How To Deal With A Fear Of Flying?

Reader Tamara asked the following question in the Ask Lucky forum:

Hi Lucky!
I’m 33, I’ve travelled some around the world, but recently had a bad flying experience and have since developed one serious fear of flying. I can’t even make it through a 40 minute flight without thinking of crashing, turbulence drives me crazy, I picture everything going wrong with the plane…the thought of a transatlantic flight sets me on panic mode and I have no option but to travel to Europe in a couple of months (I’m from LA). Any tips? Please? Help!

Believe it or not, I can relate. For a majority of 2013 I was terrified of flying. Terrified. I’d sweat profusely every time I flew, and a never-ending list of scenarios would run through my head of what could go wrong.

This followed my Royal Jordanian flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong in March 2013, which was the first time in my life I was convinced I was going to die. In my millions of miles of flying, it was my first time actually being scared on a plane.

Following that event I developed severe anxiety when it came to flying. I’m not typically an anxious person, but every time I got on a plane I considered all the things that could go wrong. During takeoff my palms would get sweaty. When we hit turbulence I’d grasp onto the armrest as if it was my first time on a plane. I couldn’t sleep out of fear of waking up in a terrible situation.

It was horrible, almost like being in an abusive relationship. Airplanes are among my favorite thing in the world, but they made me feel terrible. But I kept flying and flying and flying. And a couple of hundred thousand miles later, I was over my fear of flying.

So how did I do it? The thing is that what fundamentally scares me about flying hasn’t gone away — instead I’ve simply come to terms with it. To this day there are things I think about all the time when I get on a plane (and these are all things which have caused crashes):

  • What if the pilot is suicidal?
  • What if the cargo wasn’t properly screened, and there’s something which will explode after takeoff?
  • What if there’s a fire over the ocean, and we can’t divert?
  • What if maintenance on the plane wasn’t done properly, and something vital comes loose after takeoff?

I realize saying that “out loud” to someone with a fear of flying might not sound like it would help, but for me it has. Because I can say that and still go “wow, despite all the things that could go wrong, tens of thousands of planes fly safely every day.” So in a way it’s comforting to me to know everything that could go wrong, but still realize that my odds of dying are one in several million.

Perhaps it’s more comforting in the context of the other things which can kill you, like coconuts falling on your head, champagne corks, tripping, ladders, and lightning.

What seems to scare people most about flying is turbulence, and I think that’s an area where people should be at ease — turbulence won’t be what takes down a plane. Planes are built to withstand major turbulence, so that should be the least of your concerns.

Lastly, I find it comforting to come to terms with all of the things which actually have a good chance of killing me — health issues, driving, etc. By being up in the sky I’m at least shielded from many of the other things which can kill me!

Bottom line

There’s no easy solution to getting over a fear of flying, unfortunately. But instead I can simply say that I was in exactly the same situation, and was terrified of flying, even though I realized it was irrational. A couple of hundred thousand miles later it became “normal” again. While what fundamentally concerns me about flying doesn’t go away, I also acknowledge how good my odds are, and how many other things I should be worried about instead.

I’m also terrified of cable cars, even though I admit it’s an irrational fear. When I take one for the first time in a while, I’m always sweating and shaking like crazy. But the more I take them over a short period, the better I feel about them.

Cable-Car

In the meantime I’ll still view flying as a miracle. I have no clue how it’s so safe given what’s actually happening, but it is. And I like statistics, so I’m okay with that. But that won’t stop me from pondering what can go wrong every few flights.

Sorry for rambling. I guess my real “bottom line” is “you’re not alone, hang in there.”

Have you ever had a fear of flying, and if so, how did you deal with it?

Comments

  1. Have a dr prescribe some Xanax. Pop 1-2 of those pills about 1 hr-30 minutes before your flight. You wont be caring about anything. You will be so relaxed! Probably even fall asleep in the plane.

  2. I had a fear flying as well and like you Ben, I still have those crazy thoughts that run around my brain whenever I board an airplane. My experiences stems back to a flight from MNL-GUM, back in 1989. We encountered some heavy turbulence, then out of nowhere, the damn airplane dropped, I’m assuming several hundred feet! Then regained altitude very quickly! The whole cabin was freaking out, but we landed safely. It took me over 10 years to get over that experience, but now I don’t fear flying as much anymore. Traveling and flying more over the years helped me regain my confidence in flying. Good luck to Tamara and safe travels!

