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How to Manage a Fear of Flying When You Love to Travel

by Erin Lizzo Feb 7, 2018

Last year I flew 32 times and every single time the pilot announced “flight attendants, please be seated for take off,” my hands would begin to sweat. Although it’s not something that people frequently bring up in conversation, fear of flying is a common phobia. In 2017, 30% of people in the United States reported that they are nervous to fly, and I am one of them.

This wasn’t always the case. I grew up loving to fly. My dad was a pilot for 20 years and we traveled all over the world as a family. Stepping onto a plane meant that you were on your way to a new adventure, plus the snacks were pretty good.

All of that changed after September 11th, 2001. Suddenly, I was hit with a new thought that had not occurred to me previously — planes can actually go down. Once this idea settled into my head, I was terrified to fly. I tried a slew of different techniques that ranged from drinking wine before a flight (this seemed to exacerbate my anxiety) to skipping a flight if I “had a bad feeling” about it. Or if it was raining. Or if I couldn’t get a seat by the window. Simply put, my initial strategies to ease this fear of flying didn’t really work.

Here are some tips to try to manage a fear of flying.

When you love to travel and want to explore larger parts of the world, flying is unavoidable.

The first thing that you’ll hear people say when they find out you’re afraid to fly is something along the lines of “you’re a hundred times more likely to die in a car accident than in a plane crash.” While this is true, it rarely feels like helpful information. Most people with this phobia understand that it’s not logical. Phobias fixate on the worst case scenario in an unlikely situation. The fear really comes down to a lack of control and can be a difficult thing to let go of. So with the assumption that it’s tough to actually overcome a fear of flying, here are a few strategies that have helped me at least become a bit more comfortable when I want to travel beyond a reasonable driving distance.

Become educated on how a plane works.

Why does it seem like the engine is loudest at the start of a flight? What is that “ding” you hear a few minutes after take off? Is it possible for turbulence to knock a plane out of the sky? Is it more dangerous to fly over the ocean than over land? Understanding the answers to these common questions can make the prospect of flying so much easier. Next time you’re on a flight, put together a list of every single thing that makes you feel nervous. Then do the research to find out the answers. My father, the experienced pilot, equates turbulence to driving a car over a bumpy road. Remembering that analogy has helped me immensely to manage my fear on choppy flights. Knowing how the mechanics of plane works can help mitigate the fear of flying and build trust that you are traveling in a safe machine.

British Airways offers a class called “Flying with Confidence” for people who are afraid to fly. Although it might not be necessary to sign up for the entire course, reading through the material is helpful. It explains what all of the noises that you hear on a plane signify and provides great testimonials from people who choose to fly even though it scares them.

Figure out where you feel most comfortable.

I’m a window seat gal. I feel a tiny bit more in control when I can see what is happening outside. My friend Dave is an aisle guy, he just wants to stretch out and pretend he’s not even sitting in a plane.

Unless you have excellent status or are willing to pay a bit more money to select your seat, assignments are often random. Whenever I get to my gate, I ask the flight attendant if they can move me to a window seat close to the front of the plane. Why is the front of the plane important to me? Because in the television series Lost, the people sitting at the front of the plane survived a crash. It’s insane, I know, but again, this is not a rational phobia. At the end of the day, you don’t have to explain your reasoning. It’s more important to do what makes you feel comfortable.

Bring a security blanket.

I mean this literally. Bring an item that makes you happy in your carry on bag. I always pack these five items: an eye mask, my iPad, hand lotion, a warm scarf that can double as a blanket, and my computer.

Talk it out at 30,000 feet.

A good friend once saw me tightly gripping the armrest at take off and told me “the airlines are operating multi-million dollar machines, they aren’t going to risk your life. It’s just not worth the cost.” That tough-love statement was surprisingly helpful.

It feels better to know other people are afraid to fly, and you’re not alone. You can compare phobias and even laugh about the ridiculous rituals you engage in to distract your fear of flying. You might be completely surprised to find out that your fears are exactly the same as someone else’s. When you say “I hate it when the fasten seatbelt sign comes on” out loud, you might discover the fear dissipates.

Create a routine.

To make the prospect of flying feel like a normal, everyday activity, it can be helpful to create a routine. A routine helps maintain a feeling of control and will help pass the time in manageable intervals. This could mean splurging on some magazines to help take your mind off any turbulence, watching a terrible movie that you would never admit to seeing, or putting together a playlist of music that will help you stay calm.

I’ve created a special ritual for when the plane begins its final descent. For me, landing feels like a celebration of survival. It means that we have all arrived at our destination safely, and the short-lived anxiety was totally worth it. So I always listen to “Welcome to New York” as the city below becomes closer and we drop back down towards the ground. The song feels exciting, like the start of something new. That’s the point of travel, isn’t it?

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