So, you’ve got a flight coming up and you’re already experiencing that familiar feeling. Cold sweats, nervous jitters, that anxiety in the pit of your stomach from your last flight are creeping back. Well, you’re not alone. About 40% of the general population experienced some form of flight anxiety even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. In fact, it’s so common that there’s even a name for it. Aviophobia.
Aviophobia, or aerophobia, is the term used for those suffering from a fear of flying. It’s actually a more complicated fear than one might initially think, as it can derive from a combination of other phobias or anxiety disorders. Claustrophobia, or the fear of enclosed spaces, can play a huge part in that—as can acrophobia (the fear of heights), or enochlophobia (the fear of crowds), for instance. Both crowds and heights are completely unavoidable in air travel.
Many who suffer from aviophobia often find themselves picturing the worst-case scenario. Anxious thoughts like “what if the plane crashes?” or “what if we get hijacked?” take over, and can even lead to a full-blown panic attack. Fearful flyers are very different from fidgety, nervous fliers, who don’t experience a physical reaction to this fear. And it doesn’t help that friends and relatives always say “you’re more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash.”
So, what can you do to assuage your flight anxiety? Here are a few travel tips that can help you overcome your fear of flying. Or, at least, help you get ready for your next flight.
1. Get scientific about flying
Understanding how a plane works and all of its fail-safes is a great way to start. That way, when your phobia kicks in you can try to counteract it with your reason. You can try to manage your stress by recalling what you learned to challenge the fears you face. For example, if you’re worried about engine failure, try to remember what you read about why a plane can safely keep flying in such an event.
2. Try not to overthink every noise
Planes are machines. Like any other machine, they will make noise—and not all of those noises are a bad thing. In fact, most of them aren’t! They’re just the sounds the machine makes in the process of doing what it’s meant to do. You could hear things like the pings of the overhead speakers, the noise of systems spinning up or down, or even rattling from overhead bins. People’s carry-ons will move about in there and make noise. Calm yourself down by trying to associate each noise with a simple source.
3. Understand what turbulence is
Even the most frequent flyer out there can get nervous about turbulence. It’s not a pleasant feeling for anyone. That being said, understanding what turbulence is and why it happens is key to helping tone down your anxiety. All turbulence really is, is a sudden change in airflow—much like what happens when you feel a strong wind on the ground. It’s really important to remember that this is not caused by any kind of mechanical malfunction.
4. Chat with the cabin crew
Getting to know the people responsible for your safety can make you feel a lot more comfortable. Flight attendants are used to dealing with people afraid of flying, and are always there to help you should you need it. Let them know about your fear so that they can react quickly and effectively should you start getting visibly nervous. You can also have a chat with your seatmate (especially on a long-haul flight)—they could be surprisingly helpful in taking your mind off of things and helping calm you down. Not to mention that it might just make your flight experience all the more interesting!
5. Find a way to distract yourself
Coping with fear through distraction is a tried and tested technique that should help you relax at least some of the time. Board the plane with a good book in hand, some TV shows or movies downloaded on Netflix, or even just a great playlist or podcast. Taking your mind off your fear is a sure-fire way of stopping you from overthinking. It’ll break the loop of negative thoughts that only serve to make you more anxious. So fasten your seatbelt, open up that tray table, put on your favorite episode of Friends, lean back on the armrests and enjoy.
6. Breathe in and ommmm
Wellness methods like tactical breathing are used to help combat any kind of anxiety. If you feel your fear starting to catch hold, why not give some breathing exercises a try? Take a few deep breaths and accompany that with some visualization exercises. We recommend breathing in for 4 counts, holding it in for 7 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts. That should help slow down your heart rate and let you catch a hold of yourself. Do that over and over again, keeping your mind focused on the breathing, and you’re sure to feel a little better. You can also download apps like Calm or Headspace to guide you through some mindfulness and deep breathing routines on your next trip.
7. Try a little exposure therapy
You know when someone is afraid of spiders and they try holding a spider? Then somehow that fear isn’t as bad as before? That’s exposure therapy, and it can work for nervous flyers and a fear of flying too. Facing your fears is a medically-backed strategy to overcome them, and start flying with confidence. By doing what you’re afraid of, you actually disprove your “irrational cognitions” surrounding it. Roughly translated, if you're afraid of flying, maybe you should travel more! Avoidance is a bigger issue, as it enables you to build your fears up even further in your own head.
8. Pop in to see a therapist
First and foremost, there is no shame in seeing a therapist. You’re not ashamed of visiting the eye doctor when you think you might need glasses, are you? Therapy is no different. If you’re suffering from aviophobia and are looking for a long-term, healthy solution, then make an appointment with a mental health professional (like a clinical psychologist) to discuss overcoming your fear. They can recommend a further course of action, either through regular sessions or maybe even through hypnotherapy. You never know—even one session could make a world of a difference!
9. Talk to your doctor about medication
If your fear is particularly strong, then talk to your GP or a psychologist about possible medication options. Doctors often recommend anti-anxiety medication like valium or Xanax. However, just remember that all medication has side effects, so keep it as a last resort. If you’re looking for some slightly softer options, there are herbal alternatives that may help. Things like valerian extract or St. John’s Wort, even a cup of camomile tea, can work wonders on a nervous body.
10. If all else fails, FLY!
Possibly a slightly extreme measure. But if you’ve tried everything on this list and still can’t get over it—take a flying lesson. Yeah, you read that right. Psychologists say that a person suffering from aviophobia most often experiences a fear of a lack of control. So, if you take a flying lesson you’ll literally be in the pilot’s seat. All of the mystery of the loss of control will be gone! Grab a friend or a loved one and go try out a flight simulator! You don't need to jump in the deep end and fly an actual plane to soar to fearless heights! If you're feeling brave, why not sign up to a flying course and tick that off your bucket list?
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