This morning (as I write this) I was scheduled to fly out of a Missouri airport other than COU. I ended up stuck in busy traffic, my GPS tried to take me to the wrong place, and I couldn’t find parking. This all added up to me being quite late for the flight I was supposed to be boarding. Fortunately I’m an experienced flyer, and I was able to tell myself that it would be okay even in the worst-case scenario of missing my flight.
If you’re not a particularly experienced flyer and/or have high anxiety about flying, you’re not alone. A fear of flying is one of the most common phobias in America.
While this fear is common and normal (though not always based in fact), there are things you can do to help. I often encounter clients who struggle with this and similar anxieties in Columbia, Mo., and surrounding areas. A bit of knowledge, combined with some self-soothing tools and practice exercises can make all the difference. Therapy can be helpful if needed. Keep reading for specific tips to help with overcoming a fear of flying.
1. Find what works quickly for your flying anxiety
When you’re dealing with a phobia or other situation that makes you highly anxious, your fight-flight-freeze system is being activated. It’s the part of your brain that’s trying to warn you and keep you safe. Sometimes it gets confused, though, and warns you at inappropriate times. It can also make things worse by increasing your panic. Here are a few tools that help the majority of my clients in the moment, for this and similar fears.
- Accept a low to medium level of anxiety as normal. Sometimes a fear of anxiety causes you to get even more anxious. This feeling is there for a reason (to protect you) and it won’t last. Keeping this in mind can help. This can take you out of the cycle of being anxious because you’re anxious!
- Use belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing. This involves taking deep, very slow breaths. By slowing your breathing, you’re tricking your brain into thinking you’re calm and content. This helps decrease anxiety symptoms in the moment. It’s the most common technique used for phobias and helps take the edge off for many people. It worked for me earlier today while I was sitting in city traffic on the way to the airport.
- Try grounding . This may be a bit ironic for this particular fear, but there l are many grounding exercises you can try. These generally involve becoming aware of your senses in the here and now. I most often use grounding stones to teach this concept. Here’s a link with guided instructions. You can also wiggle your toes in your shoes, or complete a body scan by noticing how you’re feeling in each muscle of your body. This helps you stay in the here and the now, and activates the calmer parts of your brain.
- Extreme grounding. If you have trouble focusing on grounding and mindfulness exercises, you can try more extreme grounding measures, such as holding a small ice cube in your hand for a few seconds (don’t hold it so long it burns you), or chewing sour gum or spicy candy. When your senses are forced to engage with such a powerful force, it’s hard to focus on anything but that! This can snap you out of a panic.
- Mindfulness apps . There are a couple of very effective mindfulness tools that help with anxiety, including Stop, Breathe, Think, and Calm which is very popular among my clients. Some of these even have specific meditations relating to flying.
2. Challenge your thoughts about flying
Anxiety, phobias and worries are fueled by our thoughts. Thoughts contribute to fears, and fears lead to behaviors.
For example, think of being a kid and being scared of the slide. The more you thought about how dangerous the slide was (thought), the more you would be afraid (feeling) and the more you would avoid it (behavior). Avoiding it would then reinforce your thoughts of danger.
Pretty soon, just someone mentioning the slide or having to look at it at recess would bring up an anxious response. This cycle would go on and on, sometimes getting even worse over time. What’s the solution? To change your thoughts and/or behavior (see below).
Think based in facts
Sometimes our thoughts are based in habit rather than facts. So check out the facts. Perhaps learning that it’s rare for kids to get hurt on the slide, that a lot of kids have a great time on the slide every day, and that no one you know has ever been hurt on a slide would help. Let’s try that with flying. Here are some facts to check out:
- Traveling by plane is among the safest form of transportation, according to statistics from the the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). That’s right — not the most dangerous, but the safest! The old cliche that you’re more likely to get into a car accident than get injured on a plane is true.
- In the extremely rare case you are in a plane accident then you are still unlikely to die in such an accident. Again according to NTSB, most plane accidents have survivors and fatalities are still rare.
- Air travel is highly regulated, with an entire system designed to keep you safe. When’s the last time you got in your car and had to prove who you were or pass a last-minute inspection? Do your neighbors do that?
Also consider why you would ever fly in the first place. Are you saving time, exploring the world, seeing family, or growing in your career? Are these things important to you and consistent with your values? If the answer is yes, then is it worth it to travel by one of the safest means possible to help stay in line with what’s important in your life? Why else would you put yourself through this anxiety? I bet there’s a pretty good reason. Keep that in mind.
3. Try gradual exposure
Often, people who are dealing with phobias practice what’s called gradual exposure to overcome a fear of flying. This is where changing behavior comes in. This involves starting with lower levels of fears and moving up. In our slide metaphor, this might include starting with a baby slide, then gradually moving up the ladder to slightly taller slides, until the big slide doesn’t even feel scary anymore. Pretty soon you can barely remember why you were scared. You can do the same with flying.
This might start with watching airplanes on tv, meeting a friend at the airport but not flying yet, allowing yourself to think about flying, or starting with a very short flight. You would try these things gradually until flying itself isn’t so scary.
An important aspect of exposure I’ve seen with clients is called “white knuckling.” It’s when you force yourself to do the scary activity you’re afraid of, but you’re staying tense the whole time. This is part of that reinforcement cycle, where you’re sending the message to your body that this is indeed a dangerous situation, perpetuating your own fear response. If instead you’re able to be mindful of what’s happening, perhaps by using some of the calming techniques listed above, including just taking a breath and noticing your experience, you can overcome your fear much more quickly than you might expect. A qualified therapist can help you develop an appropriate exposure hierarchy for your particular challenges.
4. Consider and address alternative causes
Sometimes there might be an alternative cause of your fear, such as an underlying condition or related issue. Here’s a quick rundown of some of these and what to do.
It might not be so much the fear of flight itself bothering you, but rather being trapped on the plane or in a tight seating situation. Fortunately, the recommended treatment for this is very similar to any other phobia (we’d use the same techniques as above), and it might even be a bit easier to practice gradually exposing to your fears as there are a lot more tight spaces than there are available airplanes. A qualified therapist can help with this.
Fears about terrorism
Many people developed a new or increased fear of flying after 9/11, which is perfectly understandable. However, the statistics here are similar to what we’ve seen with flying in general. Being involved in a terror attack is extremely unlikely.
Fear of the airport itself, or the process of flying
If you think you’ll be fine once you get on the plane, it’s just everything leading up to it that makes you anxious, then knowledge is key. It can be a bit overwhelming to remember all of the rules about bags, liquids, passports, etc.Talk to a friend who’s flown recently and ask them every question on your mind. You can also check out these great air travel tips from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and this travel tips article from the Columbia Regional Airport. Flying locally will save quite a bit of time, parking fees and traffic stress. If you’re flying from another location, I’d suggest adding an extra hour after my recent experience, and remember the deep breaths.
5. Look for the perks
Fortunately, I was able to make my flight as the last passenger to board, and I’m finishing this post right now using the plane’s in-air WiFi. The shuttle driver, security officers, gate attendant and flight attendants have all been quite friendly and helpful this morning. Once you get the hang of it, traveling by plane can be quite fun. There are sometimes free movies, cool airport shops (even spas!) and the best views any non-astronaut can find.
Oh, sorry, I have to go now. They’re offering me my complimentary beverage and cookie.
Jennie Lannette, MSW, LCSW, is a local trauma and anxiety therapist and writer based in Columbia, Mo. You can contact her or get more anxiety tips through her practice website at The Counseling Palette (www.thecounselingpalette.com).