8 Secrets to Managing Your Fear of Flying, According to Frequent Fliers
Try these tips before your next trip for a smoother flight.
Some relaxed jetsetters board a plane and pass out before the cabin doors even close—and then there are the rest of us, cursed with a fear of flying or travel anxiety. While everyone has had a doomsday thought once or twice during extreme turbulence on a plane trip, flight anxiety isn’t just limited to fears of crashing.
Flight anxiety can include the stress involved in booking travel (so many flight booking apps!), commuting to and from the airport, managing flight restrictions, and more. As with anything in life, there are never any guarantees, but you can take steps toward a more positive travel experience. Before you head out on your next adventure for work, pleasure, or the holidays, try these tips from frequent fliers who have found effective coping tactics for fear of flying or flight anxiety—you might just find your next taxi and takeoff to be your best yet.
Roger Briggs, a flight attendant with United Airlines for the past 39 years, says it’s less about what you do right before it’s time to board and more about the night before. As he explains, getting enough sleep and eating well will ensure you’re in the best possible mindset to face your fears.
Part of this is ensuring you drink plenty of water and limit your alcohol intake. As Briggs explains, every drink you have on a plane is two on the ground, thanks to the pressure on the plane. This dulls your senses and causes dehydration, leading to headaches and fatigue. When you’re not feeling your best, you’re more likely to experience anxiety. If you start to feel the angst, Briggs says talk to one of his teammates (a flight attendant), who are trained to keep it cool.
“When I work a flight, I must maintain an air of confidence and approachability. People are relaxed when the crew are relaxed and friendly and can be assured everything is under control,” he says.
Building a successful business usually requires plenty of face-to-face meetings, conferences, and networking, turning go-getters into jetsetters. This is true for Ada Polla, CEO of skincare company Alchimie Forever, who flies three to four times week, racking up 150,000 miles or more a year. Developing a calming, consistent pre-flight routine has helped Polla maintain her sanity.
She’s found repetition gives her a sense of control and confidence, especially when she’s away from home so frequently. “This includes what I wear and showing up 90 minutes early to the airport to what I will drink in the lounge,” she says. “I even try to sit in the same seats in the lounge. I figured, if everything went smoothly the last time I did this routine and flew, then everything will again.”
During takeoff, you feel excited for the journey ahead. But during landing? You grip the arm rests for dear life. For those who are nervous nellies on flights, different aspects of the process can be challenging. To combat this, travel blogger Lauren Juliff has a system for every step in the process. These tricks helped her face her own fears, and now she doesn’t have panic attacks on board.
When she’s waiting at the gate, she looks at Flight Radar 24 on her phone or laptop to see the map. Every time she checks, there are around 15,000 planes in the air, reminding her of how insignificant her trip actually is in the grand scheme of aviation. “There are so many planes in the sky at any one time and so few plane crashes—being able to visualize that is a useful reminder that flying is normal and safe, and experienced by millions of people every day,” she says.
During takeoff, she opens her Headspace app and meditates, since takeoff is the scariest part for her. “Headspace has a fear of flying meditation program for anxious fliers, and I always make sure to listen to it daily in the week leading up to my trip, then during the flight itself,” she says.
Some folks find themselves on a flight every single week for work, while others are lucky to board a plane once a year for vacation. If you’re in the latter crowd, it’s likely you have more anxiety since you haven’t experienced many of the things that could go wrong or figured out ways to streamline your travels so there are fewer worries leading up to the trip. LGBT travel writer Meg Cale is on the road (or in the air, so to speak) several times a month, and she uses TripIt to organize her travel information.
This one-stop shop for flights, hotel accommodations, and itineraries ensures you have everything you need. “You just forward your confirmation to the TripIt email and it automatically populates times, dates, confirmation numbers, and other important details in one convenient location,” Cale says. “Having all your details in a convenient spot eases the check-in counter panic. I hate it when I have to scroll through a million emails to find the information I need when I’m a bit anxious—it’s never pretty.”
If most of your worries come from the possibility of missing flights or connections, it’s worth the elbow grease to research better flight options. After all, your stress is warranted: Travel blogger Janice Holly Booth says an hour-long layover is getting increasingly difficult to manage. Considering she takes up to 40 flights a year, she’s been through it all.
“Yes, airfares are cheaper when you have a tight connection, but if you’re really trying to get somewhere on time, shell out a few extra bucks to have a good cushion between flights, especially if you are going to have to navigate customs at your connecting airport,” she says. “There is nothing worse than the anxiety of running to make a connection, only to miss it by a few seconds or minutes—and nothing better than a bunch of stuff going wrong but not having to worry because you have plenty of time to catch your connecting flight.”
Cale says it’s good to be self-aware of your own mood throughout the day when you’re choosing a flight, too. Early morning flights are inexpensive, but if you’re an anxious flyer, you’re probably not happy to arrive last-minute like some business travelers. After all, if you’re taking off at 6 a.m., you need to arrive between 3 or 4 a.m., depending on whether you’re taking a domestic or international trip. “When you add in the time to wake up, shower, and commute to the airport, it can be a very early morning. If you’re already nervous to fly, make sure you get your good night’s sleep and avoid the additional stress of being anxious and tired,” she says.
Think about the toddlers you know in your life: What do their parents do before bedtime? They find ways to wear ’em out, right? So why not apply the same philosophy to your own nervous energy? It’s the trick that business travelers (and Ryan O’Connor, co-founder of Goodness Hemp) use to feel more relaxed before trips. O’Connor jet-sets at least four times a month for work or fun, and when he’s active the evening before a morning flight or the morning before an evening flight, his anxiety is majorly reduced. “Working out, getting outside in the sun if I can, and expending a lot of energy releases endorphins and gets it out of my system, so to speak. Going into a flight feeling physically tired from exercise truly puts me in a positive place,” he says.
Though the left side of your brain is sent into overdrive when fears supercharge your imagination with worst-case scenarios, your right side is there to balance out the angst. In other words, facts are facts, and the more you focus on the realities of flying, the more at ease you will find yourself. If turbulence makes you panic or altitude shifts can cause you to cry, travel blogger Lia Garcia suggests having statistics on hand to read through. She flies up to four times a month and saw five countries within the first six months of the year: All of this travel has actually intensified her anxiety, making her wonder if her luck is running out.
When her mind starts to spin, she thinks about how she is more likely to be in a car or bus crash or experience a freak lightning strike than to be in a plane crash. “Then I start to think about how I'm nowhere near as anxious as I should be about hopping in a car or bus or strolling through a garden, which is when my secondary list comes into play: I’m also more likely to become the President of the United States or win an Oscar than I am to die in a plane crash,” she says. “That makes me feel better.”
Whatever is happening, music can be a source of reflection and allow you to work through your emotions. Polla says it can also work wonders on your anxiety levels if you’re dealing with travel-related stressors. Her go-to is a mixture of lounge music, the sound of rain, and some chanting. For other people, it may be today’s top hits—or even throwback jams that put you in a happy mindset as you think of happy memories. Take time to test what type of jams help you feel better and make sure they’re downloaded on your phone for easy access when you’re sans-WiFi, miles high in the sky.