  3. Understanding the odds is really important and hopefully helpful. I work inside an oil refinery… it is a crazy dangerous place with thousands of ways I can get hurt or killed. But the most dangerous part of my day is driving to work. I am much safer at work (with all the protocols and safety devices) than I am on the freeway with the crazy public.

    That said… the advice of “just hang in there” is worthless to some people and devalues a legitimate issue.

    I have a few friends who have a serious fear of flying. With varying levels of success they’ve used meditation, breathing exercises and prescription anti-anxiety medication to overcome their fears.

    If Tamara feels her fears are serious enough, there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeing a psychologist and/or psychiatrist to develop a proper course of treatment. Prescription anti-anxiety medication should be the last choice, but it is a necessary treatment for some people.

  4. So I’m scrolling through Twitter reading a bunch of tweets about the impending snowstorm in NY and tweets about Trump. Which makes me think of his plane, which I see all the time at LGA. And then I see your photo, which at a quick first glance looks sort of like his 757. Yes, I know, not exactly – just the dark and the red – and I think, how funny to use a picture of Trump’s plane to talk about scary flying and dying.

    Alas. But it did give me a chuckle.

    Oh – and a fear of cable cars isn’t irrational. That *$%(# IS SCARY.

  5. No amount of rational thinking helps me when I’m actually on the plane. I too developed a big fear on one bad flight. Short flights, long flights, it doesn’t matter. I can lose my marbles during turbulence even though sitting on the ground I know that it doesn’t crash planes.

    Go talk to your doctor and get a referral or Rx if they feel you need it. Xanax is awesome and as a bonus, it helps you sleep. After I got my Rx, I spent years trying to “beat” the fear by not taking the pills unless I feel like I had to (being down on myself for needing pills). It made things worse. I finally started taking them before every flight and it helped me adjust my thinking a bit and calm down. After doing that for a while, I’ve been able to have flights without taking them, easing off a bit. My last trip had 26 flights and I did great. I never leave home without enough doses to cover me for the entire trip, just to be one the safe side. On the 6-passenger prop plane landing on a dirt runway, I had the bottle in my hands the entire time but didn’t need to take them.

    I guess my point is here, don’t be afraid to get help if trying to ride it out doesn’t seem to be working. It took me a while to come to terms with “just take the damn pills.”

  6. I would guess that cable cars are much more dangerous than flying. Maybe the ones in Switzerland are fine and robustly built, but in general there’s no way they go through anywhere near the amount of rigor that goes into maintaining an aircraft.

    One thing that might help reassure you is to see some of the stuff that goes into making sure an airplane is safe — like for example the wings of an aircraft can flex alarmingly during heavy turbulence, but they are in fact designed to withstand tremendous force:

  7. Tamara, great topic, and many of us can relate. I can share my tips here, since I was also afraid of flying since I was little.
    1- The more you do it, the easier it gets. It WILL get better.
    2- Look at crew behavior. In most turbulence situations, the FAs are just sitting there chatting. Their body language will tell you everything is ok.
    3- Talk to the crew. They can relate. If you can chat with the pilots, they’ll be even more reassuring.
    4- Alcohol. Have a drink before or during the flight. It might help you relax.
    5- I personally like to watch Air Crash Investigation episodes. I watch them avidly. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it has made me get over my fear of flying. The message of most episodes is simple: This happened, they learned from it and fixed it. It won’t happen to me.
    6- If it’s really so bad, consider a prescription like Xanax. It really helps. I have it but at this point I barely take it anymore, because not only I’m less fearful at this point, but the thought itself that Xanax will relax me if I need it makes me calm down.
    7- Statistics, statistics, statistics. I know most fears are irrational by definition, but just keep in mind that you’re most safe on a plane than driving to the airport.

    Hope this helps. Hang in there and enjoy your flight. It WILL be ok.

  8. I am a guy who basically doesn’t fear anything. Sometimes when I was flying across the pacific, I did hope the plane would come across some turbulence. When the plane was shaking up and down at 30,000 feet, it was just fun. Later on, I got a boyfriend who is severely fearful of flying. There was one time when he was so nervous that he even threw up on the plane. So every time we fly together, I have to find ways to comfort him, but none has ever worked so far.

