Tips for Overcoming the Fear of Flying

Health Writer

If you are afraid of flying in a plane, you aren't alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 6.5 percent of people in the United States have a phobia, or fear, of traveling on an airplane, called aviophobia or aerophobia. Other experts place this number much higher, saying that up to one-fourth of all people worry about traveling in an airplane. As with all phobias, there are degrees of associated fear. Some people are simply nervous but manage to fly without too much trouble. Others, however, avoid all plane travel, instead driving or taking the train and avoiding visiting any place that would require flying.

There are ways to overcome your fear. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you change your thinking patterns and look at situations differently. Antianxiety medications, although not a long-term solution, help some people to get through the flight. The following are some tips you can try to help alleviate some of your fears.

Determine what frightens you. The triggers to aviophobia are different for each person. Some might dread the turbulence, the take-off or the landing. To effectively manage your fears, you first must know what frightens you. Martin N. Seif, Ph.D. states, "most people who fear flying are claustrophobic or frightened of being locked in the plane and unable to choose when to get off...More than 90 percent of flight phobics fear they will become overwhelmed with anxiety during the flight." Once you know what triggers your fear, you can work on strategies to overcome the fear.

Spend time learning what to expect. Some people will tell you to recite statistics showing how safe air travel is, but, this probably won't work. Anxiety is driven by the fear that the worst will happen and even though air travel is safe, you will undoubtedly talk yourself into believing you will be in the small percentage of disasters. Instead, read about and learn what to expect during the flight. For example, suppose you dread the turbulence. This is a result of flying through different levels of air pressure. It feels like the plane shakes and jumps. Once the plane reaches an area of level air pressure, the bumping stops. Turbulence does not cause a plane to crash. If you are worried about taking off or landing, spend time watching planes take off and land, either at the airport or online videos. When you are sitting in the plane, imagine the takeoff or landing as an observer. Learn about the noises a plane makes so when you hear them you can remind yourself what is causing them instead of assuming the plane is falling apart. Once you understand the mechanisms and reasons behind your trigger, you can tell yourself it is normal and the turbulence, lift off or landing, becomes reassuring because it is what you expected to happen.

Use anxiety reducing strategies. There are a number of techniques that work to lower anxiety levels such as meditation and deep breathing. Start practicing these on a daily basis several weeks before your flight. When you do start to feel nervous or anxious, you can immediately switch your breathing or close your eyes and meditate or visualize a peaceful scene for a few minutes to help you relax. You might also want to make sure you get a good night's sleep before your flight, eat well and avoid caffeine. Use the strategies you have found work well in reducing your anxiety levels.

Talk to the flight attendants before the flight takes off. Let them know you have a fear of flying. Chances are they have learned various strategies to help people overcome their fears. They might check up on you several times during the flight to make sure you are okay. Don't be embarrassed and try to hide your anxiety or pretend you aren't nervous. Let the people around you provide the support you need.

Find out if there are any classes to overcome fear of flying in your area. Some airports provide classes that will get you accustomed to flying and walk you through what to expect and how to deal with your anxiety. Some might provide simulators to help you go through a flight in a safe environment and some might have a short flight as the last lesson. Check out classes in your area. While exposure therapy is usually effective in dealing with various phobias and can help in overcoming fear of flying, it is difficult and expensive to fly often enough to overcome your fear, simulators, such as those offered in these types of classes, work just as well.

Use mindfulness. Anxiety occurs when you worry about either the past or the future. Instead of focusing on what might be, use mindfulness to experience the flight. Take in the sights, sounds, smells all around you. Pay attention to how your body reacts to turbulence (it is much better to go with the turbulence than to tense up and fight it). Focus on your breathing. When you practice mindfulness, you live in the present moment rather than worrying about the future.

Bring along distractions. Use the activities that normally relax you to do so during the flight. Bring along a book, crossword puzzles, a book of sudoku puzzles, knitting, music and earphones. Having items that help you relax with you will help keep you calm during the flight and keep your mind of all the possible disasters you have been worried about.

Unfortunately, many people with a fear of flying simply avoid flying. They only take vacations that are close enough from home to allow driving. They avoid visiting relatives who live far away. They don't accept jobs that will require air travel. But avoidance keeps anxiety alive because it reminds you that there is something to fear. Facing your fears, in steps, works best in helping you overcome the anxiety and gain control of your life. If the fear of flying is holding you back, consider working with a therapist.