Rebecca Stone, LMHC
Managing and Reducing Flight Anxiety
There are an estimated 25 million people in the U.S. who experience some degree of fear of flying. While it's a very common experience, it can often feel like we're the only one on the flight who feels scared or even terrified. You are definitely not alone!
There are many ways to cope with and reduce anxiety and fears related to flying. Below are some helpful tips to prepare for your flight, manage flying anxiety, and cope with anxious thoughts and feelings, as well as a list of things to pack to create your very own Flying Anxiety Coping Kit.
Weeks Before Flying
Learn about the magic of flight (and the noises) – Before flying, learn about how planes fly, what you might experience during takeoff and landing, what sounds you might hear while flying, what turbulence really is (encountering air currents or clouds), and so on. Understanding flying or even having awe for how neat flying really is can help reduce fear. Yes, you might hear the engines, flaps, landing gear, etc. Understanding what some of those sounds are and how everything works can help you stay more present and grounded and quell of “What was that? Is that normal?” types of worries.
Research flying statistics – IF you think this would be helpful (and not counterproductive), you can also do some research ahead of time and have some facts and stats ready to challenge those worst-case-scenario thoughts. The chances of a catastrophe happening are really slim, but our brains would like to tell us otherwise. When we get in that fearful, worst-case state, it’s hard for our brains to consider how slim of a chance that is unless we prepare in advance when we’re thinking logically. Having that logical information at-hand can be helpful in reducing those fears. The fear of flying is a feeling, not a fact, so reminding yourself of the facts can help.
Take perspective – Flight anxiety is not typically only the fear of flying; it most often includes or is truly about other fears or discomforts. Often, the anxiety is about lack of control, fear of the unknown, claustrophobia, or worrying about the worst-case scenarios. Being able to recognize the underlying fears can help us re-label the anxiety from that of “flight anxiety” to lack of control, safety concerns, etc. and manage them more effectively.
Speak with your therapist – Discussing your fears and concerns around flying, processing your past experiences with flying (if any), and creating a coping plan for flying will help you feel more prepared for your next flight.
Speak with your doctor – Talking with your doctor in advance about your anxiety with upcoming flights can be helpful. Your doctor may suggest that you have or take supplements or medications or that can help ease your stress or worries or allow you to rest/sleep on the plane. Even if you end up not taking them, it can sometimes be reassuring to know that you have them with you just in case.
Preparing for your Trip
Don’t wait till the last minute – Waiting until the last minute to book things, choose your preferred seating (if available), prepare for your flight, pack, and so on will increase the anxiety and the possibilities of forgetting something important. Preparing a bit in advance can help assure you that you have time to consider what you need, prepare your documents, make any necessary arrangements/reservations, and recognize and address any other must-do or must-pack items before it becomes a problem.
Bring a travel folder – Have your boarding passes (if possible), reservation confirmations, destination addresses, etc. printed out in advance. Have your ID, passport, or other identification documents ready. Keep all of these documents and items in a folder that you carry with you in your personal item/carry-on bag. Being prepared with everything you need in one place can help reduce the frenzy when traveling, reduce the chances of misplacing/losing something important, and also help reassure you that you know where you’re going and that you have your confirmations in the event that your phone battery dies, you don’t have network connection, or similar before you reach your destination.
Create a flying routine – Having a routine can be helpful in gaining a sense of control, bringing comfort, and reducing worries. You may choose to pack your bags in a certain way, wear a particular comforting outfit for traveling, get a certain snack at the airport, and so on.
During The Flight
Tell your flight attendant and travel companions – If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to alert the flight crew in the event that you’re needing some support, reassurance, or perhaps an additional drink or snack. If you’re traveling with an experienced traveler, like a friend or family member who feels comfortable flying, it can be helpful to talk with them about your concerns, ask questions about flying, and ask for what you need from them (like help with distractions) for support.
Embrace safety and challenge thoughts – Paying attention to the flight safety instructions, exits, and information in your seat-back safety pamphlets can help ease your mind about what to do in those “what if” situations. Review the flying facts and stats you researched (if you chose to) to challenge those “what if” thoughts and fears with thoughts that are grounded in fact and logic.
Breathe – When we feel anxious, we tend to breathe shallowly which only furthers our feeling of anxiety. Taking time to focus on taking slow, deep breaths can help you regain control over your breathing, reduce physical tension, and relax.
Soothe yourself – Bring a comfort item, fidget items/toys/jewelry, use a soothing scent (but, please, be aware that strong scents may bother other people) and/or listen to relaxing meditations. Actively use coping skills and thought challenging techniques can help you soothe your thoughts, emotions, and physical experience of anxiety.
Limit over-stimulation – Sitting in close quarters, hearing flight noises, and coping with discomforts can become overwhelming for our brains and emotions. Use items to limit over-stimulation, such as headphones/ear buds and eye masks can help minimize the amount of stimuli we take in and cope with during a flight.
Have distractions – Redirecting your attention to things that you enjoy is quite helpful. Listen to music or podcasts, read books or magazines, watch TV shows or movies, play games or do puzzles – there are so many possibilities to have helpful distractions during your flight.
Bring medications – Sometimes our anxiety can create stomach upset, or -if you’re like me- you might get motion sickness. Sometimes stress and the air pressure can cause headaches as well. Having your normal over-the-counter (or prescription medications) with you can help assure you that you’ve got ways to reduce or manage any physical symptoms that arise.
Have water and snacks – Drinking water can be soothing and help combat dehydration, and snacks can be comfort food items and/or help avoid or soothe upset stomachs. Additionally, having water and snacks with you may be important if you need to take any medications.
Skip caffeine and alcohol/substances – If you’re feeling anxious, hopping up on caffeine will likely only amplify the physical feelings of anxiety and will also reduce the chances of relaxing or sleeping on your flight. Additionally, alcohol and other substances can affect your ability to think clearly or soothe yourself, as well as to make it harder for your body to adjust in-flight, possibly cause physical illness symptoms, and/or create additional jetlag or hangovers at your destination.
Keep your “eye on the prize” – Bring a photo of your destination or something/someone you’re looking forward to seeing at your destination. If you’re traveling for a reason you’re not looking forward to, you can also imagine a safe place that you feel comfortable and secure. Close your eyes and imagine that place in as much detail as possible and that can help reduce anxiety.
Focus on awe – Looking out the window and seeing landmark items, clouds gently whisking by, and awe-inspiring sights can be serene if you allow yourself to take them in. Awe is an emotion that generally brings us a sense of peace of joy. Finding moments that allow you to feel awestruck can help offset feelings of nervousness or discomfort.
[Scroll down for a Flying Anxiety Coping Kit list!]
Flying Anxiety Coping Kit
Pack these items (and more) in your personal item/carry-on bag so you have them readily available when you need them:
Travel folder with your important documents and confirmations
Mints or gum (can soothe anxiety, upset stomach, and give you something to focus on)
OTC medications and Rx medications
Travel size hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and/or mask(s)
Electronics (phone, games, e-reader, tablet, laptop),
Backup battery pack/portable battery charger,
Games (cards, puzzles),
TV or movies (downloaded in advance),
Music or meditations (downloaded in advance)
Soothing jewelry, scents, or fidget toys
Image of a comfortable safe place or an image of your destination or something you’re looking forward to seeing/doing
Instant or reusable cooling cloth or wrap for your neck, chest, wrists, or face
List of coping skills and/or therapeutic techniques
Wishing you safe and enjoyable traveling!