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7 tips for overcoming a fear of flying

Sept. 07, 2022
8 min read
Cropped image of young woman holding passport and suitcase walking in the international airport hall
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It’s almost time to head to the airport, which means I’m likely facedown in a toilet after spending the night fitfully tossing and turning instead of sleeping. After pulling myself together, I check to ensure I have my most important items — phone, passport and medication — before shakily making my way to my flight, hoping for the sake of my driver that the vomiting stage of anxiety-induced nausea has passed.

For many years, this is how my flight anxiety manifested. Already suffering from a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder in ideal circumstances, the enclosed space of airplanes triggered every fear I had about lack of control. To travel, I relied on a growing dosage of Klonopin, a sedative that caused me amnesia to the point where, to this day, I cannot remember getting to or from various places around the world.

People are shocked to learn that I pursued travel journalism as a career when flying caused me this much grief — but if you want to see the world, then facing your fears will come up one way or another, whether you are a woman traveling alone or there are spiders in your rainforest ecolodge. In the same way that I didn’t let arachnophobia keep me from exploring the jungle, I did not allow the fear of flying to keep me from writing about travel for a living.

So I endured it. I coped. I traveled by boat and train whenever I could (which I highly recommend, even if flying is your jam).

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Then, providentially, I overcame my flight anxiety in the process of managing it. I started looking forward to flights instead of dreading them, and I could fly unmedicated with increasing frequency. I’m proof that recovery is possible — but also that doing so is highly personalized.

“The most effective therapies involve a thorough assessment to understand and address each person’s difficulties, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Charlotte Russell, a clinical psychologist and founder of The Travel Psychologist project.

It may seem overwhelming to face your fear and daunting to commit to therapeutic practices, but the work can be worth the effort.

“Travel can benefit us quite significantly in terms of our well-being and personal growth,” Russell says, “so if you are willing to put the work in to overcome your fear, it will be worthwhile.”

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I used a number of flight anxiety management techniques to ultimately recover from my fear of flying, but know that my approach may not be the right strategy for you. Still, you may find that some (if not all) of these methods help you get past your fear or better manage your symptoms.

Understand how planes work

A turning point in my flight anxiety was when I downloaded the SkyGuru app, which contextualizes the sounds and movements planes make. You input your flight and it answers all the fearful questions that arise when a plane does something scary. For example, the loud noise and shuddering after takeoff are just the sounds involved with placing the landing gear back inside the plane.

With the help of the SkyGuru app, I quickly found myself eager to learn more about the world of aviation. I started watching videos of Boeing planes getting stress tested, and I read everything I could about the nature of turbulence. The latter helped me realize that plane turbulence is a lot like a boat on the waves of the ocean — we just can’t see the waves.

By turning to technology and doing your homework, you'll gain a better understanding of how planes work, which went a long way toward helping demystify them for me. Becoming a student of aviation can help you fall in love with flight and become less fearful of it.

Related: 28 essential travel apps every traveler needs

Go to therapy

In my case, flight anxiety was tied to my other existing anxiety disorders. Therapy isn’t always the singular solution to issues of brain chemistry, but it helped me work through fearing what I could not control, the main cause of my flight anxiety.

However, feeling out of control is only one root contributor to flight anxiety.

“People may (also) be fearful of their own anxiety, body sensations and how they will cope,” Dr. Russell says. “The fear of being confined and not being able to move around are also big factors. Working with a therapist to understand your own difficulties and how to address these specifically is really important.”

Related: How science and psychology helped me overcome my fear of flying

Build a comforting flight routine

Anxieties can compound each other, so if you reduce stress in other areas, you may find flights to be less scary.

For me, the fear of what could happen leading up to the flight was adding to my fear while in the air. So, I now pack well before I need to for trips, take a sleeping pill the night before my flight so I can get a good night’s sleep and do everything I can to be at the airport early enough to deal with any hiccups.

If you've earned elite status on an airline, also consider building in time to visit an airport lounge. I find that they're an excellent place to relax and help me remove some parts of the chaos I previously felt at airports.

Related: 15 packing hacks for traveling with just a carry-on

Learn breathing and meditation techniques

Meditation has changed my life in so many ways, and overcoming flight anxiety is one of them.

I started by listening to guided meditations on apps like Calm and Insight Timer, both as my anxiety arose on flights and at home on a regular basis. I also researched and practiced various breathing techniques that could help pull my body out of the physiological panic response.

The key to adjusting how you process your fear is to build a practice so that if anxiety rears its head in the sky, you’re ready to take it on.

Related: What to do when your ears won't pop on a plane

Take your prescribed medications

There is absolutely nothing wrong with needing medication to correct a brain behaving badly. My diagnoses are real and medication helps me manage them.

Although I no longer require anxiety medication to fly, I still keep my prescription with me on every flight. Knowing it’s there and that I can take it any time I need it helps me feel better.

Of course, navigating the medical system to get a prescription for protected drugs is its own challenge, but if you can get the medication you need, definitely do so.

Related: Everything you need to know about traveling with medication

Remove flight anxiety from your identity

I wasn’t always an anxious flyer. I remember the few times I was privileged enough to get on airplanes as a kid and teen as periods of sheer exhilaration. So, I tried to uncouple flight anxiety from my self-identity, reframing it as a momentary emotion rather than a core part of who I am as a person.

In making flight anxiety exist separately from my sense of self, I became less attached to it. Russell agrees that this is an important consideration and something therapy can address.

“It is always useful to view fears and phobias as conditions that have developed and can be treated, rather than being something that is part of us or unchangeable,” she says.

Related: Take it from your pilot: A fear of flying is more common than you think

Be kind to yourself

“Flying is an unusual situation in many ways; there are not many situations where we are confined for such a long period and where the processes are quite rigid and authoritative,” Russell says.

So, remember to give yourself some grace.

“Feelings of anxiety are uncomfortable, but these feelings do pass. The important thing is preparing yourself and having techniques to manage the discomfort,” Russell says.

Flying and seeing the world is an incredible privilege, but that doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable. Congratulate yourself for taking the step to travel despite whatever challenges have stood in your way, including flight anxiety.

Related: Feeling anxious about your first trip? Try these 6 expert hacks

Featured image by D3SIGN/GETTY IMAGES
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.