In 2013, I took a flight home from Rome and cried in fear throughout. I would not let go of my friend’s hand and suffered wave after wave of suffocating panic until we landed. For the next four years, I refused to get on a plane! If I had the choice to fly to an amazing destination or simply not go, I would stay home every time. I even googled cruise ships across the Atlantic to New York in order to realise my travel dreams (it was expensive and would have taken five days so it didn’t happen)! Bizarrely, avoiding flying actually compounded my fear. Nightmares about flying were a regular occurrence. In addition, I would feel incredibly upset every time I had to miss out on a holiday.
So, two years ago, I became determined to stop letting my fear get the better of me. I booked a flight to Lisbon and used it as motivation to practice all the techniques I could think of in order to beat my fear, and … it actually worked! Granted, I wasn’t cured immediately and there definitely wasn’t a quick fix, however, for each flight I boarded after, I became less and less frightened. Today, I am comfortable taking flights on my own. I would even go as far as to say that I often enjoy the experience.
Although what worked for me may not work for everyone, I want to share the 8 techniques that helped me. Hopefully some of these could work for you too.
A friend gifted me the book ‘Flying with Confidence’ by pilot Captain Steve Allright (what a fitting name!) and it was brilliant. The book is a compilation of tips on how to conquer your fear in addition to mini lessons from pilots on why flying is incredibly safe. It is written in such a matter of fact manner by the people who know best therefore it really helped to put me at ease. All the little things I was worried about, for instance, the sounds and sensations that are experienced when flying, were addressed and explained. This made me realise that each of these things was truly was nothing to worry about.
I also really like these youtube videos: ‘Overcome Fear of Flying: 5 best tips from a flight attendant’ by Fly With Stella and ‘Overcome your Fear of Flying’ by Psychologist Christie Ferrari.
One thing I found didn’t help me (and at times exacerbated my fear) was googling ‘how to overcome a fear of flying’. Although there is a lot of great advice online (hopefully this included!), I would often stumble across articles that started with ‘I am afraid of flying because …’ and launch into a number of terrifying reasons that then fuelled my fear further. As Google recognised my ‘interest’ in planes, it would even start suggesting articles and videos of things that I really did not want to see.
Information is great, but only when visiting the sites that will build confidence with balanced, impartial advice.
The typical ‘you are more likely to have an accident on the way to the airport than on a plane’ is quoted very often, however, reminding myself of this before, and statistically just how safe flying is, during and after the flight did actually help!
It was always great to fly with someone supportive (a friend, family member, partner etc). I would communicate to them before the flight how best they could help.
For me, I think I needed some tough love. If I flew with someone who pandered to my fear and kept asking if I was ok, it would make me feel as if I were more justified in being scared. I took that first flight to Lisbon with my partner and he definitely did not indulge this fear! He acted normally, distracted me and at times lightly made fun of my fear. This maybe sounds a little harsh, but it worked: it made me laugh and view my fear as very irrational which diminished its power. The laughter and light-heartedness shifted my mindset and it was a lot easier to think positively!
Before every flight, I would send a message to my family, telling them how much I loved them and missed them, just in case it was my last. My partner encouraged me not to send those messages, because it wasn’t a healthy mindset to get into at the beginning of every flight. Afterall, I don’t do that every time I get in a car or cross the road!
There is a natural tendency when scared to tense up, take short, shallow breaths and grip onto whatever is close! I definitely used to grip the armrest (or whoever I was flying with!) when taking off. This was the worst thing I could have done as it just kept all that tension in my body. So, I would make sure that I relaxed my body as much as possible, especially my hands. I would also make sure that I took long, deep breaths!
A distraction really is one of the best ways to get my mind off a flight. The most distracting activity for me is to watch TV shows. Before each flight, I would make sure that my iPad was fully charged and that I had downloaded whichever show I was hooked on so that I could let the story carry my mind away.
Using noise-cancelling headphones was great to drown out any of those plane noises that would make me worried.
Picking up the Lonely Planet book for my destination and researching it on the plane often worked well! When travelling with someone else, chatting about what would to get up to when we arrived was also fun.
Visualising being in my destination often means that excitement takes over from the fear!
I would always pick seats that I felt most comfortable in. To begin with, I also stuck to destinations with short-haul flights. Arriving at the airport with enough time to calmly check-in also helped to keep the pre-flight anxiety at bay.
Conquering this fear has been life-changing and is one of my proudest achievements. If I hadn’t beaten it, I wouldn’t be where I am now: writing this post in Bali, having taken a break from my job to travel the world for the best part of a year! I hope these tips can help you too.
Do you have any tips on overcoming a fear of flying? I'd love to know!
Personal Mental Health Fear of Flying Flying Health
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Feb 17, 2020 at 17:47
My main problem with flying is a dread of being stuck in a plane for several hours, I tend to only fly if it's long haul and unavoidable, with the person in front of me insisting on reclining their seat for long periods whilst the person behind me continually complains if I do likewise. Not sure it's actually happened to me yet but I'm always thinking it will. Just my own irrational phobia I suppose
Feb 20, 2020 at 09:39
I empathise with this so much! I don't like it when people recline their seat and then always worry too much about reclining mine!
One thing I try to do is not worry about that happening in advance as its out of my control, however, in order to avoid the situation of feeling stuck, I try to book aisle seats so that getting up to walk around is a possibility. Another option could be to warn the cabin crew about the claustrophobia when you board the plane as if they are aware they may be able to accommodate e.g. move you to a better seat if things start to feel cramped.
If it isn't too expensive then perhaps the extra leg room seats are worth paying for?