There’s one thing that can send most people with and without anxiety into a panic, it’s airplane anxiety. The thought of being cooped up in a tiny little space with complete strangers for hours can seem overwhelming. Even more so, you can feel like your putting your safety, even your life, in the hands of complete strangers. No problem right?
I’ve dealt with anxiety and panic disorder for years (you can read my story here). It really felt impossible to ever overcome my airplane anxiety.
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I used to have nightmares about even stepping foot on an airplane. The thought terrified me. Then in the summer of 2015 my husband wanted to take me on a trip to Seattle. Needless to say, days before the trip I had a complete meltdown and ended up not going. He ended up going on the trip with his dad, but was crushed that I didn’t go.
Fast forward to the summer of 2016 and we decided we would give it another try. This time on a shorter flight to San Francisco just to get my toes wet. I did a little more preparation for this flight in the weeks leading up. I actually made it to the airport this time, which was a huge first step. Once I saw the airplanes though, the panic set in. I started crying and shaking uncontrollably. Luckily our flight departed from a smaller airport, so the airport staff was extra kind to me getting through security.
My husband literally had to drag me on the plane. We were the last to board. As we stepped on the plane, I was still crying like a toddler who lost their favorite teddy bear. It was a scene for sure. My husband boarded before me, and told the stewardess that it was my first time on an airplane, and that I was having anxiety. She totally understood, and with a friendly smile said I got this. She went and got the captain of the flight to speak with me. An older gentleman stepped out of the cockpit and with a warm smile greeted me. He informed me that the weather was perfect for the flight, and it was going to be a very quick flight.
Something clicked after that brief conversation. I sat down in my seat, and was perfectly fine the rest of the flight. I mean I was still shaking, but nothing that happened on that flight phased me. After the flight landed, the stewardess congratulated me on completing my first flight over the intercom, and the captain even gave me wings. My husband was jealous he never got wings as a kid.
Dealing with Airplane Anxiety
I felt like this was such a huge accomplishment. To many, flying on an airplane is as routine as brushing their teeth but to me I felt like I just accomplished something monumental.
Dealing with airplane anxiety isn’t just a one-size-fits-all approach. There’s a lot of things going on. Being stuck in a situation I couldn’t escape from was the first fear. At the height of my panic disorder, if I was in a situation that made me nervous I would just leave. On an airplane, the only way to do that is with a parachute and that’s not happening. It’s also the fear of embarrassing myself in front of others. There’s like 200 plus people on these flights, and even thinking about me flipping out in front of all those people seemed like my nightmare.
Oddly enough the height wasn’t one of the factors that bothered me. I don’t like heights at all, but that was one of my last concerns after my long list of other things to worry about.
I’ve been on six flights since that initial trip to San Francisco, each a little bit longer than the previous. Each time I’ve stepped foot in an airport, my anxiety levels have improved and my trips have gotten easier on both me and my husband. Not to say I don’t still have high anxiety levels especially during turbulence, but I’ve found little tricks along the way that have helped the anxiety to a manageable level.
Here are some of the tricks and tips I’ve gathered along my experience in flying to deal with airplane anxiety:
Months Before the Trips
- Book a shorter flight to somewhere local. My first flight was from Long Beach, CA to San Francisco, CA so it was about an hour. This helped me to get acquainted with how it felt to fly, the experience and what turbulence felt like. Also make sure to book an airline where you chose your seats beforehand. This way you can make sure you can sit where you want and next to your travel companions ( My first flight was with JetBlue, they were super friendly!). I find that sitting in the aisle seat works best for me. You have room to move around freely if you need to, and for the most part if you don’t look outside you really don’t realize what’s going on. I actually enjoy looking outside now, it can give you a little more perspective on what’s going on and you can also take in some beautiful views as well.
- I HIGHLY suggest buying the book Soar: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying by Tom Bunn. This book absolutely changed everything for me. I read it before I went on my flight to San Fran, and it helped so much with the airplane anxiety. What I like about this books is that he goes into how an airplane operates and explains why it isn’t going to just fall out of the sky. I think once I understood how the planes functioned and how much goes into making sure everything is running smoothly, it lessened my anxiety about flying. He also includes some genius tips for dealing with anticipatory anxiety and turbulence anxiety (I’ll include some of my favorites in those sections).
- Try not to obsess over your flight. Practice meditation to help you focus more on the present moment. This can also help you when it comes to the flight itself, accepting that anxiety is normal and not trying to fight it.
A Few Days Before the Trip
- Make a list of everything you want to bring, and everything you need to do to prepare for your trip. If you’re having airplane anxiety – the last thing you want to do is forget something or leave the stove on. You already have enough on your mind. One thing that actually helps me if you worry about if you forgot to lock something or turn something off, take a picture of the lock or the stove in the off position before you leave. This way you know for sure it’s off or locked because you have photographic evidence. I know this can be a bit extra, but if it gives you peace of mind why not.
Day Before the Flight
- Make sure you read all of the rules and restrictions of your particular airline and what you can and cannot bring. Getting through security is a little nerve-wracking, especially at a larger airport, the last thing you need is to get pulled aside and searched. Bring a backpack in addition to your luggage. If I bring food or oil based cleansers, I place them in the backpack so they are easy access to take out for search.
- Download the SOAR app. This is the app from the same person who wrote the book. You can see what type of turbulence you might encounter, and also have some tips available during the flight.
- Get some sleep! Nothing makes me more anxious than no sleep. If needed, drink some herbal teas to help you relax.
