Tips for Nervous Flyers from a Very Nervous Flyer
The best tips and tricks for managing a fear of flying from Lola's resident Nervous Flyer, Emily.
It's ironic. I work for a business travel management company... and I hate flying.
Now, a lot of people hate to travel. It’s stressful and time-consuming, and being away from your loved ones is hard. But added to those things is my very intense fear of being on and flying in an airplane.
I know what you’re thinking: “But Emily, traveling on an airplane is much safer than traveling in a car.”
Yes, the odds are with you there. But, fear of flying is not based on those odds, at least not for me. It’s not a rational fear, so facts and figures just don’t help.
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As someone who not only works for a travel company, but also travels semi-frequently for my job, I have had to work really hard at managing my fear and not letting it stop me from experiences that are not only good for my professional growth, but my personal growth as well.
Aviophobia, or fear of flying, is one of the most common phobias, affecting 2.5% to 6.5% of the population.
What helps a nervous flyer?
I feel like I’ve read every article about how to overcome this fear, but what really helps is learning from people who actually suffer with this problem themselves. Although I have not overcome my fear, I am able to manage flying much better than I could a few years ago.
So, I put together this list of the things that help me, in hopes that they can help other weary flyers too.
It’s important for me to mention that expecting to completely overcome this phobia is not super realistic. If you go into this thinking you will “cure” yourself, you might be disappointed.
Instead of focusing on getting to a place where you love flying, I would recommend working to get to a place where you can do it without the worry, dread, and potential panic attacks that tend to occur for people with a severe case of Aviophobia.
Control what you can actually control
For a lot of people (myself included) the fear of flying stems from not having control in the situation. When you’re 30,000 feet in the air you can’t just get out if you start to feel uncomfortable or anxious, and you have to trust that the pilot knows what he or she is doing and that you’ll be safe. Try to regain some of the control you feel like you are losing. How? Here’s what I do.
- I always fly Jetblue. I like Jetblue, and they have amazing customer service (which is important when you feel like you might have a panic attack at any moment). I know that I feel “safe” with Jetblue, as silly as it may seem, so I fly them all the time. Now eventually I’ll need to go somewhere that Jetblue does not fly to, but hopefully all of these tips I’m about to tell you will have helped me be OK flying another airline. However, for now, I can control which airline I fly, so I do.
- I always sit as close to the front as possible. Specifically, since I fly Jetblue, I pay a little extra for an “Even More Space” seat. I don’t actually need the space (I’m barely 5’1”) but these seats board first and I like to board as early as possible so I can get situated and comfortable. It’s a little extra money for a lot more peace of mind, so the cost is a no-brainer for me. Plus, when I’m up near the front, I can keep an eye on the flight attendants and even see the pilots when they get on the plane. Those are things that help ease my mind before take-off.
- I only take non-stop flights. No layovers for me! Take-off is really the hardest part of a flight for me, so I can only deal with taking off once a day for right now. Again, I know this could change when I need to fly somewhere that doesn’t offer a direct route out of Boston, but for now this is another aspect of a trip that I can control, that will make the experience easier on me.
Stick to a routine
Another way to gain control over the situation is to stick to a routine every time you fly.
For me that means packing everything at least the night before (if not earlier), laying out my clothes for the flight the night before, arriving way too early to the airport, buying a bottle of water as soon as I get to my gate, and taking my Xanax (more about this later) exactly 30 minutes before boarding time.
This makes my travel day more predictable, which reduces any extra stress I might feel going into it.
Get TSA pre-check
Speaking of extra stress, I absolutely hate going through security.
I know everyone does, but for me going through security makes my hands shake, my heart race, and my mind unfurl thinking about the upcoming flight. This leads to a very flustered experience trying to take my laptop and liquids out of my carry-on in a timely manner.
To eliminate this stress completely I got TSA pre-check earlier this year and it has changed my airport experience. Not only is the line shorter, leaving me with less time to stand there worried, but I also don’t have to take off my shoes or take anything out of my carry-on. I just walk right through, grab my stuff, and head to my gate.
It’s only $85 for a five year membership — a small investment for five years of peace of mind.
Some people don’t like to know the inner workings of planes and airlines, but I do.
I have found that learning as much as possible about how planes work, the kind of training pilots go through, how flight attendants are taught to deal with certain situations, and the aviation industry in general is really helpful.
And it may seem silly, but working for a company that sees tons of flight bookings come in every day has helped me understand how common it is to fly, which makes the process seem a little less scary.
Download the Sky Guru Pro app
This one is huge for me. This app has eased my flight anxiety so much and it only cost $19.99.
Here’s how it works: You put in your airline and flight number when you get to the airport, and the app shows you what your route looks like, where there might be turbulence, how the wind might affect the length of your flight, and a ton of other helpful tidbits of information. During the flight you put the app on your armrest and it tells you in real time what is happening and why.
The “why” is the real magic for me.
