How I Cope With My Fear of Flying

How I Cope With My Fear of Flying

Yes ladies and gentlemen… I do have a fear of flying — yet here I am, still booking flights and chasing my dreams of traveling the whole world. It kind of makes you think that I’m torturing myself, ain’t I? *laughs*

But let’s go back to the start because actually, in the past… I was the kind of person who didn’t have this kind of fear.

Growing up in the remote islands of Batanes in the Philippines, I often went on airplane rides with my family at such an early age. It might sound fine and dandy, but given the sub-par standards of the aviation industry at that time (hello, 3rd world country!), most of my experiences weren’t exactly pleasant.

I may not have been a part of a plane crash (fortunately) but my dire experiences were enough to put anyone into a ‘flying trauma’. They ranged from regular trips with small planes from hell — think 4-seater planes that looked like they can be ripped apart in seconds: loose screws and cracked panels attached together with masking tape — to normal and military planes that often did emergency nose-dive descents or full-on sprees of turbulence.

Despite all of those however, I grew up as a teenage lass who had zero fear towards the notion of riding airplanes. I guess you can say that I have been ‘well-conditioned‘ since birth because I did survive every ordeal, so any fear-inducing actions of any aircraft were things that I just naturally ignored. In fact, you would often find me calming down friends, family and even strangers whenever they get freaked out during airplane rides.
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However, Here Came The Trigger…

Fast forward to when I was 21, I was sitting in a big plane headed to Europe with over 18 hours of flight before me.

When it reached the 4th hour, I was suddenly overwhelmed by crippling fear.

My palms were sweating and I couldn’t relax — and that certainly surprised me. It surprised my friend too who was with me during the flight. As the roles were reversed with him calming me down in my seat, I tried to analyze my situation. “Okay, what changed here?” Am I suddenly scared of flying because I’ve become more conscious about flight accidents? Of the concept of life and death? Of the fact that there are two strangers that are flying this plane who I’m placing my life’s fate on? But I shook my head and told myself that those apply to any other mode of transportation out there — accidents can happen at any time.

Passengers

Indeed, all of that just sounded absurd to me because I was never bothered by those thoughts before! But then at that time, I somehow started to mind it… And when the plane started go through turbulence yet again, I suddenly realized what was wrong: 1 to 3 hours of turbulence was fine — I was programmed to withstand that since childhood — but to stretch the experience for over 18 hours…?

Obviously, that stressed me out and that’s what changed me, and clearly, it suddenly triggered an irrational fear in me. After all, I wasn’t well-informed about turbulence either. I just knew that they typically happen but as I sat there for long hours, I wondered what is it really about? Does it signal danger?

Having absorbed these concerns, every fiber in my being was screaming and yearning for land; I badly wanted to get out in order to clear my thoughts but I was clearly stuck in that flying piece of metal with nowhere to go… Jittery and afraid, I didn’t know what else to do but I clearly didn’t want to inconvenience anyone (bad move of course). So for the rest of the trip, I just sat there clutching the sides of my seat until my knuckles turned white, telling my friend that I was fine, and letting myself be caged inside my own poisonous thoughts — thoughts that were forming ghastly scenarios while I slowly inched my way towards developing pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying).

When our plane finally landed, my anxiousness naturally subsided… but of course at that time, I was terribly frustrated.

I absolutely didn’t want to experience that EVER again, nor did I want to fully develop my newfound fear of flying! Besides, I had to take another flight back home after that trip. Add the fact that I had more international trips planned for the future. I made the decision to start a travel lifestyle after all because it’s my one true dream; so for sure, I’m not going to let yet another fear stop me!

That’s why starting that day, I took the steps to manage my fear so that it wouldn’t get any worse.

Now I bet that you had a different situation that triggered your fear of flying — it could definitely be something worse than mine — but I can assure you that it’s always something that you can cope with, if not overcome.

