1 in 3 adult Americans is either anxious about flying or afraid to fly. (source)
I am one of those Americans. It’s OK if you are too.
If you are anxious about flying or have severe flight anxiety, you’ve come to the right place. For over 6 years, I’ve tried almost every trick in the book, fought with flight anxiety and finally feel comfortable enough flying where I don’t have panic attacks every flight. Read on for the best tips for overcoming flight anxiety from someone with flight anxiety.
My journey with flight anxiety:
I’m not sure when exactly my flight anxiety started. I feel like most people have a trigger or a specific moment that made them fearful. Others have always been afraid. For me, I think my real flight anxiety started the summer before college—I was sitting on a plane in SFO having just landed from LAX and we had a really long taxi period followed by a lot of waiting. I remember feeling motion sick and nervous but it ended after we got to the hotel.
A couple years of normal flying later (the summer before my horrendous anxiety attacks hit) I was waiting in Atlanta to change flights to Charlotte to see my then boyfriend at the time. I had a paralyzed vocal cord that was misdiagnosed as bronchitis and congestion (still bitter about that one) and was instructed to take Sudafed. My body doesn’t do well with strong medicine or on caffeine and Sudafed is apparently no exception. Coupled with an empty stomach and an early flight, I threw up in a trash can at ATL because I didn’t have time to make it to the bathroom and I was alone and scared and embarrassed.
A couple of months later, my anxiety reached its peak and that solidified my flight anxiety. I made it through one flight on the verge of panic attacks riddled with nausea, cold sweats, and nervous thoughts the day and night before (to the point where I couldn’t sleep or eat) and my doctor prescribed me Xanax to be able to make it through the next ones.
Ever since then, I’ve tried almost every trick in the trade to conquer flight anxiety and make flying bearable for someone who loves to travel like I do.
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*I don’t want to say that I’ve conquered flight anxiety, exactly. But I now have much less flight anxiety than I used to and no longer dread flying because of my strategies.
**I am not a medical professional or expert by any means, but these are all methods I’ve used to minimize my very real flight anxiety.**
Here are my tried and tested tips for conquering flight anxiety:
Before the flight
Preparation is key. Any anxious person will tell you that. Before your flight, make sure you have everything prepared so you’re not rushing to catch a cab, make it to the airport, through security, and to your gate. Check into your flight 24 hours in advance. Gather all necessary documentation and put it in your carry on and lay out what you’ll need in advance. Being prepared will help ease those pre-flight jitters.
Tip 1: Make a packing list of what you want to pack and go through it as you lay out your stuff and as you put everything in your suitcase. You’ll feel happier crossing things off a list and certain that you haven’t forgotten anything.
Tip 2: Pack all your must-have items in your under seat carry-on for easy access on flights. For example, I always have extra Dramamine, mints, my headphones, water and lavender oil under my seat for when I need them. It will save you the stress of needing them if the fasten seatbelt sign is on and you’ll always have what you need available, even if you don’t end up needing it.
Sit where you feel safe
If turbulence makes you nervous, sit on the wing or toward the front of the plane. If you feel cramped in the window, book an aisle seat. If you feel comfortable cocooned by the window, book that one. I (weirdly) MUST sit on an aisle on the right side of the plane, preferably between rows 12-23 so I always hone in on seats in that specific area. Do what makes you least nervous, no matter how weird or anal it is!
It feels good to be able to choose my seats and know that I’ll be in a spot that puts me more at ease. I’m always willing to pay to book a seat ahead of time if it means that I’ll be less anxious on the flight.
Tip: Book flights well in advance if you have a particular place you like to sit. For example, I book my flights home for Christmas and Thanksgiving at least two months ahead of time, if not more, in order to ensure not only cheaper flights but also that seats available where I like them.
If there’s a specific part of flying that you know makes you nervous, like landing or taking off or turbulence, spend some time researching before flying. If you know how something works and the minimal risks associated with it, you’re likely to shut off those irrational thoughts making you panic.
Tip: Websites like the Fear of Flying School actually offer specific posts on tips for conquering flight anxiety, as well as interviews with therapists, pilots, and other experts.
Meditation / therapy
Many meditation apps out there now have specific guided meditations for fear of flying. Test them out before your flight to see if any click with you. If none do, and your flight anxiety is getting to an unmanageable point, consider therapy or a counseling session. Many employers offer a few free counseling sessions as part of health care coverage. Or, search ZocDoc for a counselor near you.
Day of/during the flight
Tell a flight attendant
I’ve never done this, mostly because having extra attention drawn to me tends to make me more anxious, but if you tell a flight attendant about your anxiety, they’ll keep a watchful eye on you throughout the flight and check on you periodically to make sure you are okay.
I’m not afraid or ashamed to say that I have used medication on flights to make them bearable. I know it’s not ‘natural,’ but sometimes you just need to be sedated so you don’t cry/throw up/hyperventilate before or during a flight. I was prescribed a small dose of Xanax that I usually took the night before a flight so I could sleep (otherwise I wouldn’t) and before I boarded and would be wonderfully fine (albeit a little sleepy).
