I’ve been afraid of flying since I had a nasty landing at Gatwick Airport in 1992.
That’s over 20 years ago, but I’ve continued to fly since. I’ve learned a lot about coping with my fear, so I thought I’d share my experience and techniques.
The first thing to say is to forget the statistics.
People who are afraid of flying know that flying is statistically safe, but that’s like saying to someone who has a morbid fear of spiders that spiders can’t kill you. We’re not dealing in logic here. We dealing with a disorder, and logic doesn’t enter into disorders (disorder = absence of order).
The second thing to say is that you will never overcome your fear of flying, and that you need to accept that.
You are afraid because your mind has decided that the only thing keeping the plane in the air is the fact that you are afraid it will crash, and that as soon as you stop being afraid, it will hurtle to ground. You have convinced yourself that once your presume everything is going to be OK, fate will conspire realise your worst fears.
So, once you accept that fear is going to be part of your flying experience, you can get on with minimising that fear, and finding a “sweet spot”, which is a point in your subconscious where you are sufficiently afraid to keep the plane in the air, but sufficiently relaxed not to try and jump out the window.
Here’s how I hit my “sweet spot”, and how I regain it when events throw it off kilter.
Get a window seat
One of the reasons you are afraid of flying is that you no control over your situation. When you’re driving a car, you can stop; when you’re on a train, you can get off at the next stop; but when you’re on a plane, you’re all in. Once the door closes, there is nothing you can do until it opens again.
Having a window seat removes some of the uncertainty. You can see what’s going on around you, you can see how far you are off the ground, you can scan the horizon to ensure their are no other planes about to crash into you.
That little bit of extra information removes some of the mystery of what is going on around you, making your lack of control slightly more tolerable.
Also, on a clear day, or even above a cloudscape, the views from an airplane can be spectacular, and take your mind off your fears.
Avoid early flights
If you’re like me, you’re at your most alert first thing in the morning. Your senses are heightened, and any worries or stresses that were temporarily suppressed while you were sleeping have suddenly reappeared with renewed vigour.
This makes it harder to cope with your fear of flying. Try to travel later in the even instead. After grinding through another day you’ll be more relaxed and at ease, which will help you to deal with the stress of flying.
Get to the airport early
This goes back to the control issue. People who have a fear of flying generally have a routine, and if they don’t have enough time to get through it, it can lead to heightened anxiety. Always give yourself time to go through your routine.
Arriving early also gives you more time to acclimatise to the various sights and sounds of an airport, which can make the flight itself less intimidating.
Think of your destination
If you’re travelling on pleasure rather than business, the arrival of your flight is something to look forward to, whether you’re on your outbound leg or returning home. When bad thoughts start to take over, force yourself to think about the great holiday you’re going to have, or the prospect of being tucked up in your own bed again.
Take (legal) drugs
Don’t discount drugs. Go to your GP and ask for a few valium tabs for your fear of flying. GPs get this request all the time, and are happy to oblige. I generally take 10mg of some form of valium (Xanex, Anxicalm) about 1 hour before the flight takes off. If you were to take that during a normal day, it would put you to sleep, but in a situation where you are feeling a lot of anxiety, it just brings you back down a bit. You will be still be able to function normally.
Take a nip of brandy
Again, this is one for pleasure trips. I have a little mouthwash bottle, that I half fill with brandy before I fly. I put this is my see-through toiletries bag so that I can get it through the security check (it looks like mouthwash). Just as the plane is taking off, which always the worst bit, I take a little swig. Taking valium and brandy probably isn’t a great idea for everybody, but in moderation, it works for me.
Look for signs on take off
Take off is always scary. As the plane lumbers along the runway it seems improbable that it can haul itself into the air, and when it finally does, you convince yourself that its going to start struggling under the weight of all those people and bags and tumble out of the sky into the nearest housing estate.
