I experienced my worst flight ever when I was 20.
It was a non-stop flight from Chicago to Guadalajara. Over Texas we experienced heavy turbulence as we navigated around thunderstorms. Over a two hour stretch we dropped, swayed, slowed down, and sped up constantly. Each time the fasten seat belt sign activated I was reminded of the fact that I was currently tumbling around 5 miles up in the sky.
During the heaviest bout of turbulence the airplane jutted downward suddenly, the lights in the cabin turned off, and I heard the engines power down. It sounded like someone had unplugged a vacuum cleaner and the motor was grinding to a halt. I was convinced that the turbulence had somehow broken the plane and that we were all plummeting to the earth.
Normally I am not religious, but I very quickly found God in those 20 seconds. I genuinely felt that the airplane was crashing and that I was experiencing my final moments alive. It took about a minute before I realized the plane had stabilized and the pilot was just trying to navigate us away from the turbulence. But that massive drop had a big impact on me.
Flying became very difficult afterwards. I started having nightmares weeks before flights. My stomach would drop when my boss told me I’d have to fly to our other office. A feeling of impending death surfaced every time I stepped on an airplane.
It quickly became unmanageable. I was losing sleep and actively avoiding travel just to stay off of airplanes. I started exploring different avenues to get over my fear of flying.
One thing you find early on is that people use logic to reassure you that flying is safe. They will tell you how everyone flies and that it is the safest form of travel, how airplanes are highly redundant and safe, and how accidents only make the news because they’re so damn rare.
These facts are all true but did not matter to me; my fear was emotional and persisted even through logical reasoning. This may be the case for you, too. You could be the most logical, level-headed, sane person, but still experience terrible anxiety when flying.
Over time I learned the following techniques to alleviate my fear of flying.
1. Watch Flight Videos Online
When I started talking about my fear to those around me, my father recommended that I watch videos of commercial flights on Youtube. These are videos taken from the point of view of the pilots in a cockpit of a commercial aircraft. They walk you through various parts of flight – takeoff, landing, cruising, taxiing, etc. Simply watching these clips will familiarize you with the flying process and make it feel more comfortable.
This technique was surprisingly effective for me. When I first watched these videos online, I could feel my heart rate go up and a wave of anxiety overcome me. It was eerie just how much of an impact the thought of flying had on me. It took me a few days before I could sit through an entire 15 minute video. But it helps immensely as you learn what the pilots are doing in the cockpit, what sounds are normal, what movement is normal, and just how mundane the whole process is.
2. Listen to the Pilots
Some airlines allows you to listen to the cockpit communication through your headphones. You get to hear all of the communication in between the pilots and crew concerning the flight. It’s great because you’ll know what is about to happen before it happens – pilots will announce upcoming turns, landing gear being lowered, flaps being adjusted, etc. You get a warning before any unfamiliar sounds or movements.
Listening to the cockpit is the surest way to convey just how mundane and straightforward flying is. You’ll notice the pilots are never stressed, panicked, or worried. Never. If you’re afraid that something is wrong on the flight (during turbulence, for example), you’ll quickly find out that the pilots know that everything is just fine. Listening to the pilots’ calm demeanor will calm you down, too.
Ask the flight attendant if your flight supports this option.
3. Bring a Tablet
This might go without saying, but you should distract yourself on your flight with something. Don’t go on the flight empty-handed or you will fixate on the flight the entire time. The idea is to have something that makes you forget the fact that you are on an airplane.
Here are some great ways to distract yourself with a tablet, computer, or phone:
- Video Games – this is the best distraction. It requires physical interaction, thinking, and has audio to drown out the airplane’s noise. For me, video games are the surest way to forget that I am on a flight.
- Work – if you work involves a laptop, you could do job functions while on an airplane. I find this is practical because work is an intensive process that requires my full attention.
- Movies / Books – if you get into stories easily, then watching a movie or reading a book should be a good distraction. For me, this is not effective as working or video games.
4. Talk to your Doctor
Your doctor will be able to give you advice to help with your fear of flying. It may include coping techniques, prescription drugs, or therapy options.
You will hear conflicting advice online on whether it is appropriate to take prescription drugs to overcome a fear of flying. It is worth exploring alternatives to alleviate your fear; however, doctor prescribed medication is certainly acceptable, and very common, to help make flights less terrifying.
Ultimately my doctor suggested taking 5mg of Diazepam (a variant of Valium) an hour before my flights. Strangely, the Diazepam helped me in an unexpected fashion. Before I got my prescription, I had an upcoming 4 hour flight and was having nightmares daily about planes crashing. After getting my prescription, the nightmares stopped.
To be clear, I did not take my Diazepam before the day of my flight or in a way inconsistent with my doctor’s orders; rather, simply having the prescription in my dresser drawer put me at ease. It was as if I knew my flight wouldn’t be that bad anymore, and the nightmares stopped.
I still take Diazepam an hour before flying to this day. It calms me down greatly without making me feel drowsy. My long term goal is to not need Diazepam before flights but for now it helps too much to stop taking it.
The fear of flying is common.
Most people are uneasy with flying, and many have a outright phobia of it. Floating five miles in the air goes against everything that your biology and evolution have taught you. It’s normal to be averse to flying.
To this day I am still not comfortable on an airplane – even after taking 60+ flights in the last three years. The suggestions in this article have helped me learn to manage my fear of flying, not eliminate it. During takeoff I still hold my wife’s hand, and after landing I feel a wave of relief.
But the fear of flying no longer controls me or dictates my travel plans. I plan our trips freely knowing that the flight may be uncomfortable but it will not be overwhelming. This is a victory for me, and I hope to one day to truly enjoy flying; for now, I just tolerate it.
Hopefully this advice helps you tolerate it, too.