How I Deal With My Fear of Flying… Constantly

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I LOVE traveling. I hate flying. As somebody who has a fear of flying, having to get on an airplane almost weekly presents a bit of a conundrum. Resulting from a really scary flight in 2006, I’ve been freaked the hell out about flying for years. I guess the real fear isn’t so much in flying as it is crashing… For a while there it got so bad that tears and shaking were a part of almost every flight I took.

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A couple years ago I was able to get a prescription for a very light dose of an anti-anxiety drug, which definitely helped, but I hated having to take something in order to get through a flight. Plus, even though it was an extremely light dose, it made me incredibly drowsy so that wasn’t optimal either, as usually I’m getting off a plane and into a rental car. I needed a solution. I didn’t really have one, other than “just keep flying.” And that actually helped…

The more flights I’ve taken, the more I’ve learned. After a couple hundred or so flights over the past few years, I’ve gotten better. I hardly use my pills anymore, but I still keep them in my travel bag. Although I’m still freaked out by flying, I’ve picked up a few key practices that have helped me get through it, partly because I have to for my job, more so because I want to… because there’s still a lot of this world I haven’t seen yet.

So I’m gonna to pass those along now…

In no particular order, here are my top 7 tips for getting through a fear of flying:

1. Learn about how planes work.

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I read a book by Michael Chricton called, “Airframe.” It was a novel, yes, but all his books are based on scientific facts and are cited up one side and down the other. This book was  about a plane accident and all the issues surrounding it. It explained a lot about the science/physics about aviation and how planes actually work, why they’re built the way they are, etc. It really opened my eyes up about how durable airplanes are. Plus, it was an entertaining read, so it’s worth a go.

I’ve also talked to a few pilots here and there. I’ve sat next to them occasionally on flights and talk to them in the airport while waiting for flights. Once, I had drinks with a couple in the bar one night after we all took the shuttle from the airport to the same hotel. I asked them tons of questions about various scenarios where I can see how the plane would either spontaneously combust, be flipped over by an insane wind gust, or simply fall out of the sky. They assured me that nearly every one of those scenarios was impossible and explained why. They may have thought I was crazy, but they humored me and answered every question I asked.

No matter what the subject, most of our fear comes simply from the unknown. Learning more of the science of flying has helped.

 

2. Fly more often. Seriously.

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I know our initial reaction is to avoid the things we’re scared of, but the best thing to do is face it… unfortunately.

Every flight I took I reminded myself that it would be ok and I would get better at it… And then that damn Alanis Morissette line would go through my head: “He waited his whole damn life, to take that flight. And as the plane crashed down he thought, well isn’t this nice.” And then I’d go back to thinking I was going to die… THANKS, Alanis!

The more I flew though, the more familiar things felt. The more I learned that the sound immediately after take-off wasn’t the engine falling out of the plane,(like I was certain it was), it was merely the sound the landing gear makes as it retracts back up into the plane. The scary sound as you start to descend for landing isn’t the wing about to rip apart from the body of the plane, it’s just the struts extending out to allow the plane to ascend or descend. The other sound that I always thought meant we were going to crash, as it caused an immediate drop in speed, ended up being the landing gear coming down to prep for our arrival. Knowing that these horrific sounds of impending doom were actually just sounds the plane makes as it goes through normal operations makes everything a little easier to endure.

3. Sit towards the front!

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I read an article once about how to survive a plane crash and it said most survivors were ones seated in the back of the plane. So obviously, I sat in the farthest seat I could get (but before the very back row… you only make that mistake once), but it always seemed as though the turbulence was horrid and it was always super loud. I can’t sleep on planes as it is, and the noise back there made it even more unlikely to happen.

Then I learned, from the lovely pilots I chatted up, that the turbulence is felt more the farther back you sit. The closer you are to the front, the easier it feels. Viola! I don’t know if that’s true or if it’s just the placebo effect, but either way, sitting at the front feels better. Plus, you get to exit the plane sooner. Double whammy!

4. Close the window!

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If the plane is making a turn and I look out the window and am staring at the ground, I’m thinking the plane is effing SIDEWAYS! There is no way on God’s green earth that we’re not going to crash. How can the plane take that much force?! The wings are gonna snap! The engine’s going to die! “Stop making such a sharp turn, you irresponsible pilot!” Sooooo now I just keep the window shades down. I do this by always booking a window seat, so then I’m in control of it. Out of sight, out of mind, my friends! Most people want an aisle seat anyway, so it works out for everybody: I don’t see anything that makes me freak out, the person next to me doesn’t have to hold my hand. Win win!