Morning of the Flight
- First thing upon waking I drink 8oz of water with Natural Calm . This helps me take the nervous edge off. I don’t like to heavily medicate because I don’t need to be heavily medicated on the flight. Natural Calm does the trick for me.
- Write a positive affirmation on a sticky note and put it where you can reference it often.
- I don’t check my luggage, I bring it with me. It just makes me feel better knowing where it is at all times. Check with your particular airline to see their regulations on luggage size.
- Bring a book to read while waiting to board. You can also watch a movie on your tablet, or play a game observing your surroundings. Airport people watching is fun. Try not to focus too much on the anxiety.
- Try the 5-4-3-2-1 Method. Notice 5 things that you see around you. I like to be as descriptive as possible like I see a green suitcase. Next, notice 4 things you can touch with your hands. Pay attention to 3 things that you can hear, outside of just talking. Next, identify 2 things you can smell. Finally, acknowledge 1 thing you can taste.
- Realize that you will have anxious feelings. Don’t try to fight them or make them go away. Download the Calm app on your phone to do a small meditation while you are waiting. Look at the affirmation you wrote down often.
- About 30 minutes before boarding I take Dramamine to deal with motion sickness.
- Meet the captain if you can. This made such a huge difference for me knowing who was flying the plane and how confident he was in getting us there safely. You can either go up to the gate attendant (person who checks you in) or let one of the attendants know your an anxious flyer, they are usually pretty accommodating.
On the Plane and Takeoff
- I have an Amazon Fire tablet that I load up with movies a few days before the flight. This thing is a life saver because you can purchase movies with your Amazon account, and download them straight to the tablet. This way you can still watch movies in airplane mode. As soon as I’m settled in on the plane I fire up a movie. The person I’m traveling with listens to the safety info, it just stresses me out. Make sure it’s fully charged the night before you leave.
- During takeoff I hold my husband’s hand. Once the plane is up I’ll look at him and he’ll give me the thumbs up. If you don’t know the person next to you hold their hand anyways, who knows it might be your soul mate 🙂 Please realize that when you’re traveling below the clouds your going to feel some bumps here and there. It’s totally normal before you reach cruising altitude.
- I also watch the crew. I know this is random, but if they are happy and smiling and not panicking even during bad turbulence, it helps me relax.
- This is my favorite tip I learned from reading the book I mentioned earlier in the post. Before boarding the plane I will purchase a bottle of water and take Dramamine. Once the plane is up at cruising attitude and I can lower my tray, I place the bottle on the tray. When the plane hits turbulence I will look at the water. Even though it feels like the plane is getting tossed around like a shirt in the dryer, the water barely moves. This helps your mind to make the connection between how little the plane is actually moving during turbulence.
- The SOAR app I mentioned earlier also has a G-Force meter. Even in the worst of turbulence if your watching the G-Force meter it always stays within normal range. So even if it feels like the plane is about to fall apart, the meter will show you that it’s all normal for the airplane.
- I also lean forward a little bit if hitting a rough patch. If I only feel it from below and not all around it helps me lessen the severity and anxiety. If it is really bad don’t lean too far forward though, you might bump you head on the seat in front of you!
During the Flight
- Keep your focus on the movies. Time can go by real slow if you are having anxious thoughts and focusing on time alone.
- Some of the airlines offer apps or screens that will tell you where exactly the plane is. If your starting to feel anxious, pull up the app to see how close the plane is to your destination. It’s also cool just to know where you are at if there’s a landmark nearby you want to look at. I like to look at the flight as how much time I’ve made it, not how much time there is left to go.
- If you are starting to feel anxious or worried, look at the crew. If they are up doing service, don’t worry too much.
- Unless you are terribly afraid of heights, look out the window! It can help with feeling like the plane isn’t balanced (you will see that it is!). It’s also cool to look at certain landmarks (Mt. Rainer in Seattle was amazing to look at!).
- Bring snacks! I like to bring some jerky or other protein filled snack in case hunger strikes. Some of my favs are the New Primal Turkey Jerky or Primal Kitchen’s Cashew Collagen Bars. Low blood sugar can make anxiety worse, so make sure to come prepared.
- Understand that just like takeoff, the air is a little more uneasy under the clouds so some shaking and bumps are totally normal during landing. If you are feeling anxious, pull out the G-Force meter. Even during the worst turbulence you will see the meter stay within normal range. Flying into 115 degree weather in California, I rely on this meter during horrible turbulence.
- I like to look out the window so I know when to expect the plane touching the ground. I don’t like surprises when it comes to flying. Expect a little bump and a lot of screeching as the brakes are hit and the plane slows down.
- If you need to, keep watching your movie until the plane lands.
Getting off the Plane
- Be proud of yourself! You just accomplished something you didn’t think you could do! Do a little happy dance off the plane.
- It might take a while for the plane to drive up to the gate and to de-board all of the people in front of you. Make sure to gather all of your belongings in your backpack while you are waiting.
Just remember that it can take a long time to get to this point. Even if you have to take baby steps, it’s worth it. Start out by just driving to an airport. Then drive to the airport and watch planes depart. Get a feel for what it’s like. There’s also plenty of classes out there for fearful flyers that can help you move past the anxiety and get out there and explore the world. Remember that the anxious feelings will always be there, the challenge is to accept those feelings and make it easier for you to move forward anyways.
I hope these tips are helpful to anyone out there who is dealing with airplane anxiety. I never thought I would be able to even step foot on an airplane, and now I’m getting better and better each time. If you find any of these tips helpful, or have some tips of your own leave them in the comments!