How science and psychology helped me overcome my fear of flying

Mar 19, 2021

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I’ve been privileged to travel the world from a very young age.

But for most of my life, I was a fearful flyer who quietly panicked every time I boarded a plane. At takeoff and landing, I’d mentally recount every statistic I knew regarding aircraft safety. I’d grip my armrests at the slightest hint of mid-air movement. And turbulence would spike my adrenaline sky-high, leaving me hyperventilating for minutes.

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In recent years, however, my flight anxiety has melted away. These days, I easily fall asleep on flights. Severe turbulence barely rattles me. And I can’t remember the last time my knuckles turned white around an airplane armrest.

Here’s what I’ve learned about planes and psychology that helped me overcome my fear of flying.

In This Post

The science behind aviophobia

Photo by leungchopan/Shutterstock

Commercial aviation has completely revolutionized the world as we know it. Because of air travel, we are able to conduct international business, see loved ones abroad and experience new cultures. Yet the importance of air travel does not necessarily negate the fear of flying.

“We are land animals,” said Dr. Patricia Furness-Smith, a psychologist who specializes in treating travel-related phobias. She’s also a permanent team member of British Airways’ “Flying with Confidence” course and said, “We are not fundamentally designed for flight.”

Studies show that approximately 40% of the general population experience some degree of aviophobia, an anxiety disorder associated with fear of flying. And an estimated 2.5% to 6.5% of those fearful flyers qualify for a clinical diagnosis of the phobia.

When we experience fear, Furness-Smith explained, the survival-wired part of the brain takes over, largely ignoring the more rational cortex. Addressing flight phobia can be complex because the root fear may vary from person to person.

It may surprise you to learn that safety concerns aren’t always the problem. In many cases, “people have absolutely no concerns about the safety of flying but are oppressed by other worries,” said Furness-Smith, who has presented British Airways’ “Flying with Confidence” courses for more than 20 years.

Rational and irrational fears

TPG’s Facebook group members recently shared the reasons behind their mid-air anxiety. The top-scoring stressor was the lack of control, while the fear of death or injury ranked second. Third on the list was a fear of germs, which no doubt has spiked during the coronavirus pandemic.

TPG Lounge Facebook group members share the reasons behind their fear of flying. Screenshot courtesy of TPG.

“All fears of flying are real fears; they just aren’t [always] rational ones,” said Sarah Osmer, a licensed professional counselor who focuses on addressing anxiety and trauma. “As someone who has a fear of flying [myself], flying can be a really uncomfortable experience. Acknowledgment of the discomfort is important.”

When it comes to flying, some fears are based on real threats including disease and illness.

While experts say your chances of contracting COVID-19 on a plane are very low, you’re inherently more likely to be exposed to the disease if you leave your home.

If you suffer from severe motion sickness, there’s a real possibility that you could experience discomfort on your next flight.

On the other hand, some fears are not based on realistic threats, and worrying about a plane crash is one of those irrational fears.

The statistics behind Airline safety

JetBlue flight lands at St Martin Airport (SXM) Jan. 2017. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

If your primary flight fear has to do with a plane crash or failure, the facts below may help soothe your nerves.

Despite what headlines may suggest, plane travel is unbelievably safe compared to everyday life on the ground. In fact, the open skies were “the safest place” for President George W. Bush immediately following the 9/11 attacks, according to journalist Garrett M. Graff.

In both the United States as well as the United Kingdom, air travel is thousands of times safer than the most dangerous form of transportation: motorcycles.

The world’s leading causes of death overwhelmingly stem from medical issues. Aircraft fatalities are nowhere to be found on the top causes list.

“Flying has gotten safer and safer” through the years, said Arnold Barnett, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management who has studied commercial flight safety for more than 40 years. “The risk is so low that being afraid to fly is a little like being afraid to go into the supermarket because the ceiling might collapse.”

Barnett’s research found that the lowest-risk countries for aviation fatalities over the past decade include the U.S., the members of the European Union, China, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel. The aggregate fatality risk among those nations is one death per 33.1 million passenger boardings compared to the average fatality rate of one death per 7.9 million passenger boardings worldwide.

