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Anxiety Towards Flying: You’re Not Alone

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anxietyI get nervous about… well… many stupid things in my life. Many, many things. I have generalized anxiety disorder that has been manageable, sometimes barely a nuisance, but has also haunted me my entire life. Still, one of the things I don’t have anxiety towards is flying, which seems strange, right?

But, many people do have anxiety when it comes to flying… anxiety so strong that they bypass getting in planes for their entire lives. And, in doing so, they skip out on that dream trip to Italy, or Australia, or Argentina.

While I can’t offer any personal tips for those with flight anxiety, I can offer some tips and insight from those (other travelers) who have struggled and overcome their fear (at least to a degree).

Beverley Reinemann – Pack Your Passport

How has anxiety with flying impacted your travels… or life in general?
Anxiety with flying stopped me from travelling out of England (bar a trip to Paris on the train when I was 16) until I was 25. I think if I’d been on a plane at a younger age it wouldn’t have felt like such a big deal but it was complete fear of the unknown.

I’m a person who likes to know exactly how things are going to pan out otherwise I can’t go ahead with them and the idea of flying somewhere left me feeling completely out of control.

What steps did you take to overcome this fear, or at least minimize it?
Firstly, I booked a flight. I’d wanted my first ever flight to be a short one but I ended up booking a one-way ticket to Australia – 23 hours from England!

Then I spent the months leading up to the flight asking question after question to anyone who would listen about what the flight would actually be like. I wanted to be armed with all the information. It really is the lack of control which scares me the most.

I still have flight anxiety now even though I’ve flown countless times since that first one in 2010 but I remind myself that people fly every day with no problem at all and that turbulence does not mean the plane is falling out of the sky. I occupy myself for the entire flight so I don’t think too much about it and concentrate on my breathing.

What was your motivation to overcome this obstacle?
Travel. Once I had that flight booked I knew there was no going back. I didn’t want to stay in England for the rest of my life and I wanted to make myself feel good by conquering a fear, giving up control and doing a normal every day thing that most people don’t give a second thought about.

Advice you’d give to someone with similar issues?
Establish what it is about flying that makes you feel anxious the most. Is it the lack of control? The being in the air? Is in a feeling of claustrophobia? Once you’ve identified this it makes the problem seem a little smaller.

I have a mental list of affirmations I repeat to myself while I’m in the air but if it helps you can write them down. Anything — words, phrases, facts or figures — you think would put your mind at ease or relax you, write them down.

Get in touch with Beverley on Twitter: PckYourPassport

Lucy Dodsworth – On the Luce

How has anxiety with flying impacted your travels… or life in general?
I took my first flight at 18 to New York and loved it. But after a really bad flight from Vietnam to Laos, complete with massive turbulence and dropping through air pockets, I started to get really anxious about flying. After that I tried to avoid flying if possible – anywhere in Europe I can get to via the Eurostar and trains I will. When I do have to fly I start to get nervous and stressed a couple of days before, and by the time I reach the airport I completely retreat into myself. My worst part is take off and for a while I used to be in tears every time (does scare the surrounding passengers a bit!). It has put me off travelling to some destinations because of the flying involved, or at least make sure I’m going to spend a decent amount of time in a destination to make it worth the flight.

What steps did you take to overcome this fear, or at least minimize it?
I had a friend who worked in the airline industry who talked me through how flying works and what all those strange noises are so I know what’s going on. I always try to get a seat near a window so I can see the horizon, it helps with the fear of disorientation to see what angle we’re at. Because of this I usually try to avoid night flights if at all possible. Though you’re not supposed to drink too much, a gin and tonic or two does help a bit, and I have also tried the herbal Rescue Remedy. And if I get into really bad turbulence then I find counting to myself helps (sounds weird but it does it for me, think it must be the distraction!).

What was your motivation to overcome this obstacle?
My love of travel – there are so many places that you need to fly to get to, and I didn’t want to miss out on seeing them. So my desire to see the world has outweighed my fear of flying. The awfulness of the flight fades a lot quicker than the great memories from my trips.

Advice you’d give to someone with similar issues?
It depends on what your fear stems from – if it’s the mechanics of flying then find out how it works so you know what’s going on. If it’s the lack of control then find something to distract you – reading, writing, playing games. And always remember that its only temporary. Soon you’ll be on a fantastic holiday, and it’ll feel like a distant memory.