With the help of the tips below (that I have personally done and of which I have gathered from people who have also managed to get over their fear of flying), it is with my hope that you too can get over this hurdle!
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4 Steps: Cope With Your Fear of Flying

#1: Find out exactly what you’re afraid of, and then face the facts

Scared of Flying

The various types of ‘fear triggers’ are vast, some of which are: turbulence, landings, take-off, crashes, and terrorism — they can surely range from small things to big ones and it’s important as early as now to identify what’s making you fear the concept of flying. Once you do, “battle your fear with facts.” It helps to make the conscious effort of researching data that would counter the misconceptions that you may have. Example…

TURBULENCE. This was the trigger for me; to be more precise, prolonged and constant turbulence. After doing some research, I realized that my fear was unfounded.

Turbulence DOESN’T mean that the plane is going through problems or that it is going to crash: it’s simply going through a change in airflow. Hence, it’s perfectly normal and natural — much like that bump on the road that you experience while you’re out driving your car. In fact, if you ask pilots, it’s more of an ‘inconvenience’: they’re not worried about the plane going down, they’re more worried about passengers who might feel uncomfortable about it, and maybe if they are worried about something falling down, it will only be about your cups and plates. That’s all.

I can go on a long discussion about the scientific explanation for this but I think it’s best that you just read this article or simply Google about it.

As for other related occurrences that make you think that the airplane will go down, it helps to know this as well: driving and riding cars are actually more dangerous than flying. You’ve probably heard someone saying this and believe me, it’s true. Statistically speaking, you would have to take a flight every day for 123K years in a commercial plane before encountering an accident (this is according to New York Times). Yet of course, when an airplane crash does happen, we make a big deal out of it! Have you wondered why…?

Well that’s because they are SO rare.

So why are flying accidents happening more rarely as compared to driving accidents? One of the reasons would be because the ‘vehicle’ (a commercial airplane) is operated by experts — two of them at least. You might not know this but pilots spend a lot of time in school but it’s not because flying is hard to learn (I’ve been told by a pilot friend of mine that it’s not that complex to do take-off or landing) but because flight schools simply train pilots over and over again so that they can handle EVERY possible occurrence that may happen while flying an aircraft.

Overall, whatever your fear may be, Google is just a click away. Otherwise, the following resources and courses can help you manage your fear better! (There are even apps that can help you out.)

Now I know that some people can still retain their fear of flying no matter how you feed them with concrete facts and statistics (like me). Hopefully, the following tips can help to further alleviate it…

#2: Confront your fear of flying

Airport Terminal

There is a thing which psychologists call as “gradual exposure“. It’s where you expose yourself to the thing you are afraid of… bit by bit.

As an example, if the idea of flying makes you anxious right from the moment that you step foot in an airport, it’s therefore advisable that you start by hanging out in those airport terminals at first, or by volunteering to drop off your traveling friends over there until you come to acquaint yourself with the environment. Spend some time watching those planes take off and land too, so that you can slowly ease your mind with the idea of being in a plane again.

When that’s done with, proceed to the next level of confrontation: “constant exposure” — in this situation, it means that you should fly often. It’s very effective for overcoming your phobia of flying because every flight will provide you the opportunity to make the next one a lot more easier to deal with. In a way, it’s an act that will help you train not only your mind but also your body.

Now once you are on that plane…

#3: It helps to distract yourself

Noise Canceling Headphones

Your mind is powerful — but that can be a two-edged sword. It’s soooo powerful that it can easily fill your head with drastic thoughts in a nanosecond; but on the flip side, it’s also very powerful that you can make it tune out any fear. You should take advantage of this latter capability by ignoring your woes, by pretending that your anxiousness doesn’t exist, and by constantly thinking happy thoughts! You are absolutely capable of training your mind to do these.

How exactly?

