Nervous Flyer? How to Deal with Flight Anxiety
Behavioral Health
January 24, 2024
Nervous Flyer? How to Deal with Flight Anxiety

Flying can be an exhilarating experience for many, but for some, the thought of boarding an airplane triggers intense anxiety. Flight anxiety, also known as aviophobia, is a common issue that affects a significant number of individuals. However, with the right strategies and mindset, it's possible to overcome this fear. We spoke with Alex Raglon, LPC-A, a behavioral health therapist on the staff at Texas Health Dallas, for her insights on practical tips and techniques to help you deal with flight anxiety and make your journey more enjoyable.

Understanding Flight Anxiety

Raglon notes that flight anxiety often stems from various factors, including fear of heights, lack of control, or past negative experiences. Flight anxiety can manifest in various ways, encompassing both physical and mental responses. Physical manifestations may include excessive sweating, increased heart rate, and restlessness, while cognitive responses may involve catastrophizing or thinking of the worst possible outcome, racing thoughts, and hypersensitivity to environmental stressors.

“What is occurring in the brain is a normal and protective release of chemicals triggered by a frightening event,” adds Alyson Smith, M.D., managing director of emotional health and well-being programs at Delta Air Lines. “These chemicals are doing their job by telling your body to prepare for danger — your heart rate goes up, you might grasp the armrest, and your muscles get tense.”

Raglon also acknowledges that it's not uncommon for individuals to develop flight anxiety as they age. Traumatic life experiences and exposure to stressors can shape worldviews, influencing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. As people accumulate experiences or what they see on television or online, their sensitivity to potential threats may increase, contributing to the development of flight anxiety. Raglon adds that terroristic events have also significantly impacted society's stress response to air travel.

“What I have noticed in my clinical experience is that flight anxiety often mirrors generalized anxiety,” she explains. “This means their minds try to connect events with the usual feelings that many people have. Doing this helps them feel more in control and normal when they're feeling upset or overwhelmed.”

Understanding the root cause of your anxiety is the first step towards overcoming it. Whether it's the unfamiliar environment of an airport, turbulence, or the fear of a potential emergency, acknowledging your concerns is essential for developing effective coping mechanisms.

Education is Key

One of the most effective ways to combat flight anxiety is through education. Familiarize yourself with the basics of aviation, how airplanes work, and the stringent safety measures in place. Knowing that flying is statistically one of the safest modes of transportation can provide reassurance and reduce irrational fears.

While it can be incredibly anxiety-inducing when the plane starts to shake and rattle during a bout of turbulence — and it’s totally normal to think the worst — “Turbulence is a common event while flying and is rarely associated with any real danger or risk,” Smith assures. In fact, according to NPR, it’s “almost unheard of” for turbulence to cause a plane crash.

But we all know that even if you know something bad likely won’t happen, that doesn’t exactly mean that your anxiety will get the memo not to worry. That’s why Raglon works with clients on personalized grounding exercises, such as the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, to manage acute stress and reduce anxiety noticeably.

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a simple and effective grounding exercise used to manage acute stress and reduce anxiety. It involves focusing on your immediate surroundings and senses.

Here's how it works:

  • Five (5) things you can see: Look around and identify five things in your environment. It could be anything — a book, a chair, a plant, or even the color of the walls.
  • Four (4) things you can touch: Pay attention to the sensation of touch. Identify four things you can touch and notice the texture, temperature, or feel of each object.
  • Three (3) things you can hear: Listen for three distinct sounds in your surroundings. It might be the hum of a computer, the rustling of leaves, or distant traffic noise.
  • Two (2) things you can smell: Focus on your sense of smell and identify two different smells around you. It could be the scent of coffee, fresh air, or any other aroma.
  • One (1) thing you can taste: If you have something to taste nearby, take note of it. It could be a sip of water, a snack, or even the lingering taste of a recent meal.

Believe it or not, another helpful grounding technique could be opening up your window, especially if you’re flying at night.

“Looking outside can help you deal with turbulence because when it’s dark, you don’t have a sense of direction, which can cause more anxiety,” says Delta Air Lines pilot Jared Hodge.