Get in touch with Lucy on her blog: On the Luce

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When you're anxious, time goes slower.

Katie Hammel – Travel Writer & Editor

How has anxiety with flying impacted your travels… or life in general?
My anxiety with flying started about 10 years ago. First it was a little apprehension, then fear, then all-out panic attacks. If I was flying with my husband or a friend, I’d end up buried in their shoulder, sobbing hysterically. If I was alone, I’d be the crazy person hyperventilating during take-off. I didn’t let it stop me from flying, but it made flying an incredibly stressful – and often very boozy, as I’d have a drink or three before each flight in an attempt to calm myself – affair.

What steps did you take to overcome this fear, or at least minimize it?
After a few years of trying to self-medicate to make it through each flight, I finally talked to my doctor, who prescribed a small dose of Xanax (an anti-anxiety drug) before each flight. I’m still nervous about flying, but the xanax helps me stay calm during take-off and any mild turbulence, and it makes me a bit drowsy (but not groggy) so I can better sleep on the plane.

What was your motivation to overcome this obstacle?
My motivation to get medical help was the thought of feeling this way on every flight for the rest of my life. I hate relying on drugs (I’m one of those people who won’t take aspirin for a minor headache) but I think this was really the best option for me.

Advice you’d give to someone with similar issues?
I’ve always hated that statistic that “you have a greater chance of dying in a car crash than in a plane crash.” If that works for you, think of that, but if not, find another thought that does. I know a few flight attendants personally, so I always think, “Flight attendants do this all the time, it’s their job. They wouldn’t do it if they thought they really had a chance of dying every day they went to work.” Educate yourself about the noises planes make, the mechanics of flying, etc, and try to remember these when you get scared. And if all else fails, go see a doctor for help.

Get in touch with Katie on Twitter: @katiehammel

Andrew Couch – Grounded Traveler

Andrew left a very good comment on my “How Anxiety Helps Me Travel” post that I wanted to share as it might provide more inspiration to those on the edge.

Travel has actually helped me get over my anxiety. I was very fearful living in the US, driving every day and living alone. Moving to Germany with no friends or job was not anxiety provoking to me, even though just about everything was at home. I still refused to fly for 10 years going back and forth to Europe on the boat 3 times. Trains the length and breadth of the continent.

I just started flying a year and a half ago. Since then I have done a number of shorter flights, plus trans Atlantic to get married. I just got back form New Zealand which was 22 hours in the air either direction. Despite all of this I am still frightened to one extent or another of flying. … My list of things that frightens me is pretty long, but still not as long as it once was. And the desire to see the places that one must travel to see and experience are a stronger desire than the fear. This seems to be a way of dealing with fear. Find something to drive you that is stronger than the fear.

Get in touch with Andrew on his blog: Grounded Traveler

What can you learn from these examples?

These people above are accomplished travelers who have dealt with flight anxiety in one form or another but have also persevered to make their travel dreams a reality. Don’t be ashamed of the issue at hand: Get help. Ask a doctor and get a prescription if necessary. Find a friend that can introduce you to the ins and outs of the airplane process. Or, just sit down and think about the exact problem that is causing the anxiety in the first place.

These personal stories above show that if you have issues with flying, you are not alone in your battle. Most of all, overcoming the anxiety is absolutely possible.

Stay tuned for more in this series on travel anxiety. Up next: solo travel anxiety. Subscribe to my feed so you don’t miss it.

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16 Responses to Anxiety Towards Flying: You’re Not Alone

  1. Beverley | Pack Your Passport February 13, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

    Lucy that is such a good idea; counting to yourself on the flight. I can totally see how that would work, I’m going to try it 🙂

    • Lucy February 14, 2012 at 1:23 am #

      Does make me look a bit nuts muttering away to myself but it really seems to work. My sister swears by singing to herself too which works in a similar way, its all about the distraction. Hope it helps!

      • Brooke February 17, 2012 at 9:28 am #

        Know what’s funny? When I’m riding the exercise bike and need to distract myself, I find myself counting in my head…

  2. JoAnna February 14, 2012 at 12:19 am #

    I don’t mind flying, but this is a really helpful post for those who don’t. Thanks for posting!

