Is there anything more embarrassing 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 ever taken felt like it was bringing me one step closer to death?
It didn’t used to be this way.
Back when I used to take a vacation 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.
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 round-the-world trip 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 I shouldn’t get on the plane.
Then, during the flight, I’d spend the entire time replaying my nightmares and just waiting for us to start plummeting. Over and over, I’d picture the plane breaking up mid-flight, the engines suddenly exploding, and us free-falling down to earth. Every time the fasten seatbelt sign turned on unexpectedly, I’d start staring around the cabin with wide, wild eyes, searching the faces of passengers for signs of alarm. Every bump of turbulence had me whimpering quietly to myself, desperate to get back on the ground to safety.
And yeah, I’d have full-on panic attacks, too, spending many of my flights hyperventilating and crying behind sunglasses, digging my nails into my boyfriend’s arms — or my own if I was flying solo. I’d grimace and shudder and mutter about how I needed to get off the plane, and every time we landed safely, I’d resolve to never take another flight again.
I couldn’t even eat during the 24 hours leading up to a flight because my stomach would be so nervous.
The funny thing about all of this was my background in physics. I understand exactly how planes fly, I know how they stay up in the air, and I realise they’re far safer than driving. I knew all the facts.
A fear of flying, however, is entirely irrational.
Flash forward to 2021 and my fear of flying has all but disappeared. Yes, really. 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. I look forward to it. I think of it as a time to relax and rest and enjoy being disconnected from the outside world. And I bask calmly in the knowledge that sitting in a plane is one of the safest places I could possibly put myself.
I promise that if I can overcome such a debilitating fear of flying, you can do it, too.
Here’s how I did it.
I Better Educated Myself
It 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.
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 have about flying. And the fact that he’s so matter-of-fact about everything and makes even the most horrifying-sounding of situations appear as though it’s not a big deal in any way (because it actually isn’t) truly 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.
And so, 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, but man. If there’s one thing I’ve done that’s eradicated 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 degree in physics. 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.
There are two additional books that have significantly improved my flying experiences, and they’re both so different to Cockpit Confidential, as well as to each other. I strongly recommend buying all three to give yourself the best chance of completely overcoming your fear of flying.
Soar: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying: What I love about this book is it’s all about the psychology behind having a fear of flying. It teaches you exactly why you have this fear, what’s going on in your body when you experience anxiety in planes, and shares some incredible coping methods for when you’re up in the sky.
This book is fantastic — and is particularly good at dampening down that anticipation anxiety when you’re wondering if you should cancel your trip. I recommend reading this book at least a week before your flight, if not longer, as some of the calming exercises can take a few days to kick in.
The Easy Way to Enjoy Flying: This book takes a totally different approach to Soar, and it’s one of my favourite books to read on the plane. Just a couple of months ago, I was flying from New Zealand to Australia and found myself starting to feel nervous on the plane. I picked up this book and within a few minutes, I felt totally calm again.
This book is all about dispelling the most common myths around the safety of planes, and I benefitted a lot from reading each chapter as I experienced it on the plane. I read about take-offs during the take-off and turbulence during any bumpy bits.
I believe this three books work together to completely dispel a fear of flying. Soar teaches you why you have the anxiety and how to remove it, The Easy Way shares why flying is safe and why you shouldn’t panic, and Cockpit Confidential shows you exactly how amazing flying is and why you should be excited to step on board a plane.
I can’t recommend them enough.
I Headspaced My Fears Away
If there’s one thing that’s made a huge difference to my mental health, it’s regularly using the meditation app Headspace to create a tiny sanctuary of calm in my frenzied brain. I try to squeeze in a 10-minute meditation session with Headspace both as soon as I wake up and before I go to bed, and it’s led to a significant improvement to my mental state. Just having lower anxiety levels in general results in me feeling calmer and more rational when it comes to stepping on a plane.
Headspace actually has a fear of flying meditation program for nervous fliers, which helps to ground me and calm me down before a flight. I listen to it daily in the week running up to my departure and then during take-off. I seriously end up feeling like I’m on the verge of serene when the wheels lift up from the ground.
You can try Headspace for free for 10 days, so it’s definitely worth checking out to see if those sessions help to reduce the overall anxiety in your life.
I Took 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 make me pretty drowsy so I end up spending most of my flight snoozing. There’s something about drowsiness that takes my anxiety away. All I’m thinking about is how much I want to have a nap.
A glass of wine always helps, too.
I Love Checking Out 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 16,500 up in the air.
It 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.
I love remembering that there are one million people in the sky on planes at any one time. Sometimes, I like to imagine all of those planes and passengers all travelling around the world in straight line, one after the other. Something about picturing us all travelling along together — and safely — makes me feel comforted.
I Imagine I’m Taking a Flight Every Day of My Life
You know what else helps? Imagining that I’m about to step on a plane during random moments in my life. Even if I don’t have a flight coming up for months, I like to pretend that I need to head to the airport in a few hours.
I imagine which flight it could possibly be for — Seattle to New York? Barcelona to London? Dubai to Bangkok? Perth to Cape Town? And I think about how, if I was about to get on any of those flights right now, I’d be terrified. I think about how I’d be panicking in the airport, convinced I shouldn’t step on the plane, worrying that something bad was going to happen.
The following day, I remind myself that there were no crashes, no air incidents, and no worries. I could have taken any one of 50,000 flights that day and landed perfectly safely. And that would be the case day after day after day.
I remind myself of this whenever I notice a plane up in the sky. I pretend I’m on board, I think about how panicked I’d feel if I was, and then I remind myself that it’s going to land without issues.
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 knowing the numbers 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. Anxiety doesn’t listen to logic or reason, unfortunately.
So I have this 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 all year. 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 minuscule chances of random things happening massively helps to calm me down.
We’re all so insignificant.
I Remind Myself That Being on a Plane is the Safest Place I Could Possibly Be
It’s true: while you’re sat on a flight and freaking out about how dangerous it feels, you’re pretty much in the safest place you could possibly be. Safer than crossing the street, taking a bath, playing a video game, or walking down the stairs.
You’re so ridiculously safe on a plane — even though it doesn’t feel like it.
I Stopped Speaking About It
I used to spend the run-up to every departure constantly telling my boyfriend 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 highly recommend doing this in the run-up to your flight.
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.
I Give Myself Exactly 30 Seconds to Panic
For me, the most anxiety-inducing parts of the flight are the take-off and turbulence. Whenever I start to panic, I remind myself that I can’t change anything and then tell myself that I am allowed to freak out for exactly 30 seconds. As the panic rises in my throat, I slowly count down from 30, and when I reach 0, I take a slow, deep breath, drop my shoulders, unclench my jaw, and force myself to relax.
It really does help keep me calm at a time when I’d usually be grabbing at armrests and chewing my lip to pieces.
I 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.
I 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.
Do you have any tips for overcoming a fear of flying?
Photo of Rome via: ambrozinio/Shutterstock