Additionally, Raglon has found a lot of success with music therapy.

“I have found that music therapy lessens anxiety and supports emotional regulation,” she explains. “In fact, according to experts, music affects the amount of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that the body releases, and reducing these hormones can help relieve symptoms of anxiety as music acts as a distractor pulling the patient’s/flyer’s attention away from the negative and/or overwhelming stimuli.”

Try to look for music that is calming, like this playlist on Spotify, or music that you associate with positive times or memories.

Positive Visualization

Speaking of positive times, visualizing a positive flying experience can actually go a long way in easing your nerves. Close your eyes and imagine yourself boarding the plane calmly, feeling relaxed throughout the journey, and safely arriving at your destination. Positive visualization can reframe your mindset and create a more optimistic outlook on flying.

Breathing and Relaxation Techniques

If you haven’t caught on by now, creating a calm and relaxed environment is key to helping keep that flight anxiety grounded — excuse the pun. Practice deep breathing and relaxation exercises to manage anxiety symptoms. Focus on slow, deep breaths to calm your nervous system. Meditation and mindfulness techniques can also be beneficial in centering your thoughts and reducing anxious feelings. Need some guidance? Look for relaxation or guided playlists, like this one on Spotify, and download it before your flight so you have access to it. Many airlines also provide similar playlists for free via their mobile apps.

Choose the Right Seat

Opt for a seat that suits your comfort level. If turbulence is a major concern, choose a seat over the wings, where the impact of turbulence is often less pronounced. Additionally, selecting an aisle seat can provide a sense of openness and control. Communicate your concerns to the airline staff, and they may be able to assist you in finding the most suitable seat.

Gradual Exposure

If your anxiety extends beyond just flying, exposing yourself gradually to the aviation environment can be helpful. Start by spending time at airports without the pressure of catching a flight. Observe the routines of travelers, the airport staff, and the overall atmosphere. Gradual exposure can help desensitize your mind to the stressors associated with flying. Even if you’re just picking someone up from the airport, it may be helpful to arrive a bit early so you can park and actually sit and observe inside the airport as people come and go, familiarizing yourself with the experience and environment.

“I believe it is important to be exposed to our triggers to be able to have a well-rounded self-assessment of progress,” Raglon says. “As I tend to say in therapy, ‘If we are isolated from our triggers we cannot assess our improvement.’”

Chill on Any New Chill Pills

While some people will be prescribed anti-anxiety medication for their flight anxiety, an upcoming flight is actually not the best time to experiment with new medications or supplements aimed at helping you relax.

“Flight attendants do not suggest experimenting with new anxiety medications or sleep aids for the first time on an airplane,” says Allie Malis, flight attendant and representative for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. Instead, try traveling with a friend or loved one who can help you talk through your anxiety instead.

This is also not the time to hit the airport bar a bit hard before the flight. While you might think it will help calm your nerves, people still tend to feel anxious while drinking, and sometimes it can even make your anxiety worse.

The same goes for caffeine, which can make you jittery and hyperaware.

Soothe Post-Flight

For some, flight anxiety stops the moment the wheels hit the tarmac, but for others, it can linger long after you land. If you’re in that camp, give yourself time to relax and unwind. If you don’t have another flight lined up, maybe now is the time to head to grab that comforting coffee shop drink you love so much, call up a friend or family member, or listen to your favorite music.

You might even want to reflect on the success of the flight, whether it’s the fact that you safely landed, you didn’t have much turbulence, or you were able to calm yourself down throughout the flight without spiraling.

The Takeaway

Flight anxiety is a common challenge, but it should not hinder your ability to explore new destinations or visit loved ones. By implementing these strategies, you can gradually overcome your fear and turn flying into a positive and enjoyable experience.

“I would always recommend reaching out to a licensed professional if symptoms become overwhelming or you’ve tried coping strategies in the past to no avail,” Raglon says, “But it is also important to know that healthy fears and good anxiety can exist without becoming crippling.”

Remember, you are not alone in this journey, and with the right mindset and support, the skies can become your gateway to incredible adventures.

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