Fighting the Fear of Flying

According to some estimates, an astonishing 1 in 4 Americans claim to have some kind of fear of flying. I am definitely one to admit my aviophobia, which comes as a surprise to many. Because I am a frequent flyer, how could I possibly be afraid of flying? Or perhaps my fear isn’t very strong because I go through with it so often, right? Wrong. I have a white-knuckle, gripping fear of being in a chair 30,000 feet up in the sky, and personally I can’t understand why others don’t. You who don’t have the slightest fear of flying, maybe YOU are the crazy ones.

This morning the news reported that a flight attendant was critically injured after hitting the ceiling so hard that a panel actually cracked. A baby was thrown from its parents’ arms but “landed safely” two rows away. TWO ROWS AWAY. This was a result of some severe turbulence the plane experienced on a flight from Denver to Billings, Montana. Billings, Montana! That one hits close to home, and news like this always deepens my fear of flying.

How to “Overcome” the Fear of Flying

Fear of Flying

So what can we possibly do to curb our debilitating fear of flying? There are many opinions and helpful suggestions out there, but you’ve got to figure out what actually works (or helps the most) for you. When it comes down to it, I don’t think there is anything that could rid me of my fear of flying, which ultimately comes from my gut-wrenching fear of heights. For me, it’s not so much the fear of flying or even being trapped, but a fear of falling, helpless and hopeless out of the sky should something catastrophic happen. There are a few things that I have found to help me “stay calm” while strapped into a chair in a small space 30,000 feet above solid ground (or ocean to make matters worse). I hope at least one of the following tips can help you attempt to stay calm as well:

  • Reach for the wine. If the pilot announces expected turbulence, it is worth it for me (even as a budget traveler) to prepare by purchasing a glass of wine to calm my nerves through the turbulence. If you need two glasses, buy two. It helps. I love Alaska Airlines because they offer free wine and beer, not to mention refills.

  • Avoid stressful movies or music. World War Z just didn’t cut it on my last overseas flight. The chaos in the movie was making the turbulence much worse, my stress levels were high and I couldn’t handle it. I switched programs to watch Monsters University for a second time. Sorry, monsters, you really aren’t scary. I have a soothing playlist on my iPod that I often listen to on planes to try to sleep, but I will often resort to this playlist during turbulence as well.

  • Look at the people around you. When I’m tensed up, hands white-knuckled around my armrests during turbulence, I make a point to look around at the other passengers. Most of the time, I am the only one “over-reacting” and this is incredibly helpful for me. Sometimes others are peacefully sleeping, reading, or watching movies without the slightest bit of concern about the turbulence. The flight crew is often still serving drinks or chatting at the back of the plane. It’s as if I’m the only one feeling the turbulence. The calm on the faces of others is very comforting. Take note, those of you who aren’t afraid of flying, be the rock for the rest of us. 

  • Make friends with a pilot. This is the single best thing I’ve ever done to curb my fear of flying. My friend Ryan is about to get his pilot’s license and I’ve had the opportunity to pick his brain and listen to him explain why flying is so “safe.” He laughs at my fear, which makes me feel better. He tells me why turbulence is nothing to be afraid of, and that a plane won’t simply fall out of the sky unless something really catastrophic happens (which it could… I’ll never forget the news about the Air France fight in 2009). When I’m 30,000 feet up in my chair in the sky going through bad turbulence, I listen to Ryan’s voice in my head, telling me that what’s going on is nothing to fear. It helps. I have plans to have this conversation at least yearly with Ryan in attempt to keep it fresh in my mind so I can access it when I need it most.

What Works for You?

Free wine on Alaska Air
Enjoying free wine on Alaska Air

When 1 in 4 Americans admit to having some sort of fear of flying, we know two things are true: 1) that this affects a LOT of people, and 2) that the fear is going to vary from person to person. I have determined that mine is more a fear of falling from upwards of 30,000 feet in the sky, but I know others suffer more from the claustrophobic element of being trapped in the cabin of a plane, or otherwise. What is your fear of flying about? How do you combat it and do you have any tips to share that could help the rest of us?