To get over this, decide on a few identifiable signs that you can concentrate on during take-off, and as each one becomes apparent, your anxiety will gradually diminish. Here’s a few ideas:
Clearing the airport apron; stowing of the landing gear; getting to a height where the airplane has enough momentum to glide away from trouble; getting to a height where cars appear to be moving very slowly; first turn of the airplane to the right or left (pilot is happy to continue); cabin crew start moving around the cabin; seat belt sign goes off
Listen to music
Sit down some evening and buy some music on your smart phone specifically for flying, and get some bud earphones (you can use these with your phone in airplane mode during take off and landing). Relaxing music is best, but go with whatever works for you. I never thought I’d be calm enough to listen to music, because I wouldn’t be able to hear signs of trouble, but its easier than you think, and definitely takes your mind of the flight. A particular favourite of mine is “Flight over Africa” by Joel McNeely. Listening to that and watching the sky flow by through the window is actually quite a pleasant experience.
Have a drink
When the trolley comes around, have a drink. People have been using alcohol for centuries to sooth anxiety. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t too.
Try to have a conversation with someone
If you have enough to drink, this is inevitable. It really does help. Everything about fear of flying is in your mind, so if you can distract yourself, the flight will always pass quicker.
Look for signs on landing
Like take-off, landing is the a portion of the flight that gives heightened cause for concern. As the plane slows, you feel like its going 20 miles per hour, and that whenever it banks to lines up with the runway, its just going to keep turning until and it eventually stalls and spirals into ground. You’re aware that the landing phase generally takes about 20 mins, but that 20 minutes seems to last for about 4 hours.
There are 2 things I do during the phase of the flight. The first is to keep watching the cabin crew. This is the busiest part of the flight for them, and they’re generally shuffling about and concentrating on their jobs rather than the passengers.
Cabin crew fly hundreds of times per year, so if something is not normal, they’re going to know about it. If you keep watching, and seeing that they are not in any way distracted by the progress of the airplane as it makes its descent, you can be pretty confident that things are going according to plan.
The second thing I watch for are cars. Airports are always bound in by major road networks, which accommodate traffic 24 hours per day. I always watch out the windows for the first sight of cars moving on the road. When I can see cars moving, I know the airplane is close enough to the ground to get through any malfunction. This may or may not be true, but its a waypoint that you are guaranteed to see, so use it.
And when things don’t go so smoothly….
Once you are on the plane, and its in air, and gliding smoothly along, your fear is generally manageable, and while the flight continues humming along, it may even subside.
And then there’s a slight bump, and then another, and then a it of trundling, and then PING!, “the captain has switched on the seatbelt sign”, and suddenly all your anxiety control techniques go out the window.
Turbulence is something that anxious flyers live in dread of. We know that a bit of turbulence is not going to cause the airplane to crash, but we also know that very heavy turbulence, although rare, can be dangerous, and that every little bit of turbulence might be a precursor to the that type of turbulence.
Its a control thing again, the fact of not knowing, and having to expect the worst, even though the worst never seems to happen.
My technique for dealing with turbulence is a little bit strange, but it is the most effective in my armoury of techniques.
It comes from a story a pilot told me about then they were learning to fly. During one of his earlier lessons, he encountered a his first bout of turbulent air. His instinctive reaction was to seize the controls and try and compensate for the bowing and jerking of the aircraft as it moved through the air.
His instructor let him grapple with this impossible task for a few minutes and then told him to let go of the controls, and allow the aircraft negotiate its own way through the turbulence. When he did this, the aircraft levelled out, and while the turbulence was still having an effect on its course, its general progress was a lot more stable.
I apply the same principle when turbulence heightens my anxiety. My instinctive reaction is to stiffen up, and grip the armrests even tighter than I already him. But what I’ve learned to do recently is the exact opposite. I now force myself to loosen up completely, from my toes to my fingers. I lift my arms slightly off the armrests, my feet slightly off the ground and close my eyes. I imagine myself as the airplane, floating along allowing the air to take me where it needs to.
Yes, the odd jolt requires me to concentrate harder, and I’m pretty sure than I won’t be able to sustain the illusion through really heavy turbulence, but for the general run of the mill turbulence that your experience on any flight, this really does help.
That’s also pretty much the last advice I have. If you want one takeaway from this, let it be that you should aim to accommodate your fears rather than try to overcome them. As I explained at the beginning, your mind is welded to the idea that your fear is the only thing keeping the airplane in the air, so you can never escape from that.
Once you accept that your fear is part of you, like a birthmark, you can learn to live with it, and keep flying, which is all you really want.