As I step into the airport, my hands are clammy and my heart is racing. Though I frequently travel, it’s rarely alone, and I feel anxiety welling up inside me. My head knows I have the time I need to navigate through security and find my gate. But my physiological response overwhelms my knowledge.
What if they don’t let me through security? What if I get a patdown? What if they search every ounce of my luggage? What if I make it to my flight, but something goes amiss with the plane? If you're a nervous flyer like me, you may be suffering from Aviophobia.
What is Aviophobia?
What is aviophobia? The dictionary definition of aviophobia (pronounced [A-vee-oh-fo-bee-ah]) is the intense fear or displeasure of flying in an airplane. It is sometimes referred to as Aerophobia (pronounced [air-oh-fo-bee-ah]). If you’re afraid of anything flight-related—including airports themselves—keep reading!
How to Get Over Flight Anxiety
Everyone can face some anxious feelings leading up to a flight. If you're a fearful flyer and you're ready to face your fear head-on, we share some great tips in this article:
Find the root of your fear
Focus on why you're traveling
Arm yourself with knowledge
Educate yourself about turbulence
Travel with a friend or loved one
Talk to your flight crew
Choose your preferred seat
Take flying lessons
Distract yourself on the flight
Avoid alcohol/drink water
Try breathing techniques and meditation
If you struggle with debilitating fear and panic attacks and want to dive straight into a professional option for treating your fear of flying, consider seeking professional help. An online therapy option is BetterHelp (read our review on them here).
What is the Root of Your Fear?
Do you know what your specific triggers are? Maybe you don’t like small spaces and the thought of being in a tin can in the air terrifies you. Maybe news coverage about flight disappearances or plane crashes has you afraid. Maybe you're like me and you struggle with motion sickness. Or maybe it’s simply your first flight.
Whatever it is that’s causing you anxiety about an upcoming flight needs to be addressed. If you avoid flying, you'll likely miss out on a lot of life experiences. Knowing what’s causing your anxiety can help you take the necessary steps toward alleviating your anxiety.
Why Are You Traveling?
Why are you traveling? Were you invited to a friend’s destination wedding? Did you schedule the adventure of a lifetime touring Italy? Do you need to fly home to visit family? Whatever the reason, focusing on why you’re traveling—and how important it is to you—can help ground you.
Visualize how you’ll feel when you’re sipping wine in Italy or you’re walking along the crystal sands at your friend’s Fuji wedding. Sometimes knowing that something is important to you can help you overcome flight anxiety and push yourself outside your comfort zone.
Arm Yourself with Knowledge
A lot of people—myself included—struggle with a fear of the unknown. How safe is flying? Are you risking your life by flying? Rearching airplane safety features, how planes work, and learning plane crash statistics can help calm your fears.
Even reading these few statistics gave me a huge sigh of relief, I hope it does the same for you:
Every flight-related incident in the United States has been listed on the FAA website since 2006 (including everything from unplanned landings to fatalities). There aren't that many of them.
From 2012-2014 there were 1,098 deaths each year in traffic-related accidents in New York, killing 5.6 of every 100,000 New Yorkers.
According to the National Safety Council, the odds of dying in airplane crashes are so minuscule that they can't predict them. The odds of dying in a car accident? 1-in-93. Flying might just be the safest form of travel.
How many planes fly every day? According to the FAA, "Every day, FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) provides service to more than 45,000 flights and 2.9 million airline passengers across more than 29 million square miles of airspace."
Secondly, to get a commercial airline license, you’re required to obtain a bachelor's degree in aircraft operations or aeronautical engineering (or the equivalent). A pilot is also required to complete on-ground training using flight simulators and complete over 1,500 hours of flight time before becoming licensed. Not “just anyone” is a pilot. They have hundreds of hours of training under their belt and know what they’re doing.
According to the FAA, airline pilots under 40 are required to undergo medical exams yearly with an Aviation Medical Examiner (AMA). If over the age of 40, it’s required every 6 months. AMAs are allowed to ask questions regarding mental health and can order psychological evaluations if deemed necessary.
If a pilot has a treatable mental health diagnosis, it is treated and addressed and they are allowed to fly when it’s safe to do so. Programs have been introduced in the last couple of years to remove the stigma of mental illness among pilots and offer them mentoring programs and real solutions. Knowing that they have to undergo medical testing at the very least yearly certainly eases my anxiety about putting my life in a pilot's hands.
Understand that Turbulence is Normal
I personally enjoy take-off and the moment where you feel weightless—but just because I do doesn’t mean you will. I’ve lived through anxiety-inducing turbulent flights, where weather or “unexpected air” can make it hard to stay calm.
It seems that most flights hit a bout of turbulence at some point or another and guess what? It’s completely normal.
According to Weather.gov, “Turbulence is an irregular motion of the air resulting from eddies and vertical currents. It may be as insignificant as a few annoying bumps…” Turbulence is commonly associated with weather fronts, thunderstorms, heat, jet streams, and flying over mountains.
And while unexpected turbulence does happen—also referred to as clear air turbulence—pilots currently have tools available to help them determine when they might experience turbulence. It’s why they always ask passengers and flight crews to sit if they’re expecting rough air.
While accidents and injuries do occur from unexpected turbulence, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), from 2009–2022, only 34 passengers and 129 flight attendants were injured due to turbulence. Millions of people have flown in that timeframe.
