How to Deal with a Fear of Flying

Jul 7, 2015

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As many as one in three people have a fear of flying, with symptoms ranging from slight anxiety to debilitating panic attacks. But don’t resign yourself to a life of slow travel via boat, bus, car or train: TPG Contributor (and fearful flyer) Katie Hammel has some suggestions for flying without the crippling fear.

Flying can make some people feel off-kilter — or even downright terrified.

It’s estimated that 20 million people suffer from aviophobia, the fear of flying — and I’m one of them. However, like most people who experience anxiety around flying, I wasn’t always afraid.

Twenty-seven is the average age of onset for a flying phobia, which is usually prompted by an important life change rather than a traumatic flight; I was 26 and had just gotten engaged when I stopped enjoying the friendly skies and began crying during take-off, panicking during turbulence and even hysterically hyperventilating to the point that I passed out during one particularly bumpy flight (shout-out to my seatmate who said nothing and simply moved to the next open seat!).

I know all the arguments against my fear. I know that planes don’t just fall out of the sky (except when they do) and that pilots are well-trained professionals we should trust with our safety (except when they’re not), and that I am much more likely to meet my maker in a car accident than a plane crash. But to that final point, I contend that if my car breaks down I won’t have several terrifying minutes to contemplate my death as I fall 30,000 feet.

I know my fear isn’t rational, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful.

Nearly a decade has passed since I felt my first twinges of flight panic. I haven’t conquered my fear, but I have learned how to manage it. For me, there’s been no magic bullet, but rather a combination of strategies that help me control my panic and unease. The following are some tips for dealing with a fear of flying:

Identify Your Fear

Underlying causes of aviophobia include claustrophobia, fear of a panic attack, fear of terrorism, fear of motion sickness, fear of heights or — the most common fear and my own personal terror — fear of dying. Naming your exact fear is the first step to figuring out a personalized strategy for managing it.

Watching planes safely take off and land can be beneficial. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Watching planes safely take off and land can be beneficial. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Prepare Before Your Flight

For someone suffering from a flying phobia, what a flying plane looks like from the ground is very different from how it feels to be inside. Get to the airport early to do some plane spotting before your flight. Watch the planes arrive and depart and imagine being a passenger. When you’re in the plane, remember how safe and effortless the planes looked in the air. If you can’t do it at the airport, watching a video can have the same effect.

Another mental preparation exercise: Close your eyes while riding in a car and pay attention to the feel of the bumps in the road. Pretend the bumps are turbulence. When you’re in a plane and you feel turbulence, remember what it felt like in the car. Chances are, the turbulence is no rougher than a pot-holed road.

Visualize The Statistics

There is a 0.00001% chance your plane will crash (compared to a .03% chance of being struck by lightning and 1.58% chance of dying of the flu). Most fearful fliers know the oft-quoted fact that a car accident is far more likely than a plane crash, but that knowledge ceases to be helpful when panic sets in at 30,000 feet.

I find it more helpful to visualize all the other planes in the air and remind myself that they are all fine, so I’ll be fine, too. Sites like FlightAware have live maps that are a great way to get a visual representation of the vast number of planes flying on any given day. Multiply that by weeks and months, and the times when something does go wrong seem all the more rare.

Screengrab from
Traffic over the United States from

Make It Personal

Most flight attendants seem like normal people with families and friends and reasons to live. In other words, none of them appear to be lunatics who would happily risk their lives on a daily basis doing a job that is inherently dangerous. When I think of the number of times most FAs have flown in their 10- or 20-, or even 30-year-plus careers, I realize that if they can fly that many times without incident, the odds are in my favor.

It can also be helpful to befriend one of the attendants on your flight. Often an FA who knows you’re feeling anxious will go out of his or her way to reassure you— plus, it’s nice to feel like you have someone looking out for you when you’re scared. I also watch the flight attendants’ reactions to turbulence; if they don’t seem nervous, it’s a good sign that there’s no reason for me to be alarmed.