“The pace of [aviation technology] improvement has not slackened at all, even as flying has gotten ever safer and further gains become harder to achieve,” Barnett said. “That is really quite impressive, and is important for people to bear in mind.”

Related: How the big U.S. airlines had an unprecedented safety streak

But as a former fearful flyer himself, Barnett understands where fearful travelers are coming from. Barnett said that while instinctive fears are quite natural, he hopes his research on aircraft safety can help put fearful people at ease.

That being said, Barnett added an important caveat and rational concern regarding travel safety in the age of coronavirus.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the possibility that a contagious passenger infects others on the flight, who might in turn affect still others after the flight,” he told TPG. “For that reason, flying in 2020 may well have been less safe than that in 2019. The hope is that 2021 will see the end of the pandemic and the restoration of the marvelous record that prevailed earlier.”

From fear to fun: 8 tips for enjoying your next flight

If you’re a fearful flyer, the facts for your head we spelled out above may still not help your body feel better. Here are eight practical ways to prepare yourself for your first flight without fear.

Avoid sensational media

(Photo by skynesher / Getty Images)

If you know you’re an anxious flyer, avoid movies, TV shows and news headlines that have to do with plane crashes. Social media is particularly untrustworthy these days as well. What everyday travelers may consider a crisis could be nothing more than routine turbulence or a situation that pilots and flight crew train for on a consistent basis.

Speak to a professional

You may be in picture-perfect health outside of a plane, but you don’t need to struggle with your on-board anxiety alone. Plan ahead before your next flight — depending on your personal needs, a medical provider or wellness coach could make a world of difference for you.

  • Your primary care doctor may be able to identify underlying health issues that can impact your flying experience, such as asthma.
  • Your therapist can help you process emotions or triggers that may arise from flying, and teach you techniques for managing anxiety.
  • Your psychiatrist can prescribe medication for you to use as needed.

Note that, even outside of COVID-19, there are some medical risks to be aware of when flying. While your chances of getting a blood clot while flying are low, it’s always good to familiarize yourself with the symptoms, and remember to move around while on board a long-haul flight.

Meditation and controlled breathing

Photo by Dasha Petrenko/Shutterstock

Psychotherapist and self-acknowledged fearful flyer Sarah Osmer leans on a series of guided meditations to help herself through every flight. One of the meditations teaches slow, deliberate breathing that soothes the body from its panicked state.

“Our breath quickens to prepare us to react to danger, so slowing our breath down helps us feel safer,” Osmer told TPG. “Our bodies respond to fear and then our minds, in turn, respond to our bodies. If you can manipulate your body’s response, you can also help to manipulate your mental response.”

Understand the mechanics of flight

For some travelers including myself, the more you learn about flying the better.

In addition to her meditation practice, Osmer researched the physics of flying to calm her nerves in flight. “It was important for me to understand some of the logistics of flying,” she said. “Basically, it’s nearly impossible for the plane to crash. Knowing this helped me a lot.”

If you enjoy learning in a classroom study, one airline might be able to help you out. Since 1986, as reference above, British Airways has offered a course called “Flying with Confidence” that has helped more than 50,000 travelers overcome their aviophobia.

“The course was conceived by British Airways pilots who were keen to give nervous flyers a trusted and familiar course to overcome their fear,” a spokesperson for British Airways told TPG. “[The course] has helped newlyweds go on their dream honeymoon, supported couples in long distance relationships, assisted family reunions as well as new jobs and opportunities overseas. The course even helped a former WWII pilot gain the confidence to return to the skies after many years of avoiding flying.”

Related: Everything you need to know about British Airways

The morning session of the one-day course is taught by British Airways pilots and psychology experts who explain the technical challenges and teach anxiety management techniques. In the afternoon, students board an actual flight with a dedicated British Airways A320 short-haul aircraft and crew, where an extra pilot on the aircraft provides a running commentary on everything that’s happening in-air.

The course boasts a 98% success rate, and course leaders claim that there is “no level of fear that they can’t help, cure or resolve.”

