Is there anything more awkward than being a travel writer with a fear of flying?
It sounds ridiculous, I know.
I mean, I travel for a living. I must get on a plane at least once a month, if not once a week at times. So why on earth has every flight I’ve taken felt like it was bringing me one step closer to death?
It didn’t used to be this way.
Before my travels, back when I used to take a holiday once a year, I didn’t even think about the flights. I’d be mildly nervous during take-off, then spend the rest of the journey enamoured with the sensation of being so far above the ground.
Funnily enough, once I started boarding planes regularly, my fear began to grow.
It turns out exposure therapy was not the way forward for me.
The more I travelled, the more scared I became.
And what started off as slight jitters during the first few months of my trip had turned into full-blown panic attacks by the end of the first year.
It reached the point where during the week leading up to taking a flight, I’d have gruesome, graphic nightmares of being in a plane crash, which would then have me convinced it was a premonition and that I shouldn’t get on a plane. Then, of course, during the flight, I’d spend the entire time replaying my nightmares and just waiting for us to start plummeting.
And yeah, I’d have panic attacks, too, spending many of my flights hyperventilating and crying behind sunglasses, digging my nails into Dave’s arms or my own if I was flying solo.
I couldn’t even eat in the 24 hours leading up to a flight because my stomach would be so nervous.
Flash forward to today and my fear of flying has pretty much disappeared. I occasionally get nervous before a flight, but my fears are on a 2/10 level rather than the 9 that I’ve been for the past few years.
I’ve even grown to enjoy it.
So here’s how I did it.
I Better Educated Myself
I was at the airport in San Francisco when I decided to wander into a store and grab a couple of books for the flight. One of them was a copy of Cockpit Confidential, which sounded vaguely interesting. I’d never heard of it before and knew nothing about it.
I boarded my plane, opened it up, and began to read.
And before we’d even started moving, my nerves were fading away.
Written by Patrick Smith, a pilot and writer of the Ask the Pilot column for Salon, it covers basically every question you could possibly ever have about flying. And the fact that he’s so matter-of-fact about everything and makes even the most horrifying-sounding of situations (to me) appear as though it’s not a big deal in any way (because it actually isn’t) really set my mind at ease.
I was enthralled on that flight and I didn’t look up once until we landed. Most importantly of all, I was so calm that I didn’t even have any butterflies during my flight. I was even starting to enjoying flying now that I understood it a lot more.
That was the first flight of my life where I hadn’t experienced any nervousness.
Well, I took that book around the world with me and I know it so well, I could probably recite half of it to you right now. I don’t carry it with me any more because my fear is over, and because I’ve memorised most of it anyway, but man. If there’s one thing I’ve done that’s gotten rid of my fear of flying, it’s that book. So if you’re scared of flying, you need to buy it.
I thought I was reasonably well-educated about flying, given that I have a masters in physics and all that jazz. But it turns out, understanding how a plane flies and stays up in the air wasn’t enough to keep me calm and rational. Instead, I found that having a pilot explain every single thing that happens when you fly and how none of it is scary or dangerous was exactly what I needed.
Headspacing My Fears Away
If there’s one thing that’s made a huge difference to the quality of my life this year, it’s regularly using the meditation app Headspace to create a tiny sanctuary of calm in my frenzied brain.
Headspace specifically has a fear of flying program for nervous fliers and it helps to calm me down before a flight. I listen to it daily in the week running up to my departure, and then during take-off.
Dave even mentioned to me the other day that I was the calmest he’s ever seen me on a flight when I flew from Preveza to Venice. I was practically serene! And that’s exactly because I was Headspacing the entire way.
Dramamine or Benadryl for Naps
I get motion sickness on planes, so I usually take a Dramamine or Benadryl before boarding anyway. And one bonus to this? They knock me out so I spend most of my flight napping.
And you don’t have either of those? A glass of wine always helps.
Checking Out Flight Radar 24 Before My Flight
While I’m still in the airport, I load up Flight Radar 24 on my laptop and spend a few minutes looking at just how many thousands of planes there are in the sky at that moment. When I checked the map just now, there were a whopping 13,500 up in the air.
And that always makes me feel better, because it shows me how insignificant my flight really is. There are so many planes in the sky at any one time and so many terrified passengers — none of whom are actually going to die.
What Are the Chances Of…?
I knew the stats: your odds of dying in a plane crash are roughly one in 11 million; your odds of dying in a car crash are one in 5,000. Ninety-six per cent of plane crash passengers have survived. I’ve memorised them all. But it never really helped me while I was up in the air, because I was always convinced the plane I was on was the one that was heading down.
So I have this weird little internal dialogue where I start mentally going through the chances of me being in a plane crash:
“Right, so what are the chances of there even being a plane crash in the world today? That’s probably super-unlikely — there hasn’t been one for months. But let’s say there was a plane crash today — what are the chances that it would happen during the hour that I’m in the air? What are the chances it would be a Vueling flight? What are the chances it would be a plane that took off from Barcelona? What are the chances that it would be a flight that was heading to Lisbon? And even if it was a plane that was landing in Lisbon, there’s one of those every five minutes, so the chances even then are so low. What would be the chances of all of those things coming together and it being the flight I’m on?”
For some reason, going over and over the chances of random things happening massively helps to calm me down.
I Stopped Speaking About It
I used to spend the run-up to every departure constantly telling Dave how nervous I was about having to get on a plane, but all that did was reiterate to myself that I was nervous about having to get on a plane.
Instead, I tried telling him that I was excited to fly again, and I couldn’t wait to get on a plane. I told him that I couldn’t believe how little anxiety I had about flying this time around.
Having a much more positive mindset, even though I was absolutely lying, helped calm my nerves. Repeating over and over that I wasn’t nervous made me start to believe it.
I Surround Myself With Technology
I’ve found that one of the best ways to get over a fear of flying is to distract yourself like crazy on the flight, so I take it to the extreme by carrying all of my tech on the plane with me. After we take off and I’ve finished listening to Headspace, I throw my headphones on and listen to music, while also reading my Kindle or playing a game on my phone. Or I’ll watch a TV show on my laptop. Or I’ll write a blog post.
I’ll usually sit by the window and close the blind, too, and that way, I can trick my mind that I’m on a train instead.
Create a Flying Playlist
A flying playlist helps a ton, and I have an enormous one full of my favourite songs. They’re ones that never fail to pump me up and fill me with confidence and energy, which definitely helps me to stop focusing on whether an engine is about to explode or not.
Visualise Where I’m Going
Finally, I love to spend my time in the air visualising my destination. If I’m feeling nervous, I’ll start picturing me lying on the beach or climbing a mountain or exploring a brand new city. If I do it for long enough, the excitement starts to overtake the terror.