Fear of flying is a common affection that cripples countless travelers. Air travel is, after all, the process of tearing through the sky in a winged tube at 600 miles per hour, thousands of feet above solid ground. So to help us keep our natural human anxieties in check, we turned to Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Anxious Brain and The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques. Dr. Wehrenberg, who has worked directly with patients suffering from a fear of flying, imparted a few wise tips for managing anxiety in the air. Here are 10 ways nervous travelers can keep calm and carry on when flying.
Prepare Yourself Mentally
There are basic calming techniques that travelers can use in flight—and even before the start of their trips—to become less anxious. "The first piece of advice," says Dr. Wehrenberg, "is to prepare yourself mentally. When people imagine they're going to be scared, they don't fully envision what is actually going to happen to them; it's a 'deer-in-the-headlights approach' to fear." Recognize that your fears are not based on reality, and you'll be in a better position to take care of yourself once anxiety sets in. Wehrenberg also says that travelers should ask themselves if they are "willing to get through the discomfort [of being afraid to fly] to have what [they] really want, which is the opportunity to be on a plane." If your answer is yes, then it's time to start learning how to manage your fears.
Prepare to Be Distracted
Dr. Wehrenberg shared a few tips for keeping busy during a long flight. Before you board that plane, make a "panic plan" for yourself. According to Dr. Wehrenberg, "Think about what you are going to do on the flight, whether it's watching a DVD, listening to music, or doing puzzles. Be prepared and have them close at hand. Think about the length of your flight. If your flight is a three-hour flight, do you have enough things to entertain or engage you on your trip? And when [the flight attendant] tells you to turn off your electronics, make sure you have something to keep yourself occupied … when [your devices] are off." Wehrenberg also recommends packing a lavender sachet to sniff or a peppermint to suck on, both of which work well as calming devices for some people.
One basic calming technique endorsed by Dr. Wehrenberg is conscious breathing. "Practice soothing breathing," says the doctor. "Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth as slowly as possible." Although this bit of advice may seem obvious, breathing is arguably the best way to vanquish anxiety. Dr. Wehrenberg tells us that controlled breathing works because "breathing is the one thing that will stop a panic attack."
Use an App
Dr. Wehrenberg recommends a few apps that help users focus on breathing: "My clients like Breathe2Relax and Relax Lite: Stress Relief, [available on Android and Apple]," in particular, she says. The Mayo Clinic Anxiety Coach app is another reputable option.
"These apps can help you with breathing, to help you keep your focus," says Wehrenberg. "There are probably 200 [related] apps out there, so it's easy to find an app that you like, which you can focus on when you're trying to breathe and calm down."
Remember That Panic Will Pass
It's important to "recognize that panic will pass," says Dr. Wehrenberg. "A panic attack [usually] doesn't last for more than a few minutes. Then it wanes. So it's not going to last the whole trip. It will pass."
If you feel afraid of losing control and succumbing to fear during the flight, remind yourself that even a full-on panic attack is only a temporary affliction; you'll get through it.
Find Out What You're Afraid of
Perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Wehrenberg concurs: "Some people are afraid of crashing, but more people are afraid of having a panic attack on the plane. So what they're really afraid of is being afraid. 'What is the catastrophe? What do I actually think will happen? What am I making a big deal out of? If I panic, what am I afraid will happen?' Answer these questions before you get on the plane.
"When I'm working with my clients I tend to try to lighten up the catastrophe. Usually what they are afraid of is not going to happen anyway. Making a fool out of yourself is not the worst thing that will happen. It will pass."
Focus on the Positive
When we asked Dr. Wehrenberg if nervous flyers should avoid reading about or listening to stories of plane crashes and such, she responded with a resounding "Absolutely!" According to Wehrenberg, many anxious travelers "focus on every little detail of [negative stories] and completely ignore all the positive information. Flying is the safest by far in terms of methods of transportation. [Anxious] people should not research safety statistics, and they should remember that [air travel] is the safest way to travel."
Learn the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
Practitioners of the Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT "tap on their own acupressure points to calm down feelings of fear," says Wehrenberg. And it's easy to learn how to master this particular anti-anxiety method on your own. Wehrenberg recommends books such as The Tapping Solution, Energy Tapping, and Instant Emotional Healing for those who want a primer on EFT.
Know When It's Time to Seek Professional Help
"This is going to sound a little strange [coming from a psychologist]," says Wehrenberg. "But if taking an anti-anxiety drug makes it possible for you to fly without discomfort, then you probably can get by with that. There are a number of people who are nervous flyers who get by with benzodiazepines from their doctor and that works for them."
How do you know when it's time to make an appointment with a medical professional? Wehrenberg says, "If you're losing sleep, feeling sick with anxiety, or avoiding travel at the expense of your own or other people's convenience," then you should speak with a doctor or a mental-health professional for guidance.
Read a Book
Additionally, "There's a whole 'nother way of looking at anxiety and fear that has to do with just letting yourself embrace your panic," says Wehrenberg. "Reid Wilson's book Don't Panic takes a different approach to [anxiety management]."
-- By Caroline Costello