  • Distract your mind by focusing it somewhere else: a movie, a book, a soundtrack (pack a noise-canceling headphone!), a game, etc. — anything that could keep you busy.
  • By picturing the destination NOT the journey. Fill your mind with wondrous thoughts of what you’ll be doing once you arrive! This will help give you feelings of anticipation instead of dread.
  • Chat with your ‘flight neighbor’ or your travel partner. One of the things that often alarms passengers other than changes in movement are the changes in sounds within the aircraft; so if you keep on yapping away (or if you distract yourself with the things listed in the first bullet) you can distract yourself from overthinking every suspicious noise that could trigger your fear of flying.

#4: Seek ‘outside’ help

Clouds

If all else fails, you can do either of these two things:

Talk to the cabin crew. Seek for their help and advice. They are trained to handle passengers and any kind of situation inflight; so if you are ever anxious, don’t be afraid to ring the bell because they can surely aid in making you feel more comfortable all throughout the flight.

Seek a professional’s help. Try formal courses that will help you get over your fear of flying (I have listed some of them in point #1)

NOTE: You can also go to your doctor to ask for a suitable medication/drug that you can use during a flight. Some people have used sleeping pills, herbal teas, etc. and it’s possible these could work best for you as well because they are proven to work most of the time. But personally, I don’t recommend medication since it could never really answer the problem; it’s rather a form of ‘escaping’ the problem. I personally don’t want to depend on it… yet of course, I understand if this might be the only way for you for now. That being said, do use medication with caution!

While we’re still on the topic of substances, if I may add, try to avoid caffeine and alcohol. For one thing, the properties of caffeine can inadvertently cause nervousness and anxiety. In every flight, it’s important to keep yourself well-hydrated and your blood sugar on check — coffee is something that won’t fulfill this goal. Therefore, it’s rather best to stick to water and juices.

Whereas for alcohol, though it helps for a short while, you should know that drinking one glass during a flight would equal to drinking nearly two because when you’re high up in the air, there is less oxygen than what you would normally breathe when on ground thereby making you more intoxicated. Additionally, you can get more motion sickness because of it and that definitely wouldn’t be pleasant at all. (Save for the fact that you might inconvenience the people around you once you start to reek of alcohol or become too tipsy).
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Overall

Fear of Flying

I still have my fear of flying BUT it only comes and goes in just a matter of seconds. I can absolutely say with confidence that I have fully come to learn how to manage my fear and not let it control me — aaaand (wait for it…) I bet you could too!

Like what I’ve said, I don’t think you would let this kind of fear stop you from seeing the rest of the world (take note that sea and land transportation won’t bring you fast to a lot of far-flung places).

Besides, you’ll be surprised at how most of your fears are actually irrational to the very core. So again, with the help of these tips, I dearly hope that you’ll soon be flying again fear-free!

How about you?

  • Do you celebrate Halloween?
  • What are you going to do for this year’s Halloween?
  • Have you ever made jack-o’-lanterns before? What did you make?

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33 comments

  1. Great post Aileen!

    Some other things to consider:

    1. The air is really thick

    You can test this for yourself by sticking your hand out the window of your car the next time you go for a drive (Seriously, you should really do this).When you are going slow, you can hardly feel the air, but when you are going fast, the air pushes on your hand and you can hardly keep it on one place. Now if the air feels that thick at 40 or 50 miles per hour, just think how thick it must feel at 10 times that speed, which is how fast planes fly

    2. Your plane is not going to "drop from the sky" during turbulence

    When you think of a plane flying do you see it as being held up a string, like a toy hanging from the ceiling of a child's bedroom?

    Ok. In reality, that’s not how it works

    Remember sticking your hand out the window of your car? The plane is inside that "thick" air, which is supporting it from underneath, just like a submarine is supported by water.

    So hitting some churned up air in your plane is just the same as a submarine going into some choppy water. Sailors inside may get bumped around a little but the submarines not going to drop to the ocean floor, because it is held up by the water around it. Same thing for a plane. Passengers get jostled but the plane itself is held up by the thick air all around it

    Reply
    1. Hey Gavin! Thanks, and much thanks as well for your analogies here. Much like what you've explained, these are things that I have already learned after doing extensive research about how planes fly. But of course, when I'm there in my seat, often times the anxiety just creeps in no matter how many facts I already know... Again, it's really an "irrational" fear — so in a way, I still do the tips I mentioned above: mental control, distractions, and constant exposure to slowly ease me more into the experience. I think that's all that's left to do since facts didn't seem to make me calmer ;) haha and so far it's going great.

