Afraid of Flying? Here's How to Relax, From the Experts

Afraid of Flying? Here's How to Relax, from the Experts
Afraid of Flying? Here's How to Relax, from the Experts

By Liz Weiss
Photo by Thinkstock

As any anxious flier can attest, air travel can inspire a sense of dread, panic and, at worst, paralyzing fear. The stress-inducing scenarios can make even the most experienced fliers apprehensive: Turbulence could rattle the plane. A feeling of entrapment could result in claustrophobia. Just pondering whether your pilot is well-rested or if your plane’s instruments are intact could spark the jitters. Add a fear of hyperventilation or a panic attack in-flight and it’s easy to see why as many as 6.5 percent of Americans suffer from such a severe fear of flying that it’s classified as an anxiety disorder or phobia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Lucas van Gerwen, a clinical psychologist, pilot and director of the VALK Foundation in the Netherlands, estimates about one third of the adult population across the Western world has some degree of anxiety associated with flying.

Fortunately, you don’t have to succumb to air travel fear. With some guidance from van Gerwen and Dr. Martin Seif, a Manhattan-based psychologist and author who studied phobias to remedy his own fear of flying, U.S. News has pinpointed seven smart strategies for alleviating anxiety before takeoff and staying calm and collected at cruising altitude.

Determine your triggers

According to Seif, the “fear of flying is really a confluence of many different fears.” By singling out the anxiety that provokes your fear — be it a phobia related to turbulence, crashing or claustrophobia, for example — you can identify the alarming thoughts and images that cause distress and abate flight anxiety. Many nervous fliers avoid taking to the skies entirely, which makes it increasingly challenging to face your fear head on, said Seif. It’s also critical to recognize your underlying fears in order to undergo the appropriate treatment. “A good assessment is of vital importance,” emphasized van Gerwen, noting that fears associated with flying vary drastically. Once you’ve identified where your anxiety comes from, you can practice cognitive-behavioral therapy, which includes relaxation and breathing techniques. Plus, you can expose yourself to triggers to vanquish your fear of flying altogether.

Related: The 5 Best Apps to Calm You Down


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Differentiate expectations from reality

Many nervous fliers suffer from a “fear-of-fear,” explained Seif. In other words, people are afraid they will not be able to mitigate or control their anxiety in midair. “When we get very anxious, we become intolerant of risk,” he said. Though there are stressful situations that are beyond our control, there are some simple ways to ease what Seif describes as “anticipatory anxiety,” a phenomenon in which travelers build up negative expectations to respond to the thought of encountering a terrifying trigger. Seif points out that anticipatory anxiety is worse than the actual anxiety experienced throughout air travel. To pacify high anticipatory stress, rely on practical logic that your initial anxiety will subside after rapid changes in altitude or brief moments of turbulence. Another important tool is remembering to distinguish real and imminent danger from present anxious thoughts, which are emotional rather than logical.

Don’t dodge your flight — or your fears

If you have a fear of flying, it may seem counterintuitive to board a plane. However, if you brace yourself for discomfort and confront your fears rather than stalling exposure, eventually you’ll be able to say to yourself: “I’m afraid,” followed by the statement: “I feel like I can handle it,” explained Seif. And according to Seif, to overcome a fear of flying entirely, you have to be “willing to experience discomfort and take a leap of faith.” Taking the reverse action from what feels natural can help you combat your anxiety head on.

Embrace the present

"The key to managing anxiety is to stay closer to the present," said Seif. Instead of replaying the seemingly endless what-ifs — What if the plane crashes? What if the plane is hijacked? — assert control by turning your attention to the present. "When we’re anxious, our whole perspective changes," Seif explained. An excellent way to shift your feelings, and ultimately your attitude, is by staying focused on taking control of anxiety rather than the aspects of flying that are beyond your control, such as sounds, sensations and turbulence. Another way to maintain focus is to socialize with your seatmates or flight attendant, who can lend support and steer you back to the present. Packing comforting supplies, such as music, crossword puzzles, magazines, a book or another in-flight distraction, can also alleviate anxiety.

Related: Is An Alternative Doctor Right For You?


Photo by Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Master the art of slow, rhythmic breathing

It’s not an unnatural reaction for your heart rate and breathing to accelerate as your anxiety kicks in during your flight. While a fight-or-flight physiological reaction is an automatic response to a frightening trigger, taking deep breaths through your diaphragm can help you find peace. Making your breaths steady and rhythmic will help you combat hyperventilation and induce muscle relaxation, explained van Gerwen. By taking controlled breaths with gradual exhalations, you’ll calm your nerves and reduce your stress levels before, during and after takeoff.

Go with the flow

Your instinct may be to go against the movement of the aircraft, but experts say you should do just the opposite. “When you fight turbulence, you have extra muscle tension,” explained van Gerwen. When you come across bumps, letting your body hang loose and sway with the motion (rather than going against the rhythm of the plane) will help you stay at ease. Van Gerwen also suggests reducing your caffeine intake and flying on a full stomach to help you relax and avoid hyperventilation; taking these precautions will make you more equipped to handle turbulence, bumps or other discomforting situations.


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Review aircraft mechanics, physics and sounds

Remember the adage, “Knowledge is Power”? When it comes to conquering a fear of flying, understanding flight mechanics, safety statistics and how fear and anxiety affect the human body can help you ground your fears. “Find out something about maintenance and understand how safe a plane flight really is,” advised Seif. You can do this by educating yourself on safety measures with online resources or books covering the subject, attending a group therapy program or even meeting a pilot. To combat the fear of having a panic attack or a heart attack, you not only need to be informed about aviation but also need to learn about fear and its effects on the body during high-stress situations, van Gerwen explained.

Digital apps that provide visual and audio aids for remedying in-flight anxiety can also be useful. The Flight App VALK, designed by the VALK Foundation, is a tool intended to put anxious fliers at ease by supplying aviation facts, therapeutic exercises, and coping techniques. Among other helpful features, the app offers a brief aviation lesson, flight statistics, information pertaining to turbulence and even a “panic button” that prompts an audio message from a therapist that promises to help users decrease their stress. The app is available on iPhone ($3.99) and Android ($4.88), and does not require an Internet connection while your electronic device is switched to airplane mode. For additional information and tips, consult the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s resource page.