From take-off to turbulence, read our expert tips on tackling your fear of flying.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Jenny L. Cook
Is fear of flying preventing you from living your life, or at the very least, enjoying speedy travel? Also known as aerophobia, fear of flying is extremely common, so if you’re so scared of air travel that you can’t bring yourself to book a two-hour flight, rest assured you are not alone.
In fact, research carried out by the National Geographic found that over 21 million Brits feel anxious about engine failure and over a third admitted that news stories around plane crashes and terrorist attacks have made them feel nervous about boarding an aircraft.
Whether your fear stems from other psychological anxieties that become exacerbated by an aeroplane environment, such as claustrophobia or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or you simply don’t like the experience of flying, you can take comfort in the fact that aerophobia is understandable and not uncommon.
Fear of flying: the evidence
It’s worth remembering that flying remains the safest way to travel. A study conducted by Arnold Barnett, professor of management science and statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calculated that – over a seven year period – people travelling on a scheduled flight had a one in 14 million chance of dying.
Over a seven year period – people travelling on a scheduled flight have a one in 14 million chance of dying.
With that in mind, a passenger who used air travel every day would survive for an average 38,000 years before succumbing to a fatal accident. All in all, it’s extremely unlikely that something will go wrong on your journey.
However, it can often be difficult to feel reassured in the face of something you dislike so much, so we’ve made a list of all the things you can do to ease flight nerves both before and during the journey.
Fear of flying before the flight
The lead up to a holiday or any kind of long journey can be stressful at the best of times because there is so much that needs to be sorted out. If you’re a nervous flyer, the whole experience becomes ten times more nerve-wracking.
✔️ Get prepared
‘The best way to stave off flight nerves the night before a journey is to be as prepared as possible for your trip,’ says sunshine founder Chris Clarkson. ‘Make sure that all of your packing is done and dusted and you have everything set aside that you could possibly need, including all of the important travel documents and even lay out the outfit you’re planning to travel in. In the morning, you won’t have the added pressure of worrying about anything at all and you’ll have time to relax and go about your normal routine.’
✔️ Eat a hearty breakfast
It’s important to make sure you fuel your body right in preparation for the journey ahead. Even if nerves make you feel too nauseous to eat, an empty stomach will do you no favours on the flight.
‘Make sure you have a decent breakfast on the morning of the day you are traveling and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated,’ advises Clarkson. ‘It’s also a good idea to avoid caffeine the day before and on the day of travel, as well as alcohol. Both can contribute to further anxiety if you are already feeling nervous about the flight.’
✔️ Book your seats
In the run-up to your journey, it might be a good idea to look into whether or not you get a choice in where you sit on the flight. If you’re able to select your seats on the plane when booking or during check-in, Chris advises avoiding a seat next to the exit points.
‘The added responsibility of having to open the doors in the event of an accident – which is often what cabin crew staff say to people – will not do anything to ease your nerves, so pick a seat away from these areas,’ adds Clarkson.
✔️ Try meditation to calm the nerves
Many people also hail meditation as a good way of tackling anxiety-inducing events such as flying. Indeed, research by Dr Sara Lazar, of Harvard University, found that regular meditation can change the structure of people’s brains and make anxiety less likely. Try ten minutes a day of guided-meditation from apps like Headspace in the week or two before your flight.
Fear of flying on the day
Flight nerves are always at their peak on the day of travel. Make sure you’re awake with plenty of time to do your final pre-journey preparations and get to the airport on time.
‘Try and arrive at least two hours before your flight. You don’t want to be stuck in a traffic jam worrying that the plane might leave without you, even if getting onto the aircraft in the first place is the last thing you want to do,’ says Clarkson.
Eating a large meal before the journey can increase the chances of you falling asleep during the flight.
‘Travel stress before the flight will just make the whole experience more uneasy for you. Distraction is also key, so on the day of travelling nervous flyers should look to keep as busy as they can. If you have spare time at home before leaving for the airport, put on your favourite TV programme or a film, or do some last bits of housework to keep your mind occupied.’
✔️ Try medication
If you are able to eat a large meal before the journey, it can increase the chances of you falling asleep during the flight. However, in extreme cases your doctor may even be able to prescribe you some medication to help you relax or get some rest on the plane. If you think this could help you then it might be worth speaking to your GP.
