How to Get Over Travel Anxiety and Bliss Out on Your Next Flight
My first experience with fear of flying came when I was eight and my mom had a panic attack on our flight to Puerto Rico. I even wrote a poem about it: I have a knack for packing my backpack / on the plane my mom had a panic attack / and my dad ate a snack / a cookie in fact.
Any undergrad psych major could conclude from this stanza that my mother lost it on the plane while my father sat back and watched the world burn. More importantly, I definitely internalized some of this fear because my primary caretaker was, at that point, a Very Important And All-Knowing Person. So began my lifelong fear of planes, but I shouldn’t blame my mother exclusively. As an anxious human, it is my tendency to imagine death whenever it is possible. Maybe you can relate.
Why are we scared of the safest form of travel?
The most disturbing environment for an anxious person is a highly secured vacuum you must wait in for long stretches of time, with nothing to do but anticipate whatever you’re waiting for to finally occur. The entire flying process is like standing on the starting line of a race for a few hours, then waiting in your heat while they call four groups before yours, then assuming position on the line while someone with a starter pistol lists all the procedures you must follow should you trip and fall and almost die.
But why do we get so fucking terrified of the safest form of travel? Google “plane crash stats” and you’ll find a bunch of Reddit nerds bullet-pointing all the different ways you are more likely to die. Roller Coasters. Lightning. Ripe coconuts falling at a bad time. Your chances of dying in a car crash are 1 in 5,000, whereas the likelihood that you’ll die in a plane crash is 1 in a measly 11 million.
However rare plane crashes or emergency landings may be, it’s the scary stuff that we fixate on most. The availability heuristic messes with our psyche; this is basically a mental shortcut we use to make judgments based on examples in our memory that readily come to mind. In other words, even though US Airways Flight 1549 landed safely in the Hudson River and recruited Tom Hanks for the feel-good feature film Sully, your mind is still going to remember that not-so-goosed-up engine over every other successful flight landing that year. In terms of plane safety, Hollywood and the media don’t do you any favors.
Besides all that, take-off and landing are just plain intense. You’re in a massive aircraft plowing through bouts of wind, storms, and jet streams. You need to pop your ears the entire time (and what if they never pop again?!). Anxious brains aren’t in the wrong. You’re not wrong. It’s not your fault.
But there are active steps you can take to fix the problem. I can happily report that my plane phobia is gone (and so is my mother’s!) and there are helpful remedies worth trying out before you deny yourself what is arguably the greatest opportunity given to mankind in these modern times.
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:
Watch something moving yet unrelated to death
I’ve found inspiring documentaries to be particularly helpful because they root me in a reality I might theoretically one day get involved with instead of dying, as opposed to an action film where the screenwriters got lazy and killed the lead in a plane crash while Radiohead played somberly in the background. Tear-jerkers are also helpful because it’s tough to be anxious and sad simultaneously.
Tell the person nearby that you’re a nervous flyer
This one is hit or miss, as any overshare usually is. They probably won’t longterm care about you, or even short term, but saying something out loud to a person who isn’t sharing your same anxious narrative might at least pump some silliness into your reservoir of dread. During heavy turbulence, I’ve had frequent travelers tell me about their worst experiences -- they always beat the current situation, especially the time a man claimed the plane landed and had to go back up because it “wasn’t ready.”
If all else fails, try plane phobia therapy
Plane phobias can be difficult to treat. Exposure therapy, the method most people are familiar with, requires the gradual introduction of “triggering” stimuli that build into the Main Event. For example, with arachnophobia, you’d first think about a spider or talk about its qualities with a professional, and then one day the professional might bring in a contained tarantula or, I don’t know, throw a plush spider at you and scream “catch!” That was a joke. But, with flying, the therapist has to get a bit more creative if they’re going to facilitate your trip to see a recently-born nephew or something depressingly essential like that.
Virtual reality is one approach to phobia busting. More than allowing you to enter a cartoon world and play baseball against Jackie Robinson, VR has been shown to combat PTSD through exposure therapies that are otherwise difficult to mimic in an office environment. But what do I know? So I asked Dr. Bosson again; like any good therapist talking to an overexcited journalist calling about “cool VR mental health solutions,” she had a few disclaimers:
1. If you’re a gamer, you might not be impressed with this technology.
2. Not all practices, including hers, have the full chair-swivel-and-vibration situation going on. Just goggles.
3. Too much anticipation is never good, whether or not it’s filled with weeks of repeating positive affirmations with your therapist. In other words, it helps to already have a flight booked for a time in the near future.
VR sets often take you through the entire travel day, from hopping in the taxi to landing in Bermuda (subtracting, of course, the hours when complimentary pretzels are your only source of joy.) If you haven’t flown for, say, ten years, Dr. Bosson suggests taking a trip to an airport before the day of your departure to familiarize