Woman sitting in a plane leans on her tray table and looks out the window
If you're a nervous flyer, these tips may help you overcome your fear.
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / juanmonino

Calm, Cool and Collected: How to Cope If You're a Nervous Flyer

Take Control of Your Fear

Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias to have, especially in the United States. Our media loves to sensationalize plane crashes and other disasters so people will watch the news — but, in turn, it creates a lot of anxiety.

Although the survival rate for most major plane crashes is pretty dismal, flying is actually the safest way to travel. In a 2015 article by the Washington Post, research data by economist Ian Savage of Northwestern University found people were more likely to die in a bus, subway, train, ferry, or car crash over a plane crash.

In fact, the odds of dying in a plane crash are one in 11 million. Those are pretty good odds considering there are about 7.5 billion people in the world.

Nevertheless, it’s not always possible to just turn off a fear despite the odds. For someone who already suffers from an anxiety disorder, or just can’t seem to convince themselves to relax, flying can be difficult.

The whole process of catching a flight is stressful in and of itself. If you are already a nervous flyer, experiencing the normal stresses of the airport is only going to make things worse.

It may even stop you from traveling or cause you unnecessary stress just by thinking about it. However, there are a number of ways to cope if you’re a nervous flyer.

The next time you get on an airplane, consider these tips to get you through it.

Understand What It Is You’re Afraid Of

Many people say they’re afraid of flying, but may not realize just what aspect of it really frightens them. Obviously no one wants to think about their plane crashing, but that isn’t always the sole reason for the fear.

In some cases, people may be afraid of getting on a plane because it makes them feel claustrophobic, which can trigger a panic attack. Being in a heightened state of anxiety like that can cause the mind to race and think even more negative, anxious thoughts about what could go wrong on a flight.

It’s also very common to be afraid of a plane crashing because of turbulence. When turbulence occurs, it rattles the whole plane, which may cause an anxious person to imagine the worst case scenario — death by plane crash.

Of course, as was mentioned above, the odds of that actual happening are extremely rare. In fact, turbulence is a normal part of air travel.

As British Airways pilot Steve Allright explained in a Telegraph article last year, “Turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous. It is part of flying, and is not to be feared.”

If you have an understanding of your fears, you’ll have a better ability to do whatever it takes to calm them and prevent them from taking over.

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Distract Yourself

One of the simplest tips for fearful flyers is to find ways to distract yourself, as action absorbs anxiety. Bring things with you to pass the time such as  a book, magazine or portable electronic device.

Most airlines also have in-flight entertainment you can plug into so you can watch TV and movies or listen to music. If you’re flying with others, talking or playing a game with them can also keep your mind occupied.

The best thing to do is prevent your mind from focusing on the fact that you’re flying. This is especially important during takeoff and landing when there are a lot of weird sounds coming from the plane.

Noise-canceling headphones are helpful for this reason, whether you’re listening to music or not.

Use Relaxation Techniques

If you do find yourself becoming anxious, take a moment to try a relaxation technique. If you’ve already been introduced to a few through a doctor or therapist, use one of those.

However, there are a number of different breathing and visualization techniques that can help you through your fears.

Try taking deep breaths through your nose, holding for 10 seconds, and then releasing them through your mouth. Becoming conscious of your breathing can really affect your anxiety level and help bring it under control.

Make sure you’re taking breaths from your stomach, not your chest. Shallow breathing can more easily turn into a panic attack, making it even harder to breathe.

It’s also helpful to close your eyes, put on those noise-canceling headphones and imagine you’re someplace else. Visualize yourself in a calm, relaxing environment such as beside a body of water or in a forest.

The more you come to do this while flying, the more you’ll associate it with that relaxing place in your mind.

However you decide to cope if you have a fear of flying, consistency is the best course of action. Don’t avoid flying just because you’re afraid — that will only give the fear more power and make it harder to confront in the long run.

Find something that works for you and stick with it. If your fear starts to get out of control, there’s no harm in seeking professional help.

Even if you have to pop a pill every time you fly, if it makes the journey manageable, there’s no reason to be ashamed of that.

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