Taking drugs before a flight: Yay or nay?
Before a flight to Berlin in 2016, I asked around for over-the-counter solutions. “Take two Dramamine,” said a fellow anxious person. “You’ll knock right out.” But I believe I created symptoms in my mind that replicated motion sickness, and this is why I personally do not take drugs. For me, the idea of traveling at 500 MPH while in my head becoming a space cadet launched from Planet Xanax sounds like hell flipped upside down.
To the people clinging to their pill bottles: there’s nothing wrong with downers if that’s what works best for you. Talk to your doctor, or seek out a plane phobia therapist that can refer you to a psychiatrist. I talked to a coworker about her experience with Xanax on a plane, and she told me it will make you dazed, your heart rate will slow, and you'll get sleepy. Overall, she recommends it. I consider her a mid-level anxious person, no more or less fight-or-flighty than your average New Yorker, so take that with a grain of salt… Or water and a meal, if you go that route.
Try out some holistic remedies
But before you put anything into your body, be aware of how the substances you’re already consuming might affect your anxiety levels. Skip the coffee. Maybe even skip the sugary drinks and snack foods. If you feel frantic before the flight and you have some time at home to exercise, it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of cardio. Endorphins help fix your life for a little while, IMO.
Once you’ve eliminated chaos from your diet, try Cannabidiol (CBD) oil. It has less than .3% THC, the happy compound found in marijuana, which means you’re not going to Cloud Nine on the stuff, but CBD can still potentially chill you out, reduce anxiety and pain (and potentially decrease seizures and withdrawal symptoms). Its effects were described in a New York Times article as “balancing; a leveling, soothing sensation in the body mostly, and an evenness of attention in the mind.”
There’s also lavender oil, chamomile tea, calming supplements (Kava root, vitamin B, 5-HTP), taking a very slow boat or train, keeping your relatives fondly in your memory, always….
Engage in some trusty breathing exercises
It’s kind of ridiculous how much breathing can actually affect the mind. Psychologists have debated this phenomenon for a while; do our physiological symptoms inform our thought processes or visa versa? Point is, you don’t need to download a fancy meditation app to slow heart rate. One of the breathing methods that most helps me when I wake up in the middle of the night with a rapidly beating heart: Breathe in from your diaphragm for a count of four, and then breathe out for a count of six or eight. Repeat as needed.
Look at the wings during turbulence, and use a mantra
Let’s get this out of the way: It’s unlikely that turbulence will ever bring down a flight; when we asked a pilot, he could recall only one recorded crash caused by strong jet streams. The passengers were sightseeing Mount Fuji, a favorite pastime of anxious flyers everywhere.
During rough patches, it helps to look out at the wing and see how gently it’s actually moving. I’d always imagined turbulence to be God violently flicking us to and fro saying “u nervous r u nervous” while the pilot screams last remarks to his unrequited love… when, in reality, it’s a gentle flappy motion that has a surprising impact in the cabin. What can also help is keeping an eye on the flight attendants, or small children that are jumping up and down going, “fly fly fly!” which can really combat your inner “why, why, why must I die die die.”
I asked Dr. Julia Vigna Bosson from NYC’s Union Square Practice about how she usually treats patients with plane phobias. In addition to breathing exercises and exposure treatment (more on that later), she works with the patient to create coping cards that they can bring on the plane if they feel their mind is not rational enough in stressful moments to think anything but DEATH, DEATH, DEATH. I recommend “death is inevitable,” but she recommends keeping the glass half-full with mantras like, “Turbulence is uncomfortable but it is NOT dangerous.”
Try to sit near the front
It makes a difference turbulence-wise and is a bit quieter; you can actually hear your Rachel McAdams rom-com through those tinny complimentary earphones.
Get up, stand up
Try being that guy standing next to the mother rocking her newborn. If your heart is racing for no reason, it sort of helps the brain to semi-exercise and convince yourself that it’s the exertion, not the fear of demise, that has your body pumpin’ oxygen.
Use music to reduce anxiety
“Turning Down For What” is not the BPM you’re looking for. Science, Self-Help Internet’s BFF, says that the most psychologically calming BPM is, like, 60 BPM. We’re talkin’ “Someone Like You” by Adele.
There are tons of resources online for calm- and sleep-inducing playlists; personally, I’ve found that they work, so it’s worth trying. Here, look, I even made you a playlist of the songs I most often listen to when I’m taking off and landing. Disclaimer: if you’re the type to label any slow, minor-key song as “depressing” and write it off in fear it will hold a mirror to the tormented soul you're not quite ready to explore, steer clear and really just stick to Adele. Anyway, here’s the playlist: