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How To Deal With A Fear Of Flying -- Ways To Conquer Fear Of Flying

Updated on May 15, 2012

Fight Or Flight?

As an avid traveler and frequent flier, I have a somewhat surprising confession to make: I'm still afraid to fly and have had to deal with a fear of flying.

If you read some of my other hubs, you'll see that I've been all over the world -- Australia, New Zealand, China, Egypt, Mexico -- and have had to take some ridiculously long flights (22 hours to Sydney, yikes). Yet each time I prepare for a flight, I'm overcome with a sense of dread.

I'm not sure exactly WHY this happens. I once sat down and tried to make a list of all the flights I've taken just in the 10 years I've been married and it came out to over 100. Add in the ones I took with my family when I was younger and I have several hundred under my belt. Still, I start to get nervous as soon as I book a flight. In fact, there have been some times when I've become so panicky that we've had to cancel trips.

Fortunately, I've gotten better at dealing with my aerophobia and in recent years have successfully made it to some wonderful countries. In all honesty, I don't think I will ever be fully cured of my fear of flying, but here are some of my tips for making it onto the plane and -- dare I say -- actually having an ENJOYABLE and relaxing flight.


How A Plane Handles Turbulence

How To Overcome Your Fear Of Flying: First Steps

1. Read up on how airplanes actually work. A big part of my fear stemmed from the fact that it didn't make sense to me how these huge objects could stay in the air. But if you read some articles that explain the mechanics, flight seems like much less of a mystery.

2. On the other hand, try to avoid reading message boards where other fearful fliers discuss their phobia. I went onto one thinking that it would help me to hear other people's stories and instead, it made me even more afraid. Not only did I have my own fear to contend with, but was now hearing about the things that made others scared ... and it was filling my head with crazy, new ideas (whoever said that phobias are rational?).

3. Before using any sort of drugs, try them out beforehand so you can see what the side effects are like. For instance, you don't want to take a sleeping pill while you're up 30,000 feet and discover that it gives you heart palpitations or makes you nauseous. Keep in mind, too, that the altitude can effect your body (making your fingers swell, etc.). A few years ago, I took an over-the-counter sleeping pill thinking that it would relax me. Not only did I not sleep, but I ended up having a panic attack, which thankfully didn't last long. That said, I personally try to avoid taking drugs for flying, though I know some people who swear by them. Of course, TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR before taking any and discuss any possible side effects on land and in the air.

4. Get to the airport early. I know some people who've rushed onto the plane thinking that they wouldn't have time to be nervous. Uh, it doesn't work that way. You just end up getting even more nervous on the plane. I like to arrive at the airport at least an hour early. This way, I don't have to deal with the additional stress of trying to make a flight and can calm myself down. I've actually found it quite soothing to watch the other planes take off and land. When you see plane after plane go up without incident, you realize how routine flying is. And yes, I know it's easier said than done, but for me, it helps to "normalize" the situation.

5. Observe the people around you. OK, this tip might sound weird, but I like to play a little game where I keep an eye on the people who will be on my flight. It's interesting to see who's flying with you -- parents, little kids, students, grandparents ... in other words, everyone. They wouldn't put babies on planes if they were dangerous! I like to make up little stories about my fellow passengers, who they are, why they're going to wherever with me ... like watching the planes take off, it's another way of familiarizing myself with my surroundings. By paying attention to human element of flying, it makes it seem warmer and less cold and impersonal.

6. "Practice" taking the flight before you go on. Try to visualize what the flight will be like, what it will feel like and how you will be feeling as the plane takes off. I've found that if I go over this in my head a few times, I can calm myself a bit.

Pilot Tips On How To Overcome Your Aerophobia

Dealing With Fear Of Flying: Once On The Plane

7. In my day-to-day life, I'm not very superstitious, but when it comes to flying, I like to have a ritual. There's a Jewish tradition where you put away money to give to charity when you reach your destination so that you can make sure that you reach the place you're meant to go. That said, my husband and I always make a plan to donate to charity when we land and when we return. I also like to bring my "lucky cardigan" with me, which I hold when we're taking off. And my husband and I have a tradition where we hold hands and say, "I love you," just as the plane leaves the ground. Obviously these traditions can't guarantee me a safe flight, but they definitely make me feel better.

8. Try deep breathing. For me, the toughest parts of flying are takeoff and turbulence. During takeoff, I always keep my eyes closed until we've hit our maximum flying height and they turn off the seatbelt sign (For those of you who are fans of the movie Say Anything, Lloyd Dobbler encourages his girlfriend, a fearful flyer, to "wait for the 'ding!' ") While my eyes are closed, I breath deeply and say a chant to myself. Truthfully, I like to say a little prayer, "Please let us arrive safely, please let us arrive safely..." but by saying it over and over again, it helps me concentrate on the words rather than my fear. Plus, the deep breathing calms me down. Next time you fly, try saying a little chant, whether it be, "Om" or a prayer or even a nonsense word.

9. As for turbulence, I've tried to shift my focus. I love boats and am not scared if they bounce on waves. I'm not frightened if my bus shakes while going over bumpy pavement. Well, with planes it's the same thing. You go through clouds, the plane is going to shake because the air is "bumpy." With turbulence, you often go up and down, so I try to concentrate on the plane going up. Anoher one of my friends who flies, but doesn't like it, says that he likes to imagine the clouds are big and fluffy with smiley faces and they are gently pushing the plane along. Hey, whatever works...

10. For those who have flown before and survived, try to think of a pleasant plane experience. Believe it or not, I do have some nice memories of being on planes. When we were in Hawaii, we flew from one island to another and because the flights were short, they were quite low. Looking over the islands and blue ocean was amazing! On another flight, my husband suddenly noticed a bunch of M&Ms rolling down the aisle. I guess someone spilled them and because the plane was shifting, just rolled right along. But we thought this was hilarious at the time and ended up in hysterics. On bad days, I like to think of memories like that that remind me that I am able to be relaxed in the air.

11. Make some new fun. Bring your laptop or a good book or listen to some music. Most planes these days have entertainment systems, so enjoy the movie. Or simply look out the window. I personally love the last, especially if we're going over some interesting terrain. Probably my scariest flight was when we took a tiny 19-seater from Hokitika, New Zealand to Christchurch, but boy, was the scenery over the mountains wonderful. That kept me from completely panicking during the flight because I knew that it was unlikely that I'd ever see a view like that again.

12. Don't put pressure on yourself. A fear is a fear and you shouldn't be ashamed. Rather than trying to ignore it, work through it. Seek help from a therapist or fear of flying course, if need be and work it out in your own time. But trust me, flying will open a whole, new world for you. It may be scary -- it probably always will be for me -- but I think that the reward outweighs the risk. Often, the anticipation is much worse than the actual flight.


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