How to calm your fear of flying

Nervous flyer? Here are our top 10 tips to beat your fear of flying


Marianna Kilburn
Qualified Life Coach
@MariannaKilburn
Ask Marianna


26 August 2016

Why are people so afraid of flying?

“If God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings,” is a popular saying amongst many cynics and sceptics and, in a way, they’re not wrong. Humans, as a species, did not evolve to deal with the idea of flying and consequently for many travellers, the whole experience can feel a bit unnatural.

Which is perfectly understandable – being boxed into a tin can hurtling thousands of feet above the ground is anything but natural. However, media exposure has done little to alleviate your fears as you are constantly bombarded with horror stories about missing planes, terrorism, engine malfunctions and rogue passengers, giving the impression that doggy paddling across the Atlantic might be safer than setting foot on-board an airplane.

What are you afraid of though? Do you really think that the engines are going to cut out midway through your flight? Do you really believe the plane is going to abruptly nosedive into the Pacific Ocean at 500 mph? Let’s examine what people are really afraid of when it comes to flying.

The reality of flying

There’s an old urban myth that states that you are more likely to be killed by a donkey than involved in a plane accident.

Other than giving poor Eeyore a bad rep, there’s little evidence to support this thesis, although the sentiment may be heading in the right direction.

A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Authority in the USA, reported that you are 3000 times more likely to die in a motorcycle accidence than on a plane.1 The truth is that travel by car or by bike is considerably more dangerous than by air, especially if you consider the number of car crashes per year vs. the number of airplane fatalities.

Yet this does not stop you from stepping into your vehicle every day so what is it that you’re really afraid of?

  • Lack of control: If you’re driving a car or a motorbike, at least you feel as though you are in control of your journey. You are the one operating the vehicle and you know how your car works. In the worst case scenario, you can try to dodge any obstacles or hit the emergency break. Even when you’re sailing on a boat, you might feel more at home because you know that should the ship sink, you can commandeer a lifeboat or at least swim. Humans are incapable of flight and the only thing that might make your fear of flying worse is if the pilot were to summon you to the cockpit and say, “on you go, your turn.” Instead you are completely powerless and utterly out of your element, so it’s only natural that you might feel a bit anxious about turbulence or wary when you go to take-off – this is not your comfort zone
  • Rogue passengers: So the man who’s been looking a bit twitchy for the past hour stands up and announces his intention to open the plane door – what do you do? Nothing, the answer is absolutely nothing. Unless your fellow passenger is He-Man or the Incredible Hulk, that door is not going to open for him, even if it’s unlocked. Or, to put it another way, the combined forces of Rambo, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger are not going to get that door open. Nothing will happen and this is because the pressure outside the door is so vastly different from the pressure inside the cabin that the door will always remain closed, even if you’re flying at lower altitudes. Our advice in this situation? Crack open your packet of complementary peanuts and make sure you’re not in the way of the flight guard – as the wannabe jumper is about to find out, those guys mean business!
  • Terrorism:  Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that this does exist and for many travellers, is no laughing matter. The impact that terrorism has had on our society since the attacks of 911 has been profound, especially in how it has influenced the way we treat air travel. However, since the attacks of 2001, actual instances of terrorism on-board commercial flights have been very rare and airport security has been considerably tightened. If any of you have ever flown out of a major US airport, I’m sure you will appreciate how rigorous and thorough most of the security checks are, with many even perceiving them as overzealous and unnecessary. This should at least put your mind at ease that everything possible is being done to make your flight safe and secure, and that any risk to your person is minimal
  • Turbulence: When the Captain announces that you’ll be hitting a bit of turbulence on your journey, it’s quite normal to see at least a few nervous faces exchange anxious looks with one another. Turbulence is a common occurrence on most journeys, with an encounters usually being mild and harmless, yet it can provoke genuine fear as you immediately picture your vessel plummeting from the heavens. This vision is completely irrational though, turbulence on-board an airplane is no more than your car hitting a small pothole on the road. It is rarely serious and definitely nothing to panic yourself over. What is actually happening is that different air currents are hitting your plane, causing some bumpiness and slight roughness. It won’t be enough to cause any serious damage and should not impact your journey in any meaningful way
  • Plane malfunctions: Did you know that even if one of the engines of your plane suddenly loses power, your plane will still be able to fly and land as normal? This is because most airplanes have multiple engines, meaning that if something happens to one, they can simply switch over to the other or even restart the failed engine as you would do a car. Of course the chances of engine failure are minimal because they are checked so regularly and persistently, that any faults would immediately be identified and rectified. Lastly, even in the event of a worst case scenario, your plane is not going to just drop from the sky like a lead coated balloon. Your pilot should be able to glide the plane to safe, if bumpy, landing
  • Claustrophobia: Leg room, as any frequent air traveller has learned, is a precious commodity. If you are going on a long distance flight on a gigantic jet liner, this might not be such a problem for you as longer flights tend to appreciate your need to occasionally cross your legs and flex your muscles. On shorter flights, however, sometimes this notion is left firmly on the runway, and you could find yourself sandwiched into a seat with barely enough room to wiggle your toes. If you’re already the sort of person who likes their personal space and dislikes being packed in like a sardine in a can, this can be a real problem. When you are flying, you will in all likelihood have to remain in your seat for hours and it can be very uncomfortable and nerve-wrecking if you start feeling claustrophobic. Nevertheless, there are certain things that you can do to relieve this source of stress. If you have enough spare money to splurge, you could invest in first class seats where you will most likely have much more legroom than the rest of your fellow passengers in economy class. You could also research more about the different airlines as some companies are definitely more guilty than others when it comes to this particular fault
  • Panic: Sometimes the thing you fear the most of all is fear itself. If you’ve ever had a panic attack on-board an aircraft, you were probably left feeling humiliated and extremely upset. This would be enough to put most people off flying again to avoid a repeat experience. For some of you, the expectation of an anxiety attack is enough of a deterrent so you make no effort to try and combat your fears, certain that you will crack at the last moment and beg to be allowed off the plane before it takes off. This mind-set is extremely commonplace and can be very detrimental when it comes to allowing you to confront your fears, often overshadowing the aspects about air flight that upset you in the first place. Instead of visualising yourself having a break-down on the plane, try to think more about what it is that actually frightens you. This can give you a better indication about how to tackle your anxiety and what you need to do to overcome your phobia

