Flying without Fear


The news is full of plane disasters: the Air Canada crash near Halifax; the Germanwings crash; the Delta Air flight that landed on a runway dike in New York; the TransAsia crash near Magong, Taiwan; and, of course, the AirAsia crash in the Java Sea. Even people who have previously had no fear of flying are questioning the safety of being airborne. For those who suffer from panic attacks on planes or in enclosed places, air travel has never been easy, but for those who fear flight because of recent news reports, there is hope to help you manage your fear or apprehension.

Flight: An unnatural concept for humans

Humans don’t have the equipment to fly: they don’t have wings, feathers or the aerodynamics to be able to take flight. It’s unnatural for them and, while some people enjoy the exhilaration, others truly suffer from fear when in an airplane. Dr. Keith Stoll is a clinical psychologist with a practice in London. He specializes in help people with aviophobia, the fear of flying. In a recent interview, he explains this fear and how travelers can learn to cope with the panic attacks and the fear associated with this condition “The difficulty with flying is that it’s not natural for us. A large part of the bird brain is used to process the experience of flying, because if the bird is afraid of flying, it would have a very short life span.”

Calm your fears with research

Before your flight, look at the number of flights departing daily, even just from your local airport. Consider all the flights that safely traverse the country and the globe. Try to take comfort in the fact that it’s just a tiny percentage of all the flights from over all the world during the course of a year that even experience difficulty, and that almost all aircraft that have any problems land safely despite any issues. Do your research to help calm your fear. 

Get comfortable

Many people prefer to sit in certain portions of the plane. The center is supposedly most stable, especially over the wings. This is touted to make you less nauseous. Some people will only sit in the front of the plane, especially in the aisles, for quicker entrance and egress. Others prefer to sit by the window so they can watch what’s happening. On a recent five hour flight, it was interesting to see how fellow travelers coped. Some travelers talked the entire trip while others attempted to sleep. When they could, some travelers paced the length of the plane while others seemed to not want to get up at all. 

Identify your coping mechanism

Most people have a coping mechanism, whether it’s taking medication, breathing deeply, meditating or praying or trying to pretend they aren’t in the air at all. Physical discomfort can be relieved with anti-nausea medication and ear plugs, but when the fear is deeply ingrained and can’t be ignored, Dr. Stoll has a number of tips. After all, with all the recent publicity about plane fatalities, it’s only natural for people to be afraid. “After every plane disaster, understandably, people are more wary. We’ve got people reporting more difficulties now. It drops back to normal levels after a while. People will eventually go back to flying with the same sort of calm that they had before. But it takes a while to get back there.” Every rational person realizes that more people die from freak accidents, car crashes and even falls from ladders than airplane crashes, but once you are in the air, it’s difficult to remember facts and statistics when your heart is pounding and you just want to escape.

Breathing and relaxation

When you are afraid, your body prompts you to breathe shallowly and quickly (hyperventilation). This causes fear or panic to increase, plus you may get light-headed and feel that you are unable to breathe as you begin to perspire. When you have a panic attack, panting increases the feeling of impending doom and may even feel like a heart attack. You should try to breath slowly and from the diaphragm. Breathe out deeply, expending all the air you can, then take a slow deep breath in. After doing this a few times, the panic should decrease a bit. Tell yourself that you are safe: make up your own mantra that you can use to calm yourself down. Sing a calm song to yourself or recite a favorite poem or quotation. Try to make yourself relax, muscle by muscle beginning with the toes and traveling up your legs and body. Squeeze and then relax your muscles. This really does help. Use techniques that you may have learned in yoga class or when preparing for childbirth and try to control your breathing. Part of the cause for panic is that you feel out of control, so trying to take control of your breathing can help offset symptoms. 

Here are a few more quick tips on how to calm your fear of flying:

  • Read up on panic attacks: what they feel like and how you can learn to cope to enable you feel more comfortable. Realize that you are not alone and that most people suffer at least one or more panic attacks for various reasons during their lifetime. This may even be a deeply rooted instinct we humans have for “fight or flight.” 
  • Bring a diversion: A book, a camera, an iPad, a laptop or anything else that will divert your attention from the flight, turning it into something more pleasant. Put on headphones and listen to calming music, one of the best ways to soothe yourself. 
  • Avoid caffeine or alcohol which can actually help increase the chance of panic attacks. 
  • Practice relaxation methods before you leave home so you can use them when you are in the air. 
  • Bring a small pillow and blanket – even this can make you feel safer. 
  • Wear comfortable, non-binding clothing that will let you breathe comfortably. Take comfort in the fact that “this too shall pass” and try divert your attention to the pleasures awaiting you at the end of your flight, keeping them in mind as a type of reward. 
  • When returning home from a destination, allow yourself to take joy in going home, returning to your pets or family and tell yourself that it’s been worth the effort. Look through the photos you took and relive happy times on your vacation and edit those photos as you see fit ( the joy of digital cameras) so you can share them when you get home.

In short, take a deep breath and try to relax. The discomfort is only temporary and soon your feet will be back on solid ground.