotionally. Take the flight time to explore your fear. For example, bring paper and pencil with you, and, at the top of the paper write “I am anxious right now because…” Then add as many endings as you can think of, and, when you run out of endings, rewrite the sentence and start over. Explore what it is about flying that makes you nervous. Another possibility is to write down everything that comes to mind: All of your thoughts and feelings. However, a word of caution about either idea, if you find doing this causes too much anxiety, STOP immediately.
Flight anxiety has many causes and interferes with travel. However, it is completely curable. Now that you have read this article, you can begin by implementing some of the suggested practices. You can also face flight anxiety head on by preparing and choosing a time that is right for you to fly. Or, if an emergency strikes, and you have been practicing, you will be more prepared and less likely to suffer anxiety on the flight. If after giving these suggestions a try, you find you still have symptoms, you may want to see a therapist for more intense and personal support.