  3. Andrew February 14, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    Oo, my comment helped. Yay.

    I am just getting back into flying and the mere concept does not frighten me like it did. I still don’t like the act, but it is ok. Especially with Ali around. I’m like Lucy in that a flew a lot for a while and then had a really bad flight that helped push me into years of panic attacks.
    My problem is turbulence in that I don’t like the feeling of falling. I always thought it was the movement, but Ali reminded me once that trains move just as much as most flights. The noise and tightness and lack of control does all get to me too.

    I find flights with TVs and one larger planes help. The 777 to Hong Kong moved a lot less than the little regional jets in the US.

    Yes, you can get over flight anxiety. As mentioned counting helps. I used to tense up and freak out at the least turbulence. Then I decided to count for 30 seconds and would only allow myself to freak if it was still bouncy after that. Most turbulence doesn’t last that long, and counting with deep breaths helps reduce anxiety.

  4. Rosanna February 14, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    My boyfriend is pretty anxious about flying, to the extent that it makes me get a little nervous too. Whenever we experience turbulence, he makes me play 20 Questions to take his mind off it. I prefer to just breath deeply and will myself into being calm. I’ve also used Herbal Remedy (though not for flying) and found it worked well.

  5. Courts February 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    I used to love flying and had been flying frequently since I was a little kid until a few years ago we hit an air pocket on the way to the Philippines and the plane dropped a couple of hundred feet. Another big factor is after flying so many times it loses that initial excitement leading to boredom which in turn leads to creating “What if?” situations in my head.

    Haven’t really developed a good tactic to get over it yet apart from putting on the headphones and trying to avoid hearing the noises or having negative thoughts. Unfortunately my study and love for travel means flying is unavoidable. Thanks for the post above will definitely try some of the techniques.

    • Brooke February 17, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      Those air pockets seem to be ruining travel for a lot of people! They are quite scary. Hope these tactics help!

  6. Zablon Mukuba February 15, 2012 at 11:44 pm #

    its amazing to see how people face their fears, i should do that too

    • Brooke February 17, 2012 at 9:24 am #

      It’s very inspiring, isn’t it? 🙂

  7. rob February 16, 2012 at 9:40 am #

    Never been able to figure out what those people are worried is going to happen. Sitting in an airplane seat is safer than much of what we do on a daily basis. But even if the worst thing possible happens, and the plane falls out of the sky – you get 10 minutes of adrenaline rush followed by .. nothing. Or, if you’re curiously lucky you’ll be the survivor who gets to find a way to swim to shore/hike out of the jungle, off the mountain, or whatever.

    Life is to short to worry about non-issues like flying. Sheesh. And, as someone pointed out, the risk on the road to the airport is literally hundreds of times greater than the risks once you’re in the plane, and nobody gives a second thought to driving.

    • Brooke February 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for your input, but as someone who suffers from anxiety on a sometimes intense scale, I can honestly say it’s not always possible to just not worry. It’s just not that easy. People like you — who have a completely different outlook on… life and dying — would have a hard time understanding. I’m not even afraid of flying personally, but your story above does nothing but freak me out more! Thanks.

      • rob February 16, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

        I’m sorry for freaking you out… But the one thing that the internet is good for is giving you a chance to see what’s really going on and worry about the things that are genuinely dangerous. My favorite graph from a few years ago still applies (see below).. You’re *way* more at risk of committing suicide than dying in a plane crash. Beestings, Drowning in your bathtub. Life is inherently dangerous, but we’ve gone to a *lot* of trouble to make flying hyper-safe.

        Don’t be freaked out, though. Just embrace the dangers with the fun and it’ll all work out.

        http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/02/hearts/death-text

  8. Shaun February 19, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    Hi Brooke

    Did you know that air pockets are a complete myth? Air pockets are a myth, because planes don’t just fall out of the sky, there is always air for support. Have you ever been unable to breathe because you were walking along and found yourself in an air pocket???

    Flying through rough air isn’t much different from driving your car over a rough road or being in a boat in choppy waters. It may be bumpy, but it doesn’t affect the course or altitude unless the pilots requests and receives a change of one or both if doing so may reduce the amount of turbulence. Pilots may go to some trouble to give their passengers a smooth ride, but sometimes turbulence is simply unavoidable.

    Hope this clears some things up 🙂

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