      I've been on more flights lately and I can say that it's getting better. Thanks again, Gavin!

      Reply
  2. Oh my gosh thank you so much for this post! Living in Singapore I travel a lot to Europe and America so I often have to take loooong flights and as I already struggle with anxiety issues in my everyday life, flying makes it unbearable! I'll be going to University in England at the end of this year which means that I'll have fly long hours to go back to Singapore or Japan... But even if I try to distract myself I end up not paying attention to the movie or book but shivering and sweating in fear instead! Sometimes I even start crying but I try to hide it from my friends or parents because I'm to embarassed to admit I have flight anxiety My next flight is in ten days and it's going to be 14 hours long so fingers crossed I can cope better this time plus I'm seeing my favourite rock band live in Paris so I'm quite motivated haha! Again, thank you so so much Aileen! x

    Reply
    1. Ah, we are almost the same, Mitsuko! I still have my fear but at least, I know now how to better cope with my anxiety. So I dearly hope this helps you as well! You're off to great destinations so it will help too to visualize those in order to get through the flight. There are lots of things you can do too as mentioned above — overall, I hope for the best with you! Enjoy your adventures! <3

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  3. I am happy to here that i am not the only travel blogger with this. I arrived in the Philippines 4 days ago after 3 panic attacks leading up to the flight. I have stressed myself out so much i am now really sick and exhausted and have spent my whole time in manila so far either in bed or at the hospital getting tests. I tried hypnotherapy last year but it didn't have a lasting effect. I will keep trying because my fear is physically crippling me.

    Reply
    1. Oh my, I'm sorry to hear that!! I hope you're doing better now, if not get better with those tests. It can really be a pain, that's for sure! Try the courses as well I've mentioned above like SOAR since a friend of mine who had it worse than I did loved it and worked for her. I wish you all the best Donna!

      Reply
  4. I travel three times a year, yet I go through hell every time I board a plane. It actually gets worse the more I travel! I've tried sleeping pills and over-the-counter anxiety medications, but to no avail. I think I 'll be looking at the courses you listed in this post - they might help! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    1. Aww I'm so sorry to hear that Daniela :( I dearly hope one of the courses above will help you. SORA so far is the highly-rated one!

      Reply
  5. I don't have a fear of flying but I have trouble with being in a confined space with a lot of people. It really puts me off flying, it doesn't stop me but I don't enjoy it. I actually used to love flying but I think just the general level of manners on board, especially on budget flights, is so gross now.

    I do find noise cancelling headphones help and having a little cocoon around me.

    Reply
  6. Thanks for the tips, Aileen! I used to take long haul flights from London to Mexico three times a year with no problem, yet in the last few years i've gotten increasingly nervous about taking flights... I think it comes down to reading the news more! But the statistics are a great way to remember how rare plane crashes actually are - I guess for a lot of people it's the fear of the unknown.

    I find when I can coax my mind off thinking scary thoughts, I actually really enjoy the flying experience, but it just takes a bit of training!

    Reply
    1. Yeah, true, the media can really heighten anyone's phobia about it; but plane crashes are unfortunate instances that are really are just rare. I'm glad that the method of controlling your thoughts works — it works for me too, as well as imagining how lovely my destination will be :D

      Reply
  7. I don't have any problems flying - I actually kind of enjoy it. My friend however, and travel buddy, is absolutely terrified! The least bit of turbulence and you have to scrape her off the ceiling, or brace for a broken hand....I'll have to share this with her.

    Reply
    1. Your buddy sounds like me years ago ;) I dearly hope this article helps her! Let me know.

      Reply

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