  9. Having a fear of flying is basically no different that a fear of driving. You still drive though. The same things you worry about on a plane exist on the ground. What if my tire explodes and I lose control and crash? What if another driver crashes head on into me? What if the airbag doesn’t deploy? What if a bridge I am driving across fails? What if an improperly tied down load of cargo spills and I get crushed by 10 tones of steel pipes? What if a tanker truck overturns and explodes and I get crushed?

    All those things can and do happen behind the wheel. When you’re in your seat on the plane, just keep telling yourself “I have flown successfully many times, the plane is safe, air travel is safe, I am going to be fine”.

  10. Unless a person is going to fly only a few times in their lifetime, medication is not an answer. Over time, it makes the problem worse.

    During flight, stress hormones are released which cause arousal. Whem anti-anxiety medications are added, the level of arousal is increased far above the level at which panic would normally take place. But, the medication blocks the person’s awareness that they are in an extreme hyperaroused state. In research at the Stamford University School Of Medicine, medicated anxious fliers – who reported they felt fine on the flight – had much higher heart and breathing rates than unmedicated anxious fliers on the same flight who experienced panic.

    This extreme arousal causes trauma to the central nervous system. Each medicated flight increases the central nervous system intolerance to flight. As intolerance increases, medication may be unable to mask hyperarousal, and the person is rendered unable to fly.

    Stanford University School Of Medicine research on this is at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9299803

    For effective help for flying, you can read some of this book free on Amazon by clicking “look inside,” “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying.”

  11. INFORMATION, INFORMATION, INFORMATION

    That is how I cured my fear of flying having not flown anywhere from 2005 – 2007 due to a fear that just came out of nowhere.

    First to put myself at ease and get myself ready to fly again, i learnt as much as I could about airlines, how they work, turbulence and everything I possibly could, I talked to pilots of forums and even went to a flying school just to ask questions, but not fly. Learning that planes are so so safe put me at ease.

    That was my first step.

    Second step was to book onto a flight, my first flight after developing my fear I got very drunk and the flight was ok, when we hit turbulence though i did grab the seat a few times, but i did not get sweaty or feel bad, on the return flight I tried it sober and I did not enjoy it that much.

    I once tried speaking with a doctor and they gave me some pills, i tried them once and I did not enjoy the feeling, I could not sleep at all and It felt for me like my body wanted to sleep, but my mind was keeping me awake, so drugs for me was not the cure.

    Moving forward to now, I still have a small fear of flying, but I have found a few ways to make the trip better for me and less stressful.

    1.Pick non-stop flights
    2.I often track weather on the routes i’m flying using online weather radars, NATS etc, that really helps in my mind predict what the flight might be like
    3.A few drinks before take off always helps and I enjoy a few drinks
    4.Talk to the cabin crew, I often spend long periods just out of my seat on flights chatting with them about the world and how they find doing the job and the time passes.
    5.Pick airlines YOU feel safe flying on, this is also again a mind thing for me, so i tend to avoid airlines I’ve never ever heard of.
    6.If I want to see the world, I pretty much need to fly, so I just accept it
    7.Music – I always have music with me I can listen to that calms me and I normally just throw on my headphones when the flights get bump.
    8.Learn to fly, in the past few years I’ve had a few flying lessons to learn even more about planes and that really helped.
    9.Fly more often, I fly at the weekends, just to keep in the routine of flying and being used to them.
    10.Take early early morning flights, I find i’m less awake and don’t notice what is going on as much, flights later in the day or night time flights seem to be worse for me, as the fear builds up during the day.

    I know those reasons above won’t work for everyone, but they helped for me and now I don’t mind flying that much, some flights are better than others.
    With the amount I fly, people really don’t believe me anymore when I tell them i’m still afraid to fly.

  12. I calm myself with probability. It is far far far more likely that I’ll be mowed down by a taxi or bus, slip and fall on a sidewalk, or have a chunk of building fall on my head than I will be injured or killed while flying (or taking off or landing). But that higher probability of being injured or killed while walking down the street doesn’t stop me from walking, and in fact I don’t even think about those grisly things while I’m walking. They are rare. It’s irrational to increase the importance of airplane incidents in your mind. When you board the plane, occupy yourself. Watch some movies, read, work on your computer, listen to music, have some snacks, sleep, whatever. Push the grisly thoughts out of your mind. Think about your destination and how great it will be once you arrive. It’s all a mind game.