“As pilots, we love flying, and want everyone to share that feeling of limitless opportunity and adventure that only air travel can really deliver,” said British Airways Captain Steve Allright, who has been involved in the course since 1992 and continues to lead it today. “We’ve had so many incredibly heart-warming stories, but what they all have in common is that we’re helping to connect people, and that definitely makes it all worthwhile.”

While COVID-19 has halted BA’s in-person courses for the time being, the airline has opened up its course for digital learning for the first time.

Outside of British Airways, a number of other organizations offer free and paid courses for overcoming flight anxiety. Flight support organization SOAR has offered a number of courses since 1982, with a sounding endorsement from one blogger at Women on the Road. Meanwhile, Captain Stacey Chance offers both free online lessons as well as paid in-person lessons.

Pick the right aircraft and plane seat

Photo by Shutterstock.com

No plane can guarantee you a turbulence-free flight. But some are better than others when it comes to a smooth ride. So if you’re worried about that shaky feeling in mid-air, seek out larger aircraft as a rule of thumb. (Not sure what plane you’ll be on? Read our expert’s guide here.)

Related: 7 tips for picking the right airplane seat every time

Unfortunately, many of the world’s largest planes are no longer flying during COVID, including the few remaining Boeing 747s as well as many of TPG’s favorites, the Airbus A380. But the advice still holds true for the most part: You’re way more likely to feel every little bump in the sky in a tiny commuter aircraft.

A good seat also makes a world of difference for your travel experience, especially if your anxiety stems from claustrophobia or similar concerns. If you hate feeling trapped, a window seat in a single-aisle plane may not be a good choice for you. But if you’re worried about germs, sitting in an aisle seat will naturally expose you to people walking up and down an aisle.

Related: How to pick the best seat in economy

Of course, you’ll have plenty of room to yourself if you move up to the premium cabins. Take a look at our guide to the best cabins in the sky.

Dress comfortably

It’s hard to relax when you’re wearing several layers of stiff clothing.  Skip tight or buttoned clothing, dress in comfortable layers to accommodate changes in cabin temperature, and wear comfortable shoes for your flight.

You don’t have to sacrifice professionalism for comfort, either: A number of companies now offer athleisure wear for both men and women that easily passes for business casual attire.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or reassurance

Photo by Milkovasa/Shutterstock

If you need help, ask for it. Furness-Smith encourages anxious travelers to let their cabin crew know if they are afraid of flying. “Any respectable airline will have trained its staff to do all that they can to ensure that the customers’ needs are met,” she said. “This will enable the crew to offer you the extra attention and reassurance that you need.”

TPG Lounge member Todd Kagler once observed this reassurance in action when a fellow traveler told a flight attendant she was afraid of flying and asked if she could speak to the pilots.

“I was really happy at how much they reviewed the weather and the smooth ride expected,” Kagler said in the TPG Lounge. “They discussed the route and how long they had been flying. The flight attendants also said they would check in on her a couple of times. It was great they cared as much as they did.”

Psychiatrist Elizabeth Truong also advises that anxious travelers to speak up for support. “Telling others of your fear is hard to do, but sometimes your travel companion or the flight attendant can help reassure you that you’re safe,” she told TPG. They can “be a sounding board, remind you of the low likelihood that something bad will happen, or just be able to acknowledge that what you experience is common and it’s OK. You’ll get through it together.”

Figure out what works for you

(Photo by AstroStar/Shutterstock)

My personal anxiety revolves around a fear of falling. I’ve noticed that I’m less anxious when I can control how I experience turbulence from bumpy air.

I specifically dislike the sensation of falling backwards when I’m strapped in my seat for takeoff or during turbulence. To counteract this feeling, I’ve learned to lean slightly forward toward the seat in front of me during bumpy moments so that I feel more like I’m falling downward instead of backwards.

On flights where I’m lucky enough to have an entire row to myself, I have also found that turbulence is less frightening if I lie down and strap myself into the middle seatbelt.

And if you, like me, also like to morbidly research every worst-case scenario, there are some interesting reads on Quora on how to survive a plane crash.

Bottom line

There will always be an element of risk in anything you do — flying included. But your fears don’t have to hold you back from living your best life. Hopefully these tips will help you sit back, relax and enjoy your next flight.

Featured photo by Getty Images

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