If you become an anxious mess every time you board a plane, you’re not alone.
“It’s a fear that’s particularly difficult to tackle because we need repetition to overcome our fears,” says Reid Wilson, Ph.D., a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based psychologist who has worked with American Airlines to devise fear-of-flying programs. “When it comes to flying, repetition is costly. Most people don’t fly frequently enough.”
That’s why therapists often work with patients to dissect what exactly might be bothering them, whether it’s the fear of heights, enclosed spaces, or not being in control—and then zeroing in on those issues. But what if you haven’t resolved them yet, and you take off next week? We asked Wilson and other experts for some quick solutions.
1. Learn how planes work. According to the National Safety Council, the odds of dying from a car crash in a lifetime is 1 in 112; the odds of dying from “air and space transport incidents,” which includes airplane flights, is 1 in 8,357.
The problem with these stats, of course, is that it contains the word “one,” says Tom Bunn, a former Pan Am pilot who is now a licensed therapist. So it’s helpful to understand how an airplane works, says Bunn, who also runs SOAR, a program to help fearful fliers.
“Everything you really need to fly a plane, there are two, three, or four of them, on board,” says Bunn. “Anything that can break, you have multiples of it.”
2. Understand turbulence. Most airplanes can handle up to 5 G’s of turbulence, and all are built to sustain at least 2.5.
In mild turbulence G-forces vary the same as in a moving elevator, from .8 to 1.2 G’s. Moderate is from .6 to 1.4 G’s; severe is from .4 to 1.6 G’s. If you need convincing during a flight, download the SOAR app; among other tools for calming your fears on-board, it contains a G-force meter. The next time you hit bumpy skies, you can whip it out, read how much G-force the turbulence is causing, and confirm there’s no reason to worry.
3. Train your brain. The amygdala, the emotional region of the brain, is wired to stress out a little when it feels like you’re falling.
Take the edge off by doing this exercise before you fly: Ask a friend to take one step up on a flight of stairs with you; now turn around so that you’re both facing the floor, and put your arms around each other. Now jump down to the floor together.
You just experienced free-fall—exactly what you fear that the plane will do, but less terrifying. Ideally, your brain will associate the sensation of dipping, albeit in small part, with that positive experience.
4. Focus on the purpose of your trip. Travel isn’t about about sitting in a plane for three hours—it’s usually about exploring a new culture or seeing a loved one. So keep a picture of the destination or person on your smart phone.
Notice the details, including the faces, shapes, lights, colors and other vivid features. Notice how these details awaken your intentions for the trip and remind you what the trip is about.
“Focusing on the higher purpose of your trip puts the fear into perspective,” Jonathan Bricker, Ph.D., affiliate associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
5. Accept your anxiety. “The more you don’t want to feel worried, the more that feeling will come back,” says Bricker. So instead, be open to it. Notice the sensation in your stomach and other parts of your body. Let it come and go.
Don’t judge it. Just observe it. “Now mentally pack it into an imagined carry-on bag, which you can store above and below you—the idea being that ‘the anxiety is with me, but I bring it with me and still travel wherever I want,’” says Bricker, who uses this concept as part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a program with the goal of managing anxiety as opposed to fighting it.
6. Try relaxation exercises. Wilson suggests this breathing exercise: Fill your lower lungs, then your upper lungs with air; then exhale slowly while relaxing the muscles in your in your face, jaw, shoulders, and stomach.
Turn your attention to the sound of your breath; if worries interrupt your focus, observe them coming and going, then go right back to focusing on your breath and the present. Wilson also suggests the “10-Second Grip”: Grip the arm rests while contracting your upper and lower arms, stomach, and legs.
Hold for ten seconds, then let go as you take in a nice full breath, and then exhale slowly. Repeat. “If you can loosen the muscles in your body, your anxiety will reduce automatically,” says Wilson, who is also founder of anxieties.com.
7. Avoid alcohol and coffee. What’s worse than feeling anxious? Feeling dehydrated, sick, possibly drunk, and anxious. Plus, alcohol is a crutch for avoiding your anxiety as opposed to managing it, says Wilson.
If you truly need chemical help to calm down, talk with your doctor about getting an appropriate prescription medication for use before boarding or during your flight. (It takes about 30 to 45 minutes to take effect.) While there’s no scientific evidence that natural remedies can treat jet lag, it wouldn’t hurt to try a calming herbal tea as opposed to coffee (which can exacerbate jitters).
8. Tap into your oxytocin supply. Oxytocin is the hormone produced during breastfeeding, when you see a baby animal, or romantic arousal. When your body is secreting this so-called “love hormone,” it has trouble secreting stress hormone at the same time, says Bunn.
So try this next time you feel anxious on board: Envision feeding an infant, picking up a kitten, or cuddling with your partner while working a picture of a plane into the scene (OK, it’s hard, but perhaps your significant other, or—in the other scenarios, another person—is holding the picture nearby); in doing so, you encourage the flow of oxytocin as opposed to cortisol in your bloodstream. Practicing before your flight will slowly nudge your brain toward associating planes with warm feelings.
9. Keep track of the flight. When the pilot announces how long the flight will take, write it down. Find a map in your in-flight magazine and draw a line between your departure city and arrival city. Then divide the line up to coincide with the number of hours of your trip.
Set your phone alarm to mark every hour. “In Alcoholics Anonymous, you’re told to take one day at a time; here, you can tell yourself to take one hour at a time,” says Bunn.
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