Fear of Flying: Turbulence

Community Member

Recently I have had the opportunity to come face to face with one of my phobias. I am terrified of flying yet I had planned a trip where I would be travelling by plane three times within a one week. I really thought long about it before I booked my flights. I have opted for going by train as an alternative in the past but it takes much longer and I didn't want to miss out on valuable time with my family. I internally chastised myself with an inner voice that said, "You are a big girl. You are going to get on the plane and it is going to be fine." But my other scaredy-cat voice chimed in, "Are you nuts? Three plane rides? Don't do this" In the end, logic and a desire to get to my destination quickly, won the argument between my competing inner voices. I went ahead and scheduled the flights.

One of the difficulties in explaining a phobia of plane travel to others is that most people don't get what the fear is about. They assume you are afraid of dying which is only part of the fear. One of the common things people say in response to your fear, in order to make you feel better, is that you stand a much better chance of dying in a car accident than up there in an airplane. I am sorry but this factoid doesn't help me one bit! Yes of course I am afraid of dying but more so I am afraid of heights, the speed of the airplane, and the physical sensation of flying. I can't stand the feeling of take off, being in the air, and the landing. So basically this covers all parts of the ride. In addition, turbulence is my main fear factor up there. The main reason why I stopped any travel by plane for about a decade was that I had experienced a very turbulent plane ride coming home from a vacation in Florida. We hit some bad weather and somewhere during that hellish flight I vowed, "Never again." It took some years before I could gain enough courage to fly again but always in the back of my mind was that fear that I would experience another turbulent flight.

Well guess what? This time around I did get to experience turbulence once again. Not fun. But I did learn some things to help that I would like to share with you.

  • It helps to understand that turbulence rarely causes any danger to passengers.

Turbulence can feel very frightening but it seldom poses any real threat to your safety. Turbulence is the bumping and shaking you feel due to fluctuations in air currents. Turbulence is usually associated with flying through storm areas but it can also occur in clear weather. Pilots are trained to deal with turbulence and to avoid it as best as they can. It may feel as though the plane could break apart at any moment but rest assured that airplanes are built to withstand all sorts of weather and subsequent turbulence. It seems that most injuries due to turbulence occur because a passenger is not wearing their seatbelt. Always make sure to obey the signs telling you when to keep your seatbelt fastened and also the verbal warnings from air stewards and stewardesses.

  • There are websites to tell you when and where to expect turbulence.

If you are worried about having a turbulent flight there are websites to tell you with great detail, where you most likely may encounter turbulence on any given day. Part of easing my fear is to know what to expect. I don't like being unpleasantly surprised. If I know that there may be some mild turbulence ahead of time I can deal with it better. The Turbulance Forecast website   and the Aviation Weather Center are two sites which can give you information about the possibility of encountering turbulence for your flight.

  • If you take anti-anxiety medication for your phobia, make sure to take it prior to boarding.

I have a prescription for Xanax specifically for these anxiety producing situations such as plane travel. I have made the mistake of waiting too long to take my medication and then it doesn't have enough of a chance to kick in. Taking my medication a half-hour to an hour before getting on the plane ensures that it will be the most effective for my flight.

  • Think about things to do during the flight to take your mind off of your fear.

I always bring gum with me to chew as this helps to prevent my ears from popping and it also eases stress. Sometimes I count to 100 over and over. I practice deep breathing. If the flight is mostly calm I may try to read. I do whatever it takes to get through each minute and make the time pass until I am on the ground again.

  • Close your eyes and visualize a different setting.

What sometimes helps me through a bumpy flight is to imagine that I am on a bus going over bumps in the road. Soon the bumpy ride will be over. One of the best pieces of advice which worked for me came from Les Posen's Fear of Flying Weblog. He advises that when you encounter turbulence to sing a rhythmic song under your breath such as "Jingle Bells." I know it sounds dumb but it really worked for me. I closed my eyes, imagined I was on a sleigh and here we go! After many refrains of "dashing through the snow" the plane finally landed and I had survived the turbulence.

  • Discuss your fear with people who are supportive and understanding.

It is bad enough to feel fear and anxiety related to a phobia, it is worse to be made fun of because of it. For this reason I am selective about who I talk to about my plane phobia. Being made to feel like a loser doesn't help to diminish your fear. And then there are people who will tell you horror stories about plane travel and seem to enjoy feeding your phobia. This is definitely not helpful. If you talk about your phobia with someone, make sure that they are supportive, and do not make things worse for you. It helps me the most to talk to others who share my fear of air travel but have found ways to get through it. If they can find a way to work through their fear then this gives me the encouragement that I can do it too.

In addition I wanted to share some links to resources and articles which may help you to get on that airplane despite your fear. Here are some links to information and websites which may help.