Travel with a Friend or Loved One
I travel with my husband whenever possible. Sometimes it’s nice to have a hand to hold or literal shoulder to lean on when things get bumpy. If you’re able to invite a friend, family member, or spouse to travel with you, their presence alone can help lessen your anxiety levels.
Talk to Your Flight Attendants
Don’t be afraid to let your flight attendant know that flying makes you anxious. According to Patrica Green, flight attendants receive a lot of training you may be unaware of. They are trained on how to handle minor cuts and injuries as well as medical emergencies. They’re CPR certified and can even assist someone in giving birth. They’re even taught firefighting, and survival skills, and can assist pilots in landing a plane if necessary.
Flight attendants are your advocates. They can check on you periodically throughout the flight and assist you if you faint or you’re having a panic attack. The sooner you share that you feel anxious, the better.
Choose a Seat to Alleviate Flight Anxiety
Most airlines you fly will allow you to choose your seats (sometimes for an upcharge). This is usually the best route to take, even if you’re trying to save money. However, at some point, you may fly an airline that has a “first-come, first-served” boarding policy, or seats are assigned at the gate. If it’s free-for-all boarding, here’s what you do: Do anything and everything you can early.
Let me tell you, I’ve often found myself the last to board a plane—i.e. Southwest—and it’s not pretty. You’ll get a middle seat, usually towards the back. That is completely uncomfortable for longer flights. For Southwest specifically, set an alarm, and check-in for your flight the second it hits 24 hours before takeoff.
You can pay for priority boarding, but I prefer this route. If you forget to check in right away, you will end up boarding last. If you’re assigned a seat at the gate, show up early and talk to a gate agent as soon as you arrive. Sometimes this can help you snag a better seat than others who arrive last-minute.
But the overall best solution if you're feeling anxious is to fly an airline that allows you to choose your seats. I've grown to love flying in the window seat but most nervous fliers prefer an aisle seat. Choose whatever you’ll be most comfortable with.
Distractions are Pure Magic
I always over-prepare for the actual flight, no matter the length. And now that I have a toddler, you can bet I'm overpacking snacks and toys. Here are some ideas you can use to keep your mind busy on a long flight:
- Bring a book you’ve been wanting to read or download one on your tablet
- Listen to music or a podcast
- Find out if your airline offers in-flight entertainment—I always end up watching a new movie or two that I’ve been holding out for
- Bring your work with you and knock out some projects
- Pack your favorite snack to munch on
- Play a game on your phone
- Strike up a conversation with your seatmate(s) (if they’re willing…)
These are just a few of the things I like to do on flights to pass the time and stay distracted.
Take Flying Lessons
One of the best ways to alleviate a fear of flying is by learning to understand the basics of how airplanes work. You could test out a flight simulator or take flying lessons. You’ll learn about airplane engines, the process of flying, and how to land safely. If you’re able to fly and take control, it can help you face your fear. The next time you’re a passenger, you can rest assured knowing how your plane is safely traveling in the skies.
Try Breathing Techniques and Meditation
You can practice calming techniques like taking deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. It’s simple and easy to utilize. You can also do guided meditations using apps like Calm or Insight Timer. Give these breathing exercises a try.
Some professionals recommend acknowledging your body's response to fear and instead of trying to combat it, label it. Label your negative thoughts and why you're feeling them but then remind yourself of all of the facts you learned and why you're safe.
Consider Exposure Therapy
There are a few different ways to go about exposure therapy. You can watch videos of planes taking off and landing. You can watch movies or TV shows where people fly. You could consider testing out a flight simulator, like Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET).
The ultimate exposure therapy is hopping on an airplane and flying. When you expose yourself to something repeatedly, the hypothesis is that you will normalize the situation(s) and calm the limbic systems, alleviating or at least lessening your fears.
Avoid Alcohol—Drink Water Instead
Everyone gets anxious, even more so when the plane feels like it’s tumbling through the air when you hit turbulence. For most, the first vice that comes to mind is alcohol. Some people swear that self-medication will calm your nerves. However, I recommend avoiding alcohol. Why?
The humidity on most flights is kept at 10–20%. That’s drier than the Sahara desert. Alcohol will only serve to dehydrate you, furthering discomfort. It might make others even more agitated. Instead, focus on drinking water and staying hydrated.
Some people also swear by sleeping pills or something like Benadryl. If my husband has a long night of air travel ahead, he'll often take a sleeping pill to make sure he lands at his final destination refreshed.
Seek Professional Treatment
If you need more than self-help options, we suggest consulting a professional therapist. They are professionally trained to treat anxiety disorders. A clinical psychologist can prescribe anti-anxiety medication if they deem it necessary.
You can also consider cognitive behavioral therapy—also known as CBT or talk therapy—to get to the root of your fear of flying and learn to address it. You can look into online counseling for aviophobia from BetterHelp. You can rest assured that each of their qualified therapists has experience treating anxiety disorders.
Another treatment option specific to this phobia is the SOAR Fear of Flying program. It was created by Tom Bunn, an airline Captain and licensed therapist.
Conquer Your Fear of Flying
As a little girl (I’ll be honest, as a teenager and adult as well) there was nothing more exhilarating than a swing—I’d pump my legs to propel into the air, going ever higher. Then, in one fell swoop, I would leap off the swing and fly for just a moment. In that moment of weightlessness, time stood still. It was pure freedom. That’s the way flying should be.
Hopefully, we gave you some helpful tips to overcome your fear of flying and learn to enjoy the experience. Put some of these tips into practice on your next flight and let us know which one is your favorite!
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