  13. I went through something similar in 2007- RJ flight with some turbulence that included a sharp drop of ~100 ft. Fear of turbulence lasted for several years after that. Even today, small planes make me nervous- something about the size of big planes and the corresponding intertidal convinces me turbulence can’t be as bad. I have no fear of the plane crashing, just the feeling of falling (don’t like roller coasters either for what it’s worth).

    I’d echo other comments- fly in the morning when you are tired and turbulence is typically less common (most turbulence is caused by disproportionate heating of air masses over uneven ground, so is less likely to happen early in the day when the sun hasn’t had much time to heat the air). Have a couple drinks. Talk to people on the plane. Remind yourself that for every “down” there is an “up.” Watch the crew- often they are still standing up doing their jobs. I also find turbulence on the climb/descent easier to handle by reminding myself that we are constantly changing altitude so any bumps would inevitably only be temporary. Back when I still flew UA listening to Ch 9 and hearing pilots request new altitudes to avoid chop was also reassuring.

  14. I’ve had a similar experience following a flight on RyanAir (I know) where I was actually convinced I was going to die following a sudden, steep drop. I’m not cured by any means, but I’ve found that meditation rather than medication has been helpful. I tried Ativan (a benzodiazepine similar to Xanax) but it made me too drowsy to function the next day.

    Instead, I try to practice the mindfulness habit of observing my thoughts without judging. I find that my anxiety is caused by noticing something and thinking “dear god, what is that?!”, but it’s helpful to remind yourself that just because you don’t know the cause of something (a noise, a motion, whatever) doesn’t mean that the cause is sinister or harmful. You can notice phenomena without assigning a value to them one way or another. For example, instead of noticing a noise and thinking “oh my god that can’t be good”, just recognize that the noise is present without categorizing it as good or bad. Getting into a mindfulness meditation habit may be helpful so you can apply those principles while flying. UMASS offers a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course that you can also take online. It may be worth your while to see if there is a class near you in LA that is offered.

    On a bit of a downer note, I also know that I want to travel and see the world, and to do that I need to fly. Once I’m strapped into the plane, no amount of my worrying (or not) is going to control the outcome. I’m not going to prevent the plane from crashing by the sheer force of my anxiety. If it’s gonna go down, it’s gonna go down; ashes to ashes, and all that stuff.

  15. I’ve dealt with this since an Air New Zealand flight in 2010 (funny that my worst turbulence experience ever was on the biggest plane I’ve ever flown on). My problem isn’t that I think I’m going to die, it’s that I HATE the feeling of significant turbulence. I’m claustrophobic too, and it’s the same type of feeling I get if I’m in a dark, enclosed space. I think medication can be useful in the long run IF it’s combined with other cognitive work. It shouldn’t be the only arrow in your quiver, but it does have its place, especially early on. I stopped flying with medication this summer and have done 14 legs since then. I try to fly at least once a month for practice, since exposure really is the only thing that will fix it, difficult as it may be.

  16. This one of those times to be thankful you don’t win the lottery. The same reason you don’t (probability) is the reaon you’ll never be hurt seriously when flying.

  17. DEATH BY:
    Cardiovascular disease: 1 in 2
    Smoking (by/before age 35): 1 in 600
    Car trip, coast-to-coast: 1 in 14,000
    Bicycle accident: 1 in 88,000
    Tornado: 1 in 450,000
    Train, coast-to-coast: 1 in 1,000,000
    Lightning: 1 in 1.9 million
    Bee sting: 1 in 5.5 million
    U.S. commercial jet airline: 1 in 7 million

    I actually find it helpful to, in a sense, “shame myself” for being a melodramatic egotist in thinking MY flight, of the 40 million flights that land safely every year, is going to be that one (or, in most years, none) that goes down. Because little me is just that important, with my special scared monkey brain.

    There’s no need for drugs. There are plenty of resources. Virgin Atlantic runs an excellent program if you’re in the UK: http://www.flyingwithoutfear.co.uk. You can buy the book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0955814502. You can find online self-help courses: http://anxieties.com/11/flying#.VqKs7vE4Wu4. And you can watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayXvS5b9jVE

    Flying is incredibly safe. The next time you feel anxious in the air, tune down the control freak and tune up the zen 🙂

  18. I use to white water kayak and now when there is turbulence I think of it as a rapid that will end soon. I also use noise cancelling head phones and have a soothing music playlist I put on if a flight is super bumpy. Good suggestions except for meds. There are therapist that specialize in dealing with fears. A friend of mine did this and it worked.

