Coping with your Fear of Flying
By Mary Renner
You have enough on your mind before setting off on your adventure, and the last thing you want to deal with is flight anxiety. Still, fear of flying is an unfortunate reality for approximately one out of every four people.
Fear of flying stems from various underlying causes and it’s symptoms differ from person to person. For some, flying is unpleasant but manageable, while for others the fear is so intense that flying is avoided altogether.
But regardless of why we’re afraid or how much it affects us, the good news is that with some commitment and the right strategies, it’s entirely possible to overcome this fear.
Below I’ll share with you 3 common causes of flight anxiety and a practical technique to combat each.
Belief that Flying is Dangerous
While plane accidents are extremely rare, when they do happen, they are widely broadcasted; The graphic images of plane crashes can stay fresh and clear in our minds, and consequently trick us into thinking that flying is a dangerous activity.
The truth, however, is that even though it may feel unnatural to be 30,000 feet in the air, traveling at the speed of 700 miles/hour, flying on a commercial airline is one of the safest things you can do.
We know this by looking at the safety statistics for commercial flying:
- Each year there are around 35 million successful flights, transporting 3.5 billion passengers.
- In 2017 there were no commercial jet fatalities in the world.
- There have not been any fatalities on a US airline in the past 9 years.
- Your odds of dying in a car accident are around 1 in 5,000. Whereas the odds of dying in a plane crash are about 1 in 16,000,000.
Currently, commercial flying is the safest mode of transportation as it’s safer than traveling by car, bus, train, motorcycle, and ferry.
The following strategy will help you to challenge the incorrect belief that flying is dangerous:
Caption: Flight Radar 24 can be downloaded as a mobile app or viewed on desktop.
Strategy: Log on to Flight Radar 24
This strategy helps you internalize that flying is safe by giving you perspective on the high volume of flights that are taking place in the world all the time.
Flight Radar 24 is a free tool that visually displays all the planes that are up in the sky at any given second. At the time of writing this article, there were 12,679 planes in the air!
The visual of the thousands of planes en route, any given second, makes it easier for your mind to accept that flying is safe. Because if flying really was dangerous, then we would expect there to be hundreds of plane crashes daily.
In the weeks leading up to your flight, spend time checking out the Flight Radar 24 website or app to reduce flight anxiety. It’s also a good idea to do this right before your flight, in case you have any last-minute pre-flight jitters.
Inability to Let Go of Control
For many fearful flyers, the feeling of not being in control is what triggers flight anxiety.
To feel safe as a passenger you need to be comfortable in letting go of control. You need to mentally trust that your pilot is competent.
An effective way of establishing this needed trust is to meet the pilot before your flight. Commercial airline pilots are amongst the most experienced and qualified professionals in any field, and by personally meeting them, we’re able to build confidence in their knowledge and expertise. Talking to the pilot also allows us to see that their interests are completely aligned with ours – which is getting to the destination safely.
Having a mental image of the pilot also continues to reassure us during the flight. Anytime we start to feel anxious, we can just picture the pilot in the cockpit, in full control, and know that he or she is on top of everything.
Strategy: Meet the Pilot
To coordinate a meeting with the pilot follow these steps:
- Write 2 letters: The first letter is for the gate agent in the boarding area to request permission for early boarding. The other is for the pilot, to explain that you’re an anxious flyer and are currently trying to overcome your fear. In the latter, ask if you’re able to visit the cockpit when you board.
- Arrive at the boarding gate early. Give the first note to the gate agent or simply tell them that you’re an anxious flyer and that you’re working to overcome your fear, and that it will be a big help if you’re able to meet the pilot before the flight. Ask for permission to board early.
- As soon as pre-boarding announcements begin, get on the plane. Ideally, you’ll want to be one of the first, if not the first on the plane. Then, give one of the flight attendants your letter for the pilot, and wait for them to call you up. Remember, flight attendants will only give your letter to the pilot if you’re on the plane during at the beginning of the pre-boarding process.
- Pilots are usually more than glad to meet with nervous flyers. And don’t worry about interrupting them, pilots complete all of their initial checks prior to boarding. When you chat with him or her, ask about the destination weather, and if there will be any expected turbulence. You can also ask if he or she would be able to make extra announcements about what’s happening during the flight.
When a trigger such as turbulence or an unfamiliar noise causes you to panic on a flight, your mind can go into a state of frenzy, and you may find yourself consumed with all the things that could go wrong.
In this state, we can have difficulty differentiating between what is imaginary and what is real. As a result, we can start believing all the exaggerated fearful thoughts that pop up in our mind. Breaking away from these anxious thinking patterns is essential in overcoming flight anxiety.
Use this mindfulness strategy to calm your racing mind, by shifting attention away from scary thoughts to non-threatening stimuli in your environment:
Strategy: Five Senses Grounding Exercise
To do this exercise sit or recline comfortably, and take a moment to bring your full attention to each one of your senses:
- Seeing: Scan your environment and bring your attention to 5 things that you can see. Try to notice things that you don’t normally pay attention to like the details of the seat in front of you.
- Feeling: Focus on 4 sensations that you are currently feeling like the texture of your shirt, the temperature in the air or the pressure on your feet from the floor.
- Hearing: Listen to your environment and note 3 sounds that you can hear such as the hum of the air conditioner, or the distant chatter.
- Smelling: Notice 2 things that you can smell right now that you usually filter out. These scents can be subtle like the lingering smell of cleaning products or the plastic aroma of the seat cushions
- Tasting: Focus on 1 thing that you can taste right now. If you have water or a drink by you-you can take a sip – or just notice the taste in your mouth.
Mary Renner is an ex-fearful flyer turned flight attendant who currently helps fearful flyers overcome their flight anxiety. She blogs on all topics related to fear of flying on her website www.FlyConfidently.com. She’s from Vancouver, B.C. Canada.