I’m talking heart racing, break out in sweat, can’t breath, dissolve into tears, certain-of-death anxiety that begins days before even setting foot in an airport. I know on paper you’re more likely to die in a car crash, be struck by lightning or even become President of the United States (it’s true–you’ve got a 1 in 10 million shot at that vs a 1 in 11 million likelihood of dying in a plane crash). But, like so many, my emotions dominate my brain when it comes to flying and the horrific events of the recent Southwest flight that killed one can send aerophobia sufferers like me into a tailspin.
Some people’s flying anxiety stems from a fear of heights, others from the post-9/11 world we live in. For me, it is the combination of being trapped in a metal tube soaring at 500-plus miles per hour, 35,000 feet in the air (a claustrophobic’s nightmare) and having absolutely no control over anything. I stalk the weather conditions for weeks before a flight like a meteorologist in training. Will they have to de-ice the plane? Are thunderstorms predicted? And if you look over my shoulder at the gate, you’ll see me studying a turbulence report map (yep, it exists—thank you, Google). Pilots report air turbulence conditions around the world and you can see areas where conditions are particularly bad. I’m not sure why I think knowing that I’m going to get bounced around like I’m on a roller coaster will be helpful, but I crave knowledge and information. The more I know, the more in control I feel.
Flying scares me to death. But traveling gives me life. So it’s give up my passion or work on my fear—option two, please. With the help of therapists I’ve established a few ways to ease my anxiety—maybe something in here can help ease yours, too.
Knowledge is power
A therapist once told me that anxiety thrives on ignorance. So, I have devoted hours to researching everything I can about flying. It seems counterintuitive to learn about all the things that could go wrong, but along the way you also learn all the things that generally go right. I know when during flights problems typically occur, understand what the FAA has done to make flying safer following past incidents, and understand the science behind turbulence, why it occurs and how planes are equipped to handle it. Any chance I get to educate myself on the safety of flying, I take. I was once seated next to an off-duty pilot who probably wished he had flown in the baggage section of the plane by the time the flight was over. I asked him questions about literally every single sound. He was so kind and patient and now every time the flaps adjust on the wing I’m not convinced that they are breaking apart in midair. Reminding myself of these rational bits of information I’ve picked up along the way can help to calm the irrational thoughts in my head.
Tell the world
I’m not shy about sharing my fear of flying. If I fly alone, I make a joke to the person next to me apologizing in advance if I grab their arm. Sometimes they share my fear and there is a sense of camaraderie and other times they give me a list of reasons not to worry. Either way, it can be helpful. On one particularly horrific flight through a nasty mid-summer southern thunderstorm, my seatmate happened to be a psychologist. I had shared my fear before takeoff and he could see me dissolving as lightning crashed all around us. He began walking me through calming exercises to keep me from having a full-on meltdown. I was so grateful to not be in that situation alone.
Nothing amplifies anxiety quite like stress. Since I know flying makes me anxious, I take painstaking efforts to reduce any other stressors. I pack my suitcase in advance so I’m not rushing out the door grabbing things. If I think there’s a chance my suitcase won’t fit in the overhead, I simply check it or ask to gate check it. I have a bizarre need to have water with me at all times (I’m convinced I was left to die in a desert in my past life) so I will not get on a plane without the biggest bottle of water I can find. And you will never see me running through the airport to catch a flight—I leave PLENTY of time to calmly get to my gate. Yes, I may sit around waiting for awhile, but I’m calm while I’m doing it.
Establish a routine
Through my research I learned there is generally less turbulence earlier in the day and that the rows of seats directly over the wings offer the smoothest ride. I keep this in mind when booking flights and selecting seats. In addition to my half gallon of water, I have several other carry-on musts. A playlist of classical music to calm my nerves a book that I’m far enough into that it can distract me and a magazine to mindlessly flip though if my anxiety is to high for me to focus on a book. I also am not ashamed to say that I carry anti-anxiety medication with me whenever I fly. Half of of the time, just knowing it is there is enough to give me peace of mind. Whatever it is that calms your nerves—do it.
Breathe through it
When an anxiety attack strikes it feels like the air is being sucked out of the plane. I almost immediately reach up and crank open my air vent as if the oxygen system suddenly went off because I can’t breathe. The irony is that rapid shallow breaths that so often accompany a panic attack are actually not your body not getting enough oxygen, they are your body expelling carbon dioxide too quickly. When you breathe in oxygen it takes time for your body to convert it into carbon dioxide. By breathing so quickly you are depriving your body of that ability. The result is a rapid heartbeat, dizziness, sweating—basically feeling like you are having a mid-air heart attack. In the moment is is so difficult, but slowing down your breathing is crucial. Breathing in for seven seconds, holding for five and breathing out for seven will help calm your entire body. Apps such as Breathe2Relax or Breathing Zone are also great tools if you need more breathing guidance.
Document your experience
Anticipatory anxiety gets me all the time. I anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong . . . and it doesn’t. But it’s easy once it’s all over to forget that. I had a therapist recommend writing down the anticipation vs. the reality of each flight experience in a notebook. It gives you the opportunity to look back before a flight and see how little validity your fears really have.
And if none of that works for you, just remember you’re more likely to get killed by a meteorite, win an Oscar or take home gold in the Olympics than die in a plane crash.