Overcoming You Fear Of Flying

Welcome to (what used to be) my nightmare!

Today, for the sake of this blog post, I'm going to share an embarrassing secret with you all-- for years, I was afraid of flying.  

Yes, I was a travel professional who hated to fly.  My entire career depends on me being able to get on a plane and visit places so I can recommend them to my clients and many times my fear of flying held me back from that.  

The whole thing would start with me having to fly somewhere.  I'd give myself a pep talk as I forced myself to book the airline tickets.  "It's going to be fine.  More people die in car accidents..." yadda yadda yadda.  You know the drill.   I'd take a deep breath and click "confirm" and then quickly try to forget all about the travel date looming in the not-so-distant future.

That was just step one!  Step two was all about mentally preparing myself weeks prior to the trip.  I'd begin packing early, knowing that closer to the travel date my brain would be a hodgepodge of doubt and anxiety.  It was highly likely I'd forget something important if I packed just a day or two before a trip.  But the catch 22 was that the sight of my packed suitcase in the corner of my bedroom did nothing to help diminish my anxiety.

I always booked our flights early in the morning for several reasons-- including cheaper prices and quieter airports.  But most importantly, I knew if I booked a later flight I'd waste an entire day worrying.

Nerves can totally wreck your body!  It would start with the involuntary shaking.  First it would be my foot tapping or my leg bouncing, but soon I'd find my hands subtly shaking too.   Then came the sweaty palms, the heart beat increasing and the dizziness.  I always made sure not to schedule a doctors appointment within 2 weeks of a flight.  I was always afraid my blood pressure would be to the point of hospitalization.

But I couldn't turn back now.   Soon it was off to the airport, and once there things got even worse.  I would remember trying so hard to pretend I was fine.  I'd stand in line and busy myself with answering emails or discussing past vacation memories with my husband in an attempt to remind myself that the flight would be over soon and we'd be visiting a beautiful place where we'd make tons of great memories.

It never worked though.  I'd always find myself looking around at everyone else in line and wondering why they were all so calm!   Everyone looked happy-- albeit tired-- but no one seemed to share or even understand the sheer panic I was experiencing.

On to the security line.  One step closer and now the tips of my fingers are tingling.

Have you ever passed out?  There is that moment right before when everything becomes fuzzy.  Everything around you sounds so far away and you can hear a faint ringing in your ears.  It only lasts for a few minutes before everything goes black and you wake up again in some odd position on the floor with a bunch of people over you.

Well this is exactly what would happen when we would get to the gate, except I never passed out.  It would just be constant tunnel vision/sound and ears ringing.  My stomach felt like a Ferris Wheel going round and round.   And I had HOURS to sit there and experience it while I watched several planes take off and land on the runway outside the terminal window.

This is when I'd start an inner pep-talk with myself: "See Kira, all the planes are landing and taking off and none of them have crashed.  Remember... more people die in.."  Yes, car accidents.  I know.  If I had a dollar for every time I told myself that, I'd make back all the money I've ever spent on flights.

But it didn't matter what reasons were given, this fear was real and rational to me.  The more I think about it, it IS totally normal.  Consider the reality of it-- you're strapped to a seat in a metal tube flying 30,000 feet above the ground you know as the safe place in which you live your every day life.   Add that to my fear of heights and my fear of small spaces and it's no wonder I hated flying.

Once we're called to board and I'm actually in my seat, things start to calm down a little.  That is, until they shut the cabin door and we begin pulling away from the gate.  Then come the sweaty palms and the nails digging into the arm rest.  All while my husband is cool as a cucumber and the guy next to him was already sleeping like a baby! (It never fails... who are these people that can sleep on planes??)

That long ride from the gate to the runway is awful too.  The whole time I'd keep thinking "Just hurry up already, let's get this over with."  But of course we always have to take the scenic route.

After locking my sweaty hands with my poor husband, we'd finally take off.  You'd think I'd be fine once we're airborne-- but of course not.   Now was the fun part.  Every turn, every bump, every time the captain would make an announcement my anxiety would rear it's ugly head.

It was absolutely and utterly ridiculous now that I'm looking back on it.  I obviously wasn't as bad as the cartoon guy above, but I was no picnic in the park either.

In fact, I vividly remember a flight home from Aruba where the turbulence was so bad I curled up in my chair and cried.  CRIED!  A grown woman curled up in the fetal position crying like a small child!