  19. You better not go on the Peak 2 Peak at Wistler BC, 2.8 miles of unsupported cable and over 1,400 feet above the ground!

  20. I have heard that some respond well to hypnosis. I know people who have stopped smoking with one session, after a lifetime of smoking.

    It is in the head, so if you can retrain your response that is really all that is needed in many cases. There is also a therapy to help get over PTSD, traumatic events, etc called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, visit EMDR.com for more info) that claims to be able to help with traumatic events, sometimes in a single session.

    There are lots of ways to combat this, you just need to keep researching and working to see what works for you. I am one who has never had this issue (and took my first solo flight a few days after turning 5 years old), but would be looking at things other than drugs/drinking for a solution. Hopefully for those looking for other options, hypnosis or EMDR might be helpful.

  21. I’ve tried EMDR, and it did nothing for me. I’ve met people that rave about it. An EMDR-related technique is to play a grid-based game like Tetris or Candy Crush *during* a traumatic episode, like a bumpy flight. Even though actual EMDR therapy didn’t work, I’ve actually gotten some benefit from this, to be honest.

  22. My fear became irrational after 9/11. Knowing those people knew what was happening and tried to call loved ones. When I fly with my husband and daughter my fears dissipate. I also have 15hrs of personal flying time in the books – knowing the science behind flight helps. My grandfather was a pilot (Queen Elizabeth’s pilot for a year) and it was always comforting flying with him because he knew EVERY sound a plane made and would always tell me turbulence was just like driving a car over a gravel road with pot holes. I also agree with the readers who say ‘watch the flight crew.’ If they are calm, I will remain calm.

  23. I did not read all of the previous comments, and there is no doubt good advice in them. Nevertheless I had to add my two cents.

    No one has a fear of flying. Its crashing that scares the hell out of some people. The best way to overcome a fear of flying is to learn to fly or at least study up on how planes fly and are able to navigate from place to place. Your fear is a fear of the unknown. So change flying from the unknown to the known. It would also be helpful to learn a little about airports and air traffic control. It will take a few hours of your time, but you won’t be terrified any more.

    Before I became a private pilot I loved flying in smooth air but also reacted negatively to every bump and change in engine noise. When I was piloting small planes on a regular basis, my biggest fear was not crashing, it was if I’m the pilot and crash, having the NTSB publish an accident report that says how stupid I was for causing the crash. Talk about adding insult to injury. I know no one feels embarrassment or guilt after death. Still that was a big motivator in always being extra careful in flying and flight planning.

    Flying is actually an incredibly easy thing to do. If an NBA player shoots 1,000 uncontested layups in a gym, he will miss a several of them. If an airline transport pilot performs 1,000 takeoffs and landings, he or she will complete each takeoff and landing safely even in legal instrument meteorological conditions. So flying is way easier than making a layup.

    Except when you re trying to eat, sleep or fill out immigration forms, passengers who are afraid of crashing should view light to moderate turbulence as a good thing. Turbulence is evidence that there is substance to the air that is capable of keeping a plane airborne. Flying is not some smoke-and-mirrors magic trick.

    Even severe turbulence is incapable of causing a commercial airliner to fall out of the sky. Improper pilot reaction to the autopilot’s attempts to stabilize the plane in sever turbulence could cause a crash. That happened in the Air France crash off South America a few years ago. I read it in an accident report.

  24. @Lucky – I appreciate this post. When I was younger I had a terrible fear of flying, so much that I forced my family to take Greyhound from Orlando to New York (back from Disney World) when I was about 10 because I refused to get on our scheduled plane.

    Several years later I forced myself back onto a plane (in business class to make it a little more tolerable). Then a few months later I did it again. Then, and I imagine you can relate to this, I became addicted to flying – in premium cabins. My parents were very supportive and I think were relieved that we could take family trips that didn’t involve Greyhound or Amtrak!

  25. My philosophy is if the flight attendants aren’t scared then I shouldn’t be scared. This has worked for me everytime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *