How to Travel With a Fear of Flying
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
Whether you're a first-time flier or a seasoned traveler, being afraid to fly can have a huge impact on your quality of life. It can keep you from going places you dream of, or it can make you so miserable that you spend the entire journey suffering. The good news is, you can still travel with a fear of flying - it just takes a few tricks.
I wasn't always afraid of flying. I think I was 2 or 3 the first time I flew, and I really never stopped. I loved flying, and never understood why people were afraid of it.
Then I turned 30, and it was like a switch flipped: suddenly, I was petrified.
I didn't (and still don't) know what changed. I didn't have a bad experience. I didn't fly any less. There wasn't a huge increase in aviation accidents. Maybe it was getting older, maybe it was brain chemistry. Who knows. All I knew is that all of a sudden, getting on a plane was no longer the cake walk it used to be.
It started off manageable, just feeling a little tense and squeezing Jimmie's hand during takeoff. But, it steadily got worse. I'd dread the flight days, sometimes weeks, in advance. I'd be anxious in the airport. I'd be anxious during the flight. I'd be anxious after the flight.
It wasn't until we were flying home from our most recent trip to Jamaica that I admitted I needed a solution or I'd never fly again. I spent the first 10 minutes of that flight quietly sobbing into Jimmie's chest, convinced we were going to die, and the rest of it anxiously gripping the arm rest with wide eyes. I jumped at every noise, every bump, every change in altitude. It was 3 hours of torture, for both of us.
It took a lot of trial and error, a lot of uncomfortable situations, and a lot of patience, but eventually, I hit on a few things that worked for me. And as I became more comfortable flying, I realized this story needed to be shared, so others didn't have to suffer in silence.
So what were those things? Read on, my friend.
Own Your Fear
Society tells us we shouldn't be afraid, that fear is a sign of weakness, that we should be stoic and brave and fearless.
Society is wrong.
Sometimes, we're just scared. There's nothing wrong with us, and there's not a whole lot we can do to not be scared. Fear is a physiological response. It's your body's way of readying you for danger. There is nothing inherently wrong with fear.
What can cause us trouble is the way we respond to fear - for those of us afraid to fly, it can mean complete avoidance, paralysis, terror, hysterics, or a whole other host of complications.
I can't tell you how many flights I spent telling myself there was nothing to be afraid of, that everything was fine, that I was wrong/stupid/weak for being scared. The only thing that did was make me more anxious, because not only was I still scared, I was now beating myself up about it.
Own your fear. Sometimes, you're just scared. There's absolutely nothing wrong with you, so allow yourself some grace, and stop trying to convince yourself you're brave. Once you've accepted that you just hate flying, you can work on some ways to manage the fear so it isn't as crippling.
I get it. Telling people you're scared of flying is embarrassing.
You're going to need to get over that.
For the most part, people are kind and generous, and I guarantee that the vast majority are going to do everything they can to help you out. (On the off chance someone isn't, just take comfort in knowing they're a miserable waste of space.)
Tell the airline attendant you're afraid of flying, and you might get a better seat. Tell the flight attendant, and they'll check on you. Tell your seatmates, and they'll talk to you, distract you, hold your hand, whatever. They might even be afraid of flying too.
Tell your friends, your coworkers, your travel companions, and your family. Tell your doctor. Tell your pharmacist. Tell your therapist, minister, or coach. Tell everyone. You'd be amazed at how much relief comes just from talking about your fear.
Figure Out What You're Afraid Of
Not everyone is afraid of the same things when it comes to flying. Take some time to think about what really scares you.
If your first answer is that you're afraid of dying in a plane crash....well, we all are. Dig deeper. Are you just afraid of dying, or are you afraid of the moments leading up to it? Or something else? For me, it wasn't so much the fear of dying as it was the fear that the plane would be going down, and I'd be terrified. Once I realized that, I realized if that situation happened, yeah, I would be terrified, and there'd also be absolutely nothing I could do about it except find some comfort however I could.
The peace that came with that realization was astounding.
So take some time, and figure out what exactly freaks you out about flying. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Not being in control
Not knowing what's happening
Being confined in a small space
Unfamiliar physical feelings (that G-force is real)
Close contact with strangers
Lack of visibility
Fear of fear
Pick the Right Seat
If there was ever a reason to not book Basic Economy, being a fearful flier is it. The seat you have makes a huge difference in your comfort.
I used to always pick the seat over the wings, thinking it would be the smoothest ride. It's not terrible, but there are a whole lot of noises, and in my opinion, you feel the g-forces more strongly (which is a huge trigger for me). I now sit a few rows in front of the wings if I can, generally one of the first rows after the upgraded seats.