1https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/24/avoid-air-travel-mh17-math-risk-guide

Our top 10 tips

  • 1#: Use Emergency Essence: Emergency essence is a natural and soothing alternative to conventional anxiety medicines and can be taken for immediate relief when you find yourself in a stressful or unpleasant situation. When you feel frightened or upset, it can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, the structure responsible for enabling your ‘fight or flight’ instincts, and this will then trigger the typical symptoms of a panic attack – heart palpitations, increased sweat production, digestive issues etc. Emergency essence works to regulate this reaction and to encourage your emotional wellbeing. The tincture is composed from the fresh extracts of flowers, like sweet chestnut and bluebells, and is suitable for anyone over the age of 2. Just try diluting five drops in a little water or even rubbing on to the pulse areas of your skin before your flight and when you are on the plane, use a little directly on your tongue for quick respite
  • 2#: Watch what you eat: When you feel upset or are living in a state of dread, you’re first instinct might be to reach for a packet of crisps or a bar of dairy milk. Food and the act of eating can be comforting and not many people crave carrots when faced with feelings of anxiety or distress; however, if you’re a nervous flyer, it might be best to step away from the ice-cream or that luxury box of Lindts finest. There’s a lot to be said about the negative effect of refined sugars, processed fats and caffeine on your stress levels – not only do these fatigue your immune system and stimulate the release of adrenalin, they also cause your blood sugar levels to spiral out of control. Keeping your blood sugar levels steady can have a very positive effect on your stress levels and chomping away on cake and crisps is not likely to achieve this. You should be eating little and often, choosing healthy and nutritious options like bananas or nuts for your pre-flight meal. These foods contain essential minerals and are high in fibre, slowly releasing energy throughout the day and keeping your blood sugar levels nice and stable, hopefully taking the edge off your stress!
  • 3#: Drink plenty of water: Alcohol and stress – never a winning combination! If you’re getting pre-flight jitters, the first thing on your mind might be paying a visit to the nearest bar and drowning your fears with a little Dutch courage. This line of thinking can be terrible for your nervous system though, and in the long run, will only make you feel worse in the long run. Alcohol and sugary, fizzy drinks like coke contain high levels of caffeine and inflammatory chemicals like histamine. When these hit your immune system, they stimulate the production of adrenalin, which in turn accelerates your heartbeat and plunges your body into a state of panic – you see where this is going, don’t you? Also, nothing is guaranteed to dehydrate you faster than spending your flight chugging back the complimentary wine or champagne. The symptoms of dehydration – fatigue, light-headedness, sweaty palms, impending sense of doom and high blood pressure – are also very similar to the feelings that arise when you experience a panic attack. What you really need is plain, ordinary water and plenty of it. This doesn’t just apply when you are on-board your flight – if you want to try and relieve the pressure from your immune and nervous system, you should be drinking plenty of water in the days leading up to your flight as well
  • 4#: Focus on the positives: If you’re a nervous flyer and you’ve finally been talked into booking a flight, the chances are that there’s an impressive incentive persuading you to face your fears. This could be a luxury, inclusive holiday to Italy, a skiing trip to the Alps, or simply the opportunity to explore and enjoy somewhere new and exciting with your loved ones. The desire not to let your family down and the thought of spending a week or two sunning yourself somewhere exotic is a powerful motivator, so when you feel yourself buckling at the thought of facing the Departure Lounge, think of why you’re getting on the plane in the first place. If you’ve booked a holiday, browse through the pamphlets and booklets that you’ve acquired – visualise yourself stepping off the plane and rush of triumph you’ll experience at actually conquering your fears!
  • 5#: Try relaxation techniques: If the power of positive thinking isn’t getting you anywhere, you can always try to master a few basic relaxation techniques. It might seem like a small step, but practice breathing exercises – gentle exercise like yoga or meditation are great way of doing this. When you feel your heart racing or your hands getting sweaty try breathing in for two and then out for four – it’s simple but very effective! This should regulate your breathing and relax your pulse, reducing the activity of your stress hormones and giving your blood pressure a chance to stabilise. You could also try using visualisation techniques, which will encourage you to take control of your mind and use as many of your senses as possible. It might take some practice, but you could try sitting quietly and home and visualising yourself somewhere else. Really picture that place; think long and hard about how it might smell, how it might feel or even the sounds that might exist there. This should soothe your mind and encourage your muscles to relax, leaving you feeling serene and tranquil in a situation that might initially make you experience panic or anxiety
