Nov 04, 2016
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How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying: Six Personalized Plans

How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying

You know that statistically, taking a flight is safer than driving to the grocery store. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re really, really scared of flying.

“Fear of flying” is not a condition in itself, but a term that describes many different anxieties and fears. The secret to overcoming your fear of flying, according to Dr. Martin N. Seif, is to identify your specific triggers and address them directly.1 Which of these six plans to overcome flight anxiety is the right one for you?

“I’m scared of flying because I hate the feeling of being trapped in an airplane.”

Agoraphobia, according to the Mayo Clinic, “is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.”2 For people who suffer from panic disorder with agoraphobia, their flight anxiety arises more from being confined on an airplane than from a specific fear of crashing.

Panic attacks are serious, and the best thing to do is seek professional help before you book your next flight. A cognitive behavioral therapist can help you retrain your brain so that you can identify and overcome panicky feelings.

“I’m fine with flying — until we hit turbulence.”

All it takes is one bad flight — with coffee cups flying and passengers praying — to give you an enduring terror of turbulence. This kind of flight anxiety is tough to overcome, because you’ve had a genuinely terrible experience stamped on your memory. You can’t avoid turbulence, but there are ways to make it better.

  • Choose bigger planes. When you’re booking your flight, it may be worth it to pay a little more for your ticket in order to ride in a larger plane. Use a site like SeatGuru to research aircraft and avoid tiny commuter planes.
  • Close the shade and pretend you’re on a bus. For minor turbulence, tell yourself very firmly that you are on a bus. Bumps in the road are normal. Nothing bad is going to happen.
  • Fake it. This advice comes from travel blogger Nomadic Matt, who flies more than 100,000 miles a year and — you guessed it — is afraid of flying. When he gets anxious, he asks himself, “What would a person who isn’t afraid of flying do right now? They would sit there, read the in-flight magazine or sleep, and be calm.”
  • Think like a pilot. From a pilot’s perspective, turbulence is no big deal. The airplane’s designed to handle it, and big drops aren’t usually that big. “How many feet is the plane actually moving up or down, and side to side?” writes Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential. “Ten or twenty feet, if that, most of the time.”3
  • Keep your seatbelt fastened. Injuries due to turbulence do happen, rarely, and the best way to protect yourself is to stay buckled in.

“I have flight anxiety that gets worse and worse.”

Generalized flight anxiety can best be described as the fear of fear. “The common denominator for more than 90 percent of flight phobics is the fear that they will become overwhelmed with anxiety during the flight," Seif says.4 The key here is to disrupt the cycle. He offers 13 tips for managing flight anxiety, from anchoring yourself in the present to practicing diaphragmatic breathing. You can also try prescription medication for anxiety, or a guided meditation you listen to on your phone or laptop.

“I’m scared of flying because of all the germs. Ugh!”

Germophobia-related flight anxiety isn’t totally irrational. Planes aren’t the cleanest places; one microbiologist examined eight flights and found MRSA and norovirus on airline trays and E. coli in the bathrooms.5 Here’s the good news: You can do something about it! Wipe down your tray table and armrests. Use hand sanitizer. Discover the best travel gear for fighting germs here.

“I’m scared of flying because I’m worried about terrorism.”

Many fliers are constantly on edge about the possibility of a terrorist attack on their plane. How can you overcome a terrorism-related fear of flying? Remember two things. One, the actual risk is very, very low, despite the human tendency to overestimate it. You’re more likely to be killed by falling furniture than a terrorist attack.6 Two, the only purpose of terrorism is to generate fear. If you choose to reject that fear, you’ve already triumphed.7

“I just hate flying. Period.”

Maybe your flight anxiety is a combination of the situations above, or maybe you’ve spent too much time being patted down by TSA agents and squeezed in the middle seat. If flying has become an unwelcome ordeal, you need to deliberately change your mindset.

Treat yourself to an indulgence on board, whether that’s chocolate or trashy magazines. Visualize the fun things you’ll do at your destination. And read this piece on the wonders of flight by commercial airline pilot Mark Vanhoenacker. He describes seeing the earth’s shadow on the sky, and how the atmosphere has its own geography, including sky-countries and rivers.

One more thing — the best way to find peace of mind when you’re traveling is by purchasing travel insurance. A robust travel insurance policy protects you from a multitude of travel mishaps, helping you quiet your anxiety and enjoy the journey. Travel happy!

Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.

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