And, I actually don't mind taking the middle seat. Wait, what? Someone actually wants a middle seat?? I'll admit, the lack of room is sometimes a drag, but I realized after getting stuck in the middle that it actually made me feel more secure to have people on either side of me. The worst for me is the aisle.
If you have to sit in the back, try to get the seat near the flight attendant. Tell them you're nervous, and they'll talk you through the whole thing.
Don't forget, if you talk to the gate agent and tell them you're afraid of flying, they might be able to put you in a better seat.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Self-care is a buzzword these days. But, there's a fair amount of truth to it. Find a few ways to take care of yourself and bring a little comfort to your flight.
A few ideas:
Wear your favorite sweatshirt/tshirt
Listen to your favorite music
Knit, crochet, or draw
Hold a cherished stuffed animal or other trinket
Kiss your partner (just keep it clean, folks!)
Plan out your next vacation
Read your favorite book
Watch a movie
Eat your favorite snack
Wrap up in a blanket
Recite your favorite song, poem, or verse (under your breath, please)
Massage your hands or temples
Find shapes in the clouds
What Else Works For Me....
Seeing the pilot
I make it a point to stick my head in the door, because it gives me a sense of calm to see that there are actually real live people up there. (There's a really funny story behind this - I read once that you should try to remember the pilots are people who want to get home safely too, and somehow my fear-filled mind twisted that into thinking if I didn't see them, the plane was being flown by robots.)
I'm team #checkedbag anyway, but once I got my carry-on down to one bag, it helped a lot. I think it's mostly that it just smooths out my whole experience, so I'm less stressed before I even get on the plane. Having less to worry about keeping up with is a big plus, as is the extra legroom.
Or looking out the window, instead of focusing on the awful uncomfortable feeling of hurtling into the air.
Watching the other passengers
Probably a gimme, but if I do start to panic, I just look around. If nobody else is panicking, chances are, it's just my anxiety and fear ramping up. I tell myself it's ok to feel scared, but it looks like everything is under control.
Learning about airplanes
There's a fantastic program from Virgin Airlines called Flying Without Fear that walks you through all those unsettling noises and feelings. You can do the full course, or just watch the videos on YouTube. I must have watched the narrated takeoff video seven or eight times. I especially liked the elevator analogy.
And What Doesn't, but Might For You
I have a Fitbit Versa that guides me through the deep breathing exercises, and that was one of the absolute worst things I could have done. Not only did it not work, it just gave me another thing to be anxious about.
Remembering the pilot wants to get home safely
Refer to my story above.
I kinda think alcohol just intensifies things that are already there, so in my case, it just made me even more convinced I was making a horrible mistake.
We used to drive 4 hours to a larger airport to cut down on the number of flights I'd have to take. What I thought was a good idea was actually making it worse - that whole idea of exposure theory has some merit, folks.
Look, everyone who's afraid of flying knows that statistically, planes are safer than cars. THAT DOESN'T HELP. Neither does reading about plane crashes, or about how many people die, or airline safety ratings, or any of that. Or, at least it didn't for me.
When It Still Isn't Enough
Sometimes, despite all your best efforts, you need to bring in the big guns. I'm not ashamed to admit that after that Jamaica experience I went right to my doctor. I knew I couldn't get back on another plane without medical help, and I also knew I couldn't avoid airplanes forever. (In fact, I had to fly for work the next month.)
I hated the very idea of medication, because it made me feel like a failure, and because I honestly thought it wouldn't do anything but make me loopy. But, I gave it a try, and eventually, my doctor and I figured out the dosage that worked well enough to get me on (and off) the plane of my own volition.
What happens when you take medication is that all of a sudden the fear isn't so intense. It's still there, but you no longer have that crawling-out-of-your-skin feeling. The physical response - the racing heart, the shallow breathing, the wild eyes - all of that is gone. You can recognize the fear for what it is, just normal fear, and deal with it.
The first time I had a flight that didn't end in tears, I was ecstatic, relieved, and...EXCITED to fly again. Just knowing that I could actually get through it without being miserable was a huge victory, and a huge confidence boost. The more I did it, the less stressful flying became. I still take the meds, but I take less of them, and I no longer dread flights days in advance. And, Jimmie is happy, because we no longer drive 4 hours to the airport and he can still feel his fingers during takeoff.
I'm so sorry that you're here because you're struggling with a fear of flying, but I hope some of my experience can help you find what works for you. Flying opens up so many doors, and really is an enjoyable way to travel once you get used to it. There are some amazing places out there - don't let your fear keep you from experiencing them.