  • 6#: The more you know: There’s something to be said about the power of the unknown. If you dislike the idea of being placed outside your comfort zone or feel uneasy about being placed in a situation outside of your control, then learning more about your fear can sometimes deprive it of its potency. It’s easy to be mistrustful of something we don’t understand but knowledge is often power and the more you know, the more in control you will feel of your environment. Think about what it is that really bothers you when you’re flying – terrorism? Airplane malfunction? – and then do your research. You will find that most statistics will show you how baseless your fears are. Knowing that your fears are groundless isn’t always an instant cure but if you recognise how irrational they are, it comes sometimes sap them of their effectiveness. Learn more about the safety procedures conducted on air vessels, familiarise yourself with cabin protocol and try to think rationally. You might find that when you get on-board your flight, you are able to assess your fears objectively and reassure yourself that everything will be fine
  • 7#: Keep your mind occupied: Of course, relaxation and acquired knowledge won’t work for everyone and largely depends on the root of your fear. Sometimes the best thing you can try to do on-board a flight is to keep your mind occupied. Bring along your I-pod a good book or a puzzle game and immerse yourself as soon as you sit in your seat. This can sometimes take the edge off your panic and fool your body into believing that you are somewhere else – a train or a bus. If you happen to be sitting next to a window, keep it closed so you don’t have to peer out at the view and try and focus on your current activity. Memory games or puzzles are very useful for this as they stimulate your mind and force you to concentrate on the challenge at hand. This might not work on long-distance flights but if you are not flying very far, it can be a worthwhile option
  • 8#: Fear of flying course: There are some airlines, like Virgin Atlantic or British Airways, which offer comprehensive courses covering how to deal with having a fear of flying. These courses usually last anywhere from one day to a couple of weeks and should give you an inside insight into flying, with some even offering a psychology session and outings to a flight centre, with the chance to try flying on a  small plane to get you used to the procedures and movements of flying. If you don’t mind paying for this additional service, it can be a great way to build up your confidence and instil you with the knowledge and techniques you need to conquer your anxiety
  • 9#: Talk about it: There’s no point in bottling up your fears and putting a brave face on for the sake of those around you. Whether you’ve been invited abroad for a holiday or have to take an internal flight for the sake of work, you should try and make others aware that you are uncomfortable on planes. You may perceive your fear as being silly or embarrassing, but the chances are that your colleagues or friends will understand exactly how you’re feeling, since flying is such a common and persisting fear. Sometimes the act of simply talking to someone about your anxiety can allow you to relieve your emotions and rationalise your worries, evening improving the way you perceive the thing that you are afraid of. If you are going to try going on a flight, it can help to have people around you who are supportive and genuinely understand your state of mind so they can offer you the help and encouragement you need to conquer your fears
  • 10#: Try AvenaCalm: If you’re considering taking anti-anxiety medication in preparation for your flight, it might be more beneficial to consider an alternative stress remedy like AvenaCalm. Similar to the emergency essences, AvenaCalm works to soothe the sympathetic nervous system but it is gentler than prescribed anxiety medicines, and works more gradually. You should start taking this treatment at least three weeks before your flight to allow it to work properly as it is slow acting, and not an immediate solution. Instead, give it time and you will start to find that your feelings of apprehension and dread start to become more bearable as the days pass. Your mood should improve and by the time you’re in the Departure Lounge, you should be feeling less like a nervous train wreck and more like your old self.

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