I no longer use Xanax (partially due to not really having a consistent doctor, but also partially because I’ve got my normal anxiety mostly under control and have found flying strategies that work for me) but I would happily take it again if I found I really needed it.
Today, I take Dramamine for every flight. It helps with my motion sickness and also helps generally relax me. I use this less drowsy version on domestic flights. The original formula comes out for overseas flights (it puts me to sleep in an instant!). There is also a natural, ginger version that I use on the way to the airport or just in addition to other natural remedies.
In the day before and day of a flight, stay away from caffeine, no matter how much you think you might need it. It will only increase your anxiety! Instead, stick to water and drink lots of it. Hydration is important when flying and it will help with jetlag and flush all that caffeine from your body!
Along the same lines, stay away from alcohol both before and during flights. Some people suggest it, but they tend to not understand that alcohol can have a negative effect on those with anxiety—by actually making us more anxious!
Tip: Bring an empty reusable water bottle with you, if space allows. After you get through security, fill it up at the refilling stations that are [usually] found throughout airports, or ask someone at an airport restaurant to do it for you if you aren’t sure of the quality of the sink water. This will help you stay hydrated and save you $$$ as water bottles in airports are very overpriced.
A good audiobook
When I’m anxious, the internal dialogue in my mind runs a mile a minute. Whether rational or not, these thoughts can make or break my mood and mental state. If you suffer from flight anxiety, I highly recommend listening to audiobooks. I always choose something I’ve listened to before so I know that it will grab my attention. The plotlines and dialogue give my mind something entirely different to focus on and slowly drown out the voice in my head. Harry Potter and Yes Please are my audiobooks of choice!
Tip 1: Choose something that will either a) make you smile/laugh because laughing, no matter how fleeting, can lessen feelings of anxiety, or b) get you lost in the plotline so you are completely distracted and can hopefully forget about your anxious feelings.
Tip 2: Start listening to your audiobook after you get settled at your gate, or, if it makes you less anxious, right when you get settled at your seat. This will ensure that you’re already mentally involved in what’s going on in your book when the plane begins to taxi and keep your mind away from those pre-flight jitters.
When we get anxious, we tend to forget to breathe. Weird, right? I usually forget to breathe and then, after what feels like minutes, I’m out of breath, trying to get oxygen into my lungs. This happens a lot on flights or in cramped subway cars or just whenever I start to feel really anxious.
In comes the Breathe Bubble on the meditation app Calm. This is one of the first methods I learned with my therapist to help with my anxiety and ground myself when I was getting inundated with thoughts and feelings. The app will tell you when to breathe in, when to hold and when to exhale and so on. Controlling your breath in this way will help lower your heart rate and subdue the feeling of anxiety.
Bonus tools for managing flight anxiety
Motion sickness bands
My body has a lovely cycle: my motion sickness leads to anxiety and anxiety leads to nausea which leads to motion sickness. Fun, right? Enter motion sickness bands. These are a new discovery for me and (whilst it could be a placebo effect) they really work. I bought the ones I linked to right before I flew to London and they were a great addition to my in-flight arsenal by keeping me from feeling motion sick.
Airplanes smell so weird. They either smell like weird food that people bring on board (please don’t—Chinese food smell at 8 AM is not good, no matter how hungry you are), industrial cleaners, or that weird AC smell that some of them have on hot days. The lavender essential oil I wear on my wrists and smell before and during flights helps ground me and gives me something to smell that is not only relaxing but also smells good.
Tip: If you don’t have much space or want something more portable, consider something like this. It’s about the size of a tube of chapstick and rolls on easily wherever I want it. I’m obsessed. (It’s also great for everyday wear!)
Y’all know I’m an Altoid-lover! Mints are like my candy on flights. I eat Altoids like others eat their in-flight peanuts. I used to chew gum but it made my stomach feel weird so I switched over and haven’t looked back since! I’m always sure to pop a couple in before takeoff and landing just to give my mind something else to focus on and a relaxing taste in my mouth.
Another good one for nervous stomachs. Ginger is great for upset stomachs and there are chewable, natural candies you can suck on or eat if you feel nervous about your flight. I recommend Gin-Gins, personally, but you’ll be able to find a variety at almost every airport store, drug store or health foods store. (I eat Gin-Gins regularly, just for fun too, so if you like ginger I highly recommend them!)
While I’m no expert on flight anxiety, I hope that these tried and tested tips will give you a starting point for helping to conquer your flight anxiety. I know how hard it is to just “stop being anxious,” as many might people say when you speak about anxiety in general or flight anxiety specifically. I know that flight anxiety, or any other anxiety for that matter, cannot just “stop” because we want it to. Because, believe me, I would be flying every weekend if it didn’t take me so long to mentally prepare for a flight!
Let me know in the comments down below what tips you have for flight anxiety. I’m always looking to try new stuff out!