Fear of flying and boarding the plane
Waiting for take-off can often be one of the worst bits for nervous flyers, but remember that you’ve done it all before and know what to expect. Take a look around you; see how relaxed the other travellers are and familiarise yourself with your surroundings.
‘To prevent yourself from getting into a panicked state once you’ve boarded the plane, make the cabin crew aware that you are a nervous passenger,’ recommends Clarkson. ‘They will give you extra attention and keep an eye on you during the flight to try and keep you at ease. Make sure the people you are traveling with know how you feel and ask them to help to keep your mind off the flight; whether that’s by sparking up a conversation or making jokes that they know will make you laugh.’
✔️ Pay attention to the pre-flight briefing
Although some people think that listening to the safety instructions can increase nerves, it’s always good to give your total attention to the pre-flight briefing and demonstrations. Understanding what to do in the case of an emergency can have a calming effect, as the knowledge of what to do will make you feel more at ease.
Fear of flying and take-off
Again, to handle take-off and quell your fears, distraction is the best course of action. Put on your favourite music and crank the volume so it drowns out the noise of the engines, and read a book or magazine – focusing on written words is a good way of blocking out what is going on around you.
‘Some people like to close their eyes, but this can actually be a bad idea because it’s much better to focus on something,’ suggests Clarkson. ‘The movements of the plane and the speed can seem much more frightening if you have your eyes shut. For many, something as simple as holding the hand of a partner, friend or relative and breathing deeply can help.’
For many, something as simple as holding the hand of a partner, friend or relative and breathing deeply can help.
An open blind will reduce the feeling of claustrophobia, but Clarkson advises keeping your focus on the sky during take-off. ‘Keeping your focus on the buildings, fields or roads below will make your nerves worse if you see them getting smaller and smaller as you ascend, so it’s best to avoid looking down.’
Fear of flying during the flight
Well done, you’re off! Now it’s time to attempt relaxation (deep breaths). Keep talking to the person next to you, and try to channel their calmness. If they’re not worried, why should you be?
Sometimes things can get a little bumpy. Turbulence – caused when jet streams of air move at different speeds – are all part and parcel of flying, but for nervous passengers it can be an unnerving experience. ‘Turbulence is rarely anything to worry about and is something pilots are very experienced at dealing with,’ reassures Clarkson. ‘It’s just like experiencing a bump in the road: whilst uncomfortable, it’s unlikely to cause any damage to the plane or passengers.’
✔️ Talk to the cabin crew
Talk to the cabin crew if you are finding turbulence alarming. They’ll more than likely be able to tell you exactly what’s going on and how long it’ll last, which will be reassuring. Also, notice how they’re still managing to go about serving drinks and helping people without so much as batting an eyelid? Let that calm you.
✔️ Breathe deeply
If you do feel a panic attack coming on, try and have someone you’re traveling with alert a member of the cabin crew. They are trained to deal with nervous passengers and will be well equipped for the situation.
‘If you find yourself completely gripped by panic, do not underestimate the power of deep breaths,’ says Clarkson. ‘Concentrate on your breathing and use the in through the nose, out through the mouth technique. If the cabin crew supply sick bags for nauseous passengers, use one to breathe into. Keep doing this until your heart rate returns to normal and you feel calmer. Have a drink of water and sip it slowly instead of taking big gulps, as taking on fluid can stop you feeling faint.’
Fear of flying and landing
If the plane landing is a sticking point for you, turn to your travel companion and talk (or think if you’re alone) about what you have planned over the next few days – where are you going once you’re off the plane? What are your plans? Discussing these things will have you thinking about the excitement of your trip rather than the unpleasantness of the journey.
‘Tactics to calm flight nerves during landing are very similar to those which ease worries during take off,’ says Clarkson. ‘Distraction, deep breaths and just knowing that the flight will be over soon should be enough to take your mind off the plane’s movements.’
✔️ Enjoy your holiday!
It’ll all be over in minutes, and then it’s holiday time! Once you’re off, don’t let the journey hang over you. It’s done now, time to move on. Most importantly, try and think of the journey in a positive light rather than focusing on any negative aspects. Facing your fears and tackling them head-on can be an empowering experience, and it will make you stronger the next time you fly.