Once on a flight the app told me that the kind of plane I was in had landing gear that sounded like a dog yelping (seriously) when it was pulled up after take-off.
Sure enough, I heard that very strange noise and instead of yelling “what was that?” like I normally would, I sat back and relaxed a little because I knew what the sound was and why it was happening.
That kind of moment is super powerful for me, and this app gives me those moments of knowledge and relaxation throughout the flight.
It also tells me how the weather might affect the turbulence I feel during take-off and landing, which are definitely the two scariest times for most people with a fear of flying.
Sky Guru was developed by a pilot, and even talks you through the fear of flying and tries to ease your mind before the flight. I can’t recommend it enough.
Be honest with the people around you
Whether it’s a co-worker, friend, or spouse, tell them you have a fear of flying, explain how you might act during the flight, and share with them if there’s anything they can do to help.
“I might grab your arm if I get scared,” or “take-off is the hardest part of the flight for me, I might get very anxious.”
Your travel companion will appreciate knowing this information and they will be prepared to help you when the time comes.
If you’re flying solo I still recommend letting the person next to you know you are a nervous flyer. They’ll either sympathize and help you, or just ignore your panicky moments, but either way you won’t shock them with your behavior.
And to give you confidence in your fellow passengers, last summer I was flying to Washington D.C. and the man next to me was an absolute saint. I told him I was a very nervous flyer and that I hated take-off, so he talked to me through the entire take-off process to try and get my mind off it.
He also held my hand when he saw how shaky I was (and he had a cast on the arm closest to me so he reached across his body to hold my hand with his good arm!)
On the flip side, my flight home was next to a man who grunted an “OK” and then went to sleep after I told him how I might act. (To be fair it was 6am and I was ordering a mimosa, but still.) His reaction didn’t bother me, I was just glad I had been upfront with him so I wasn’t nervous about how I might act later.
Lastly, and I can’t stress this enough, tell the flight attendants you are a nervous flyer! Most of the time they will go out of their way to make you as comfortable as possible.
Here’s another plug for Jetblue, who has (in my opinion) the absolute nicest flight attendants ever. Some things they have done for me on flights:
- Upgrade my seat free of charge so I could sit in a row alone with my husband, have more room, and be closer to the front.
- Bring me into the cockpit to meet the pilots (yes I am an adult and yes this actually happened) so I could feel more comfortable with them and the flight process. Plus I got a picture!
Here I am doing my absolute best to stay calm:
- Free drinks! Luckily this happened on that flight to D.C. with the best seat-mate stranger ever and I was able to get him a free drink too.
- Free blanket and pillow so I could get some sleep and relax.
- On one flight, the attendant came over every time the pilot told her there might possibly be turbulence so she could prepare me.
There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of if you have a fear of flying, and that is something that takes awhile to accept.
But be honest with the people around you and you will ease a lot of tension you probably feel about how you act on an airplane.
Consider trying EMDR
The main difference is that with EMDR you are processing past memories and/or trauma to help you cope with your current phobia.
With CBT you are focusing more specifically on the phobia and you will be slowly exposed to your fear in the process (over time you might look at a plane, then drive to the airport, then go into the airport, and finally board a plane and fly somewhere.)
For me, I am doing EMDR and so far it’s going pretty well. But I encourage you to research both options and try the one you think is right for you.
Ask your doctor about medications
I told you we’d get to this one eventually.
Now again, I’m not a doctor of any kind, but if your flight anxiety is severe, you should look into the options that are available to you.
For me, I tried a few different things before I landed on xanax. I take 2 (yes 2, I am one of those people with severe flight anxiety) exactly 30 minutes before I board the plane and since I board first (thank you Jetblue Even More Space seats!) I get on the plane as they start to kick in, and I can sit back and relax, for the most part.
There are a ton of options if you decide to go the medication route, so talk to your doctor to figure out what could work for you.
One thing you should make sure to do is test it out before you actually use it on a plane. I tried Ativan first and when I took it at home it had absolutely no affect on me whatsoever.
Imagine not knowing that until I was on the plane? Talk about having anxiety! Once you feel comfortable with a medication, make sure to always put it in your carry-on or purse so that it’s with you at all times on the plane.
Write down your fears, feelings, and experiences
This one came to me as I was writing this post.
I can’t tell you how helpful it was for me to see all of the things I do to ease my anxiety and know that it works and that I’m making improvements.
Reminding myself that I am making positive steps towards being more comfortable with flying makes me happy and excited about the future. Maybe someday I’ll finally make it to Europe!
Everyone is different, which means everyone’s anxiety towards flying varies significantly.
There are a ton of things you can do to ease your fear and make flights go smoother. Try a lot of different tactics and figure out what works best for you. It might be some of my tips, it might be all of them, or you might have your own tricks or routines that help you.
Even though we all know that a huge percentage of the population struggles with some form of this phobia, it always feels good to be reminded that you’re not alone and that others are trying similar techniques and dealing with issues just like you.