Educate Yourself 

I understand that physics and technology allow for the miracle of modern flight, but when I’m nearly seven miles above solid ground, flying doesn’t just feel like a miracle, it feels like an impossibility; a charade that could come to an abrupt end at any moment when the plane begins to tumble out of the sky.

Acknowledge your specific fear and then counteract it with a factual statement. I keep an arsenal of facts ready for this purpose. 1) It’s nearly impossible for turbulence alone to bring down a flight. 2) Planes can fly with one engine and even if both engines fail, the plane would glide rather than plummet. 3) At most points on a trip from the US to Europe, you’re never more than an hour’s flying time away from an airport. 4) During most turbulence, the plane might only gain or lose 50-100 feet of altitude, which is of little consequence at 30,000 feet.

It’s easy to educate yourself on how planes fly and exactly what happens during a flight. The more you know, the more confident you’re likely to feel and the less distressed you’ll be by minor bumps and noises.

My husband took it one step further for me, buying me a private flying lesson for my birthday in the hopes that first-hand flying experience would cure my phobia. Spoiler alert: It didn’t. However, it was beneficial to learn about all the preparation any pilot undergoes before taking to the sky.

The author, smiling at being safely back on the ground! Photo by Katie Hammel.
The author, smiling at being safely back on the ground!

Distract Yourself

My preferred state of being while on a plane is unconscious, so I try to minimize distractions so that I can fall asleep; I put soothing music in my headphones and throw a lightweight scarf over my head to block out light. If you know sleep will elude you, find a way to distract yourself to make the time pass quickly. Watch a lighthearted movie, listen to music, read a book or play cards.

Get Comfortable

For those of us stuck in coach (unlike The Points Guy), flying is an inherently unpleasant experience. But the more comfortable you are physically, the easier it is to be mentally comfortable, too. Wear loose clothes and layers so you can adjust your temperature, bring a travel pillow or blanket for long-haul flights and earplugs or an eye mask if you need them. Pack your favorite snacks and bring supplies (eye drops, lip balm, lotion) to keep you hydrated.

Choose your preferred seat in advance (seats over the wings tend to experience less turbulence). Having the seat you want and knowing where you’ll sit before you arrive at the airport is one small way to feel like you have a bit of control over your experience.

Avoid Caffeine or Other Stimulants

If you’re already wired and anxious, avoid anything that will make you more jittery or unsettled. Avoid stressful situations the day before you fly; a light workout several hours before your flight can also take the edge off.

Self-Medicate, Within Reason

A drink or two is okay. Five or six is probably too many.
A drink or two might take the edge off, but too many drinks can work against you. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Before I went to the doctor (more on that later), I self-medicated with alcohol. As my fear got worse, I had to drink more to calm my nerves, which meant I was just as scared, but now drunk and scared. If a drink or two can take the edge off, go for it — but getting black-out drunk will not solve the underlying problem.

All-natural anti-anxiety remedies and sleep aids like chamomile, valerian and melatonin are other options. Just be sure to try any medication at home before you use it during a flight.

Take a Specialized Course

Many people have cured their fear with special courses such as SOAR, which was developed by an airline pilot (and licensed therapist) and costs as little as $125. There are several airline-run courses, too, such as Flying with Confidence (British Airways), Fearless Flyer (EasyJet) and Flying without Fear (Virgin Atlantic)

See a Doctor

If all else fails, see a doctor. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Finally, if your anxiety can’t be alleviated with other methods, talk to your doctor. Mine suggested Xanax, the most commonly prescribed medication for fearful fliers. Now I take one pill about an hour before my flight and my panic turns to something more akin to stoic acquiescence. I’m still very aware of my fear, but it feels like something carried with me, outside my body, rather than lodged in my chest and clawing its way out. I can recognize the fear, accept it and, using some of the strategies listed above, manage it rather than letting it control my reactions.

I’m not 100% cured and I doubt I ever will be, but I no longer cry, panic or hyperventilate. I’m sure my seatmates appreciate that.

What strategies do you use to manage your fear?

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