5. Distractions, distractions, distractions.

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The more ish I have to distract me, the less I think about the plane crashing and all of us dying a horrific death. I always check the types of planes I’ll be flying in when I book my ticket, since you can do that these days on the website, or on the airline’s phone app. Depending on the airline, sometimes there are rad TVs with shows, movies and music. Sometimes though, there’s absolutely no in-flight entertainment. In those cases, I bring my own distractions: Since I’m self-employed, there’s usually always some work I could be doing, so that can take up a huge portion of my attention. I always have my computer with me, as well as my Kindle. I get a subscription of my favorite magazine, Outside, as well as my fitness publication, IDEA Fitness Journal. I take the mags when they arrive in the mail and immediately place them in my carryon backpack, saved especially for reading while flying. And since they now allow you to have your electronics on during the entire flight (namely takeoff and landing, which are the scariest parts of the flight) I’m totally set up to use my phone or Kindle to think about as many other things as possible!

6. Alcohol.

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I mean, don’t get wasted or anything, but if I don’t have to drive after landing, sometimes I’ll have a drink or two (or three, depending on the length of the flight) and I’m out like a light. Or a little more numb to the turbulence, one of the two.

Keep it classy though! Belligerent people get kicked off planes and put on the no-fly list… And don’t drink alcohol if you’re taking any medication!

7. Think about the statistics.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there are an average of 87,000 flights per day, in the United States alone. Multiply that by 365 days in a year and you get just under 32 Million… just in the states! How often do we hear of a major airline crash? Not often. And the most recent ones have been in other countries where the regulations are likely not as strict as they are here. Every time a flight is delayed for a mechanical reason, passengers always complain because they’ll be late. I always silently rejoice that the pilots have caught something that could have just saved our lives. Compared to driving, many more safe flights are happening every day.

If nothing else… close your eyes and focus on your breath. 

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So these are all the little things I think about that have helped me over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “cured” by any means. I still freak out a little when there’s turbulence for more than 10 seconds. I still track all my man-friend’s flights so I know he’s arrived safely. I still re-think decisions to switch flights or fly standby in case I’m putting myself on a flight that’s going to crash, or switching flights that will inherently save me from one the one going to crash… but at least I’m not crying anymore, nor am I all drugged up. Glad game!

I know I can’t control the planes I’m flying on. I can’t control the pilots and their actions either. I also can’t stay on the ground and not travel, so I suck it up and fly. And these things help me out.

Do any of you have a fear of flying? What do you do to curb it?

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Comments

  1. Nice article. I would not recommend medications, however, based on research by the Stanford University School of Medicine that shows the longer you use anti-anxiety meds the more sensitive they make you to flying.

    And, this connects with your recommendation to fly often. Yes, if you do, you become somewhat desensitized. BUT ONLY IF YOU ARE NOT TAKING ANTI-ANXIETY MEDS. These meds, according to the research, completely block desensitization. You will NOT GET BETTER so long as you use these meds.

    You can get better, though. But having worked for over 30 years, as both a therapist and an airline captain, I have found that CBT is minimally effective for some, and not effect at all for most. Unfortunately, that is the therapy you will generally be given. Hypnosis is “hit or miss.” Courses? None of the courses offered by airlines are even close to adequate. They use the same junk psychology that was used back in 1975 with the original course at Pan Am. They recommend breathing exercises. One pilot who runs a course out of Phoenix claims if you use breathing exercises you are 70% cured. That’s crap. Breathing exercises are fine on the ground but completely useless in the air. Anyone who advises breathing is clueless and – worse – is setting you up for failure.
    What can you do. I’ve put everything I have learned if a book. If you can spare ten bucks for an ebook, you can fix this problem. The title is “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying.” You can find it everywhere because, though it was released a few months ago, it is by far the best-selling book on the subject.

    • Ami says:

      Thanks, Captain! I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily cured, but I haven’t had to take the meds in over a year and half, so those aren’t really an issue. Thanks for the heads up on the book! Good luck with your book sales! 🙂

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