How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying

Flying into São Paulo

My name is Elizabeth Hampton and I am afraid of flying! I live in Brazil - my family lives in Oklahoma. This creates some problems. In addition, I love to travel and am a travel blogger. Not only that, in the United States I worked for 13 years as a therapist. I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor. I specialize in treating people with addictions, and people who have experienced trauma, including PTSD. I’m also pretty awesome at working with people that have anxiety disorders. Those that can’t do…ahem…teach. So I would like to share with you a few techniques that help me relax when I’m 30,000 feet in the air and anxious. But first let me explain a little more about my fear as I suspect there are others out there who have this same problem and would like some techniques to help overcome this phobia of flying many of us share.

Fired up and ready to fly!

​In the beginning when I first started flying, I wasn’t so anxious. My fear grew worse the more I flew. My fear comes from feeling a lack of control, fear of heights, and also having several negative experiences while flying. I’ve flown a lot over the years and I’ve been on two flights in which the plane dropped quickly, landings that were aborted at the last minute just before touching down, and some horrible turbulence. I’ve been on flights with people screaming and people clapping and cheering when we finally touched down. Not fun!

Playing around and trying to foget how nervous I am!

I’ve been told again and again, even by a pilot friend that my fear is irrational. I know that out of all the negative experiences I’ve had while flying we were not in any real danger. The physics of the aircraft, and techniques of the pilots have been explained to me. I understand that airplane wings are bendy and turbulence really isn’t enough to cause a plane to crash.

My fear is irrational. Most fear is irrational. Think about it, biologically we are built to survive. Back in the caveman days the fight, flight, or freeze response was necessary for the survival of our species so we wouldn’t all die and be eaten by lions. Today, we still have the same responses. But we have those responses over the stupidest problems, such as my dear friend who is afraid of all insects, my husband who is claustrophobic, and me when I was younger and had to speak in public. Our bodies all elicit the same response - like we are about to be eaten by a lion when we are only being confronted by a moth.

That is my fear of flying - making a mountain out of a tiny molehill. And while I know the statistics - I’m more likely to be struck by lightning, eaten by a shark, or win the lottery than I am to experience a plane crash - it doesn’t make my experience of flying any less harrowing or less downright uncomfortable. I also know that today we are safer flying than in any other time in history. However, thanks to the media obsession we are bombarded with images of plane crashes time and time again. CNN has become what we jokingly call the Plane Crash Network or PCN. Despite what the news outlets want you to believe, these events are rare. More people die in car crashes. I’m not terrified of getting into my car. So I completely understand that my fear is irrational. About 40% of the people who fly also struggle with fear of flying. So that is a lot of irrational thinking going on in the air at one time!

Flying in Business Class can make flying a little more comfortable. Besides, you never know who you'll meet. Here I am with the 'Axe Murderer' Wanderlei Silva - an international MMA legend.

So how bad is my fear? It starts months before my trip - immediately after we book the airfare. I begin to dread the flight and think about things I can do to help ease my discomfort. Then, closer to the trip I begin to have nightmares. The day of the trip, while sitting in the airport waiting to board, the strangest thing happens. My bladder goes into hyper drive and I have to pee a million times before we even get on the plane. Then once on the plane if we hit turbulence watch out, because my heart races, I sweat, and my stomach cramps. Then I begin to silently pray, ask for forgiveness, and make a lot of promises!

Despite my fear of flying I continue to travel. I know that the reward of traveling and seeing the world outweighs my uncomfortable terror when we have turbulence. As a child I remember going to church and being upset by the pastor talking about how we could all die at any time. I told my dad about it and his response was that I can either hide in a cave the rest of my life, which is not living, or live my life to the fullest and take chances. So guess which one I chose? I want to see the world and explore of course!

These little planes in Costa Rica were bunches of fun!

So, over the years between my fear of flying and work as a therapist helping a lot of people with their fears, I’ve come up with my own tool box I use when I fly. Please keep in mind some of these techniques may not work for everyone. What is important is that you find a technique that works best for you! Also, this list of techniques and tips does not eliminate my fear of flying, it just make me a little more comfortable and makes flying a little more bearable.

  • Sit towards the front of the plane. If turbulence freaks you out like it does me, sit as close to the front as you can for a smoother ride.
  • If you can afford it, fly business class. I know not everyone can afford this. I’ve only done it twice. However, it was amazing the two times I used points to upgrade to business class for my flights between Brazil and the USA. I had little anxiety. Being pampered, having more room to move about, being able to lie down flat, and a few glasses of champagne had a huge calming effect on me.
  • Learn as much as you can about flying. For some people, learning about flying can be helpful. For example, did you know that an airplane can fly and land with only one operational engine? Demystifying the experience is helpful for a lot of people. Personally I still freak out despite knowing the facts and statistics, but for some this is helpful.
  • Noise cancelling headphones. These headphones are great and help me cover all the strange noises the plane makes that I don’t understand. They are also great when music or my guided imagery/meditation track is played.
  • Guided imagery/mindfulness/meditation track. I uploaded from iTunes “the Best of Guided Meditation”. It helps me to relax and have something to focus on other than what is going on inside that tin can 30,000 feet up in the air. I recommend practicing guided imagery/meditation at first when you are relaxed, before encountering the event or object you are afraid of. This will help you to slip into meditation easier when you are anxious. If you can’t focus on it well when you are calm, it will not help you when you are being bounced around by turbulence! So practice, practice, practice at home.
  • A good conversation with someone. This can be your travel partner or even that stranger sitting next to you. Sometimes just talking and getting into a great conversation can help take your mind off your fear and get you to focus on something else for a while. It also helps pass the time quicker. However, on a side note, nothing sucks more than sitting next to someone who is also afraid of flying! This has happened to me a few times. Once I had to tell a co-worker I was flying with to a conference to “shut up” when he started freaking out. Not nice I know,  but I did it in a joking manner and he thought it was funny. The other person was a man in his 20's I had just met. We had really bad turbulance during our take off.  He was yelling and shouted, “what the hell is going on here”! People on the plane were turning around to look at us. I wanted to tell him to “shut up” too, but didn’t know him so I tried to comfort him by explaining turbulance to him. All the while, my heart was racing and I was trying to appear calm so as not to freak the guy out more. So a good conversation works well for me - at least until I sit next to another nervous flyer.
  • Breathing by 7’s. This is a little anxiety technique that can be used anywhere, anytime. You do deep belly breathing. When you breathe in, your belly should rise. You breathe in for 7 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 7 seconds. You do this 7 times - or 50 if the turbulence lasts for some time. Deep breathing helps to relax the body and mind; counting causes your brain to focus on something other than your terror. Sometimes my mind wanders when I do this activity, and I just work on refocusing my attention back to my breathing.
  • Left nostril breathing. It sounds hokey, but it works for me. Here is the rationale behind this technique. Your left nostril is connected to your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and your right nostril is connected to your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). When you are anxious your PNS is working slowly and your SNS is overworking. To get them in balance try left nostril breathing. Place your finger or thumb over your right nostril and breaths in and out slowly through your left nostril. The great thing about this relaxation technique is that no one will know what you are doing and they won’t think anything of it.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). PMR used with breathing can be very effective in managing anxiety and fear. While deep breathing you tighten each section of your body, hold it and then release. You start with your feet and work your way up to your head and then at the end tighten your entire body and release. I would tell clients to imagine they are a tube of toothpaste. We usually roll and squeeze toothpaste from the bottom to the top.
  • Accepting your fear and owning it. If nothing else seems to work and you feel that by trying to distract yourself from your fear it slips into your mind more frequently, just accept it. Accept that you will be anxious and possibly terrified for a short period of time. Also, sometimes just letting yourself feel the anxiety for a period of time is enough to get you over it. Once you realize that feeling uncomfortable is not going to hurt you it gets a little easier.
  • Massage your neighbor. You might want to make sure this is okay with your neighbor first because sometimes strangers don’t like being touched. Ha ha! Seriously though, one turbulent flight Dale and I were both nervous and took turns giving each other neck and shoulder massages to try and relax. It all started with a kink in my neck and then we realized the act of giving and receiving a massage calmed us both. When the flight attendants were all told to sit down immediately with the drink cart left in front of our row of seats this distraction was helpful. By the way, in Brazil they rarely tell the flight attendants to have a seat, so you can imagine that the turbulence on this flight was pretty awful.
  • Movies and TV shows on tablet. On the long flights between the U.S. and Brazil, having a few of my favorite TV shows on hand is helpful. I usually will load comedies or my favorite exciting series that I can immerse myself in. This helps me to pass time and reduce anxiety. Sadly reading on flights usually does not help with my anxiety. I find that I cannot focus enough to read during turbulence, and then I get frustrated because when I’m anxious I will read the same paragraph over and over and still not know what just happened. Light-hearted, 30 minute TV shows where I do not need to concentrate so much seem to do the trick!
  • Do simple math problems in your head. Yes, I hate math and I’m not good at it. However something about doing some simple addition and multiplication and trying to go as high as I can is often enough to slow down my heart rate and calm my body. You see when you are doing something such as simple math you are activating a different area of your brain. This can help to override your fear response.
  • Grounding techniques. These are techniques therapists often use with clients who have anxiety disorders or PTSD. This helps the brain to focus on the present rather than stress by thinking of all the possible things that can happen. One technique is to do the 54321 game. Name 5 things you see in the room, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing good about yourself.
  • Adult coloring sheets, doodle, journal. These activities are simple enough that it does not take a lot of concentration which, believe me, can be difficult to find in turbulence.  These activities are often relaxing.
  • Get up and walk around every hour. Only do this of course if the seatbelt light is off. Just the act of walking, standing, and stretching makes me feel a little more normal, like I’m on solid ground again.
  • Medication. And finally, you can speak to your doctor about a mild sedative to help you with your anxiety. I do not recommend taking drugs to control your anxiety unless you try and practice other techniques first. That said, for long overnight flights to and from Brazil my doctor prescribes me a low dose of Xanax (this is only for the long flights - for shorter flights I just rely on many of the previously mentioned techniques).  This helps with both the anxiety and affords me a little sleep on the 10 hour flights. The decision to use medication should not be taken lightly. Xanax is an addictive substance. As a drug and alcohol counselor who has worked with people addicted to the benzo’s I can tell you that withdrawal from Xanax is hell. If you have an addictive personality or a family history of addiction you should avoid this medication. Never take Xanax and drink alcohol. This combination can lead to accidental death.  Of course, this is not medical advice and you should definitely speak with your medical provider if you are considering any type of medication.

I don’t know if I will ever completely conquer my fear of flying but these techniques I find useful and I hope they will be helpful to others who share my struggle. I would love to hear from you about any other techniques that work for you!