But as soon as we'd land I'd morph into this totally different person.  I'd go from "we're all going to die" to "this was fun!" in a matter of seconds.  The wheels would touch the ground, and as we taxied to our gate I'd turn into the happy traveler who loves to fly.  All of a sudden I'm pointing out things in the window like "Oh look how pretty that is" or "this was a great flight!"  I'd shimmy off the plane and stroll through the airport merrily while my husband followed behind, rolling his eyes at me.

Once at my destination, the vacation would always be perfect, but the night before our flight home I would repeat the whole process over again.  Why my husband still married me after he had flown with me, I'll never know...

So how did I overcome my fear of flying?

I'm sure that many of you can relate to this entire experience.  I used to be shocked at the number of people who shared my fear of flying.   I always expected them to laugh at me when I admitted to it.  Instead their eyes would get wide and they'd agree "me too".

It took me years to understand it and then eventually learn to tame it.

At first I set out to do some research on it.  I found there were schools with flight simulators that helped you learn to overcome your flying fear.  I thought them to be a waste of time and money.  I felt I was smarter than that.  I know the difference between when I'm wearing goggles and sitting in a char in a room at a university verses sitting in an airplane punching through clouds at 600mph.   That option just wouldn't cut it for me.

Then I looked into various "Overcoming Your Fear Of Flying" websites and blogs.   Through this I came across a great website called FearOfFlyingHelp.com.   The site is owned and maintained Captain Stacey Chance, an airline captain with over 25 years of flying experience in the US.  After reading through his site and watching the videos he posted I was able get down to the root of my fears and work to conquer them once and for all.
I learned many great things from his website.  But here are some of the most important:

  • Learning to understand how a plane flies.  Up until I had taken Cap. Chance's online course, I was completely clueless as to how an airplane operated.  I was sure it had something to do with the air and some sort of magic, but that was about the closest I'd ever come to understanding the wonder that is flying.  Cap. Chance's course helped answer my questions and explain in detail how flying actually works, and the more I read, the more I understood.   Yes it is slightly terrifying to know exactly how a plane can do what it does, but it's a lot less terrifying and much safer than the explanations I had come up with in my own mind.

  • The sounds I am hearing are completely normal.  Cap. Chance provides video and audio clips of the sounds you will hear when flying.  Listening to them helped me remember what was normal to hear when I was flying.  Any little click, whirl or buzz that I heard used to bring on panic.  What was that sound?  Was it normal?  Is there a problem?  But educating myself on the different sounds helped me learn that they are normal and there are no problems.  Suddenly, when I flew I stopped paying attention to the little noises because I had learned there was nothing to worry about at all.  Still bothered by it?  Get noise canceling headphones or listen to music to drown out the everyday noises when flying.  It also helps with noisy passengers and kids.

  • The bumps are normal too.  It took me a while to figure this out but when I did I had a total "DUH!" moment.  When I was sitting in the plane while it was taxing on the runway, it was bumpy.  Why?  Because the pavement isn't entirely smooth.  The same goes for the air.  In fact, I began to notice that I usually felt more bumps on the tarmac than I did in the air.  Cap. Chance explains it like this: "You can think of flying like being in a boat on a lake. Sometimes the water is smooth and sometimes it gets stirred up from the wind or currents. Riding on a choppy lake may be bumpy and you might encounter a wave big enough to jolt the boat. Riding the down side of a wave may give you the feeling you’re dropping, but there are no holes (pockets) in the water where the boat (or plane) is going to fall into."

We are not going to randomly fall from the sky.  This was the most important revelation I had.  For the longest time I had thought that at some point we'd hit an air pocket or something and the plane would plummet.  But I learned from Cap. Chance that not only do air pockets not exist, it would be impossible.  Look at a bird when it's flapping it's wings, and watch what happens when the bird stops flapping.  It still glides.  Coming from a bloodline that belongs to Otto Lilienthal-- a man who worked with the Wright Brothers and was the first person to every fly in anything (which happened to be a hang glider)-- you'd think I'd have figured this one out sooner.  Like a cruise ship is held up by the sea, the plane is held up by the air.  Cap. Chance explains: "Planes don’t just fall out of the sky, there is always air for support. Have you ever been unable to breathe because you were walking along and found yourself in an air pocket??? No."

Turbulence is not going to rip the plane apart like in movies.  Cap. Chance explains: "In over 25 years of flying I have never felt that I have been in turbulence bad enough to jeopardize aircraft structure or control. For the most part turbulence is merely an annoyance. As far as I know, no airliners in modern history have crashed solely due to turbulence while in cruise. Turbulence won't break the plane."

Captain Chance does an excellent job of going through everything in his FREE online courses.  He covers everything from fear of lack of control to terrorism.  If ever I'm feeling uneasy before a flight I just go onto his website and reread the courses.  They always calm me down and help me focus on making the flight fun and relaxing.

Now that my fears have been addressed and explained, how do I go about relaxing and enjoying a flight?

First things first-- BREATH.  Every time you find yourself getting anxious or worried, take a time out. 
  • Get some fresh air or sit by a fan or air conditioning vent (cool air helps).   
  • Sit comfortably.  
  • Close your eyes.  
  • Inhale slowly.  
  • Hold it in.  
  • Then slowly exhale.  
Keep doing this until you feel yourself calming down.  Your heart rate will decrease.  Your palms won't feel sweaty anymore.  Then you can return to what you were doing.

Take an early flight to get it out of the way.  Get to the airport early and you can relax.  Have a nice meal for breakfast at an airport restaurant.  Order a Mimosa or Bloody Mary if you like to indulge on vacation.   Rushing around the airport only adds to your stress levels.  

Relax on the plane.  
  • Dress comfortably in breathable clothes and bring a sweater in case you get chilly. 
  • If you feel yourself getting nervous and sweaty turn the air on overhead and cool down.
  • Bring some music to listen to or a good book to read.  
  • Some airlines like JetBlue have TVs in the back of the seats so you can watch whats on TV.
  • Have a drink.  If I'm on a long flight I have a glass of wine and take a Benadryl pill.  It knocks me out.  (*Talk to your doctor before taking any medication or drinking liquor, especially before mixing the two)

Sit in the isle seat if possible.  I've found it helps if you don't look out the window constantly. You also don't notice the movement as much.  You also have a little more room to move your legs around, and chances are if you are nervous you may need to use the restroom a few times during the flight.  This makes it easier than climbing over someone.  If you can't get an isle seat, then see if the person in your row doesn't mind switching with you.  Or talk to a flight attendant and explain how the isle seat helps calm your flying nerves.  They'll be happy to help and will most likely be able to find you an isle seat on the plane.

Be kind to the person sitting next to you.  Let them know you're a nervous flier.  This way when you need to wake them to climb over them for the bathroom, or need to blast the AC on your face they'll be a little more understanding.

Meet the pilot- Seeing exactly who is flying the plane can be very calming. Most times when you board the cockpit door will be open and you can see the pilot and his crew prepping for the flight.  Ask your flight attendant if you can meet the pilot.  Explain you are a nervous flier.  Many time the pilot will step out and meet you and answer any questions you have.  Or maybe just seeing them at work will be enough to calm your anxiety.

When in doubt, watch the flight attendants.  My father, who has flown planes, taught me this important nugget of wisdom-- If you're unsure of a noise or something you feel, look at the flight attendants.  Do they look alarmed or puzzled?  If not, there is nothing to worry about.  They fly these routes hundreds of times a year and know when something isn't right.   Just sit back and relax.  Let them know what you need and remember, even though anxiety can translate into grumpiness, be nice to your flight attendants!

Above all, just remember to stay calm!

But even with all that knowledge and a few yoga techniques, a fear of flying doesn't just disappear immediately.  

It took years for me to build up the courage to feel comfortable getting on a plane and after following the above steps religiously for all that time, there was one moment when everything just came together.

We were flying home from Caribbean during a tropical storm.  The moment the pilot took us down for a landing we began bumping around.  Last minute he decided it was too risky and took us back up to do another "go around".  It was something I had read about from Cap. Chance's course so I knew what was happening but it still didn't make me comfortable.

There we were were, being bounced around in the clouds above Miami for a good twenty minutes, all the while I'm gripping the seat begging God to help us down gently.  And guess what, we landed.  We were perfectly fine.  Everyone on that plane made it off alive and well.

It was then that it all finally clicked.  I'm safe when I fly.  I'm in good hands.   I always have been and I always will be.  And after that flight and all the terror I felt in the skies, I'd still get on a plane tomorrow.  Why?  Because anything worth fearing is worth doing.  

Don't let your fear of flying hold you back from seeing how beautiful the world is.

Post written by Kira Solomon, owner of www.MyParadisePlanner.com
Contact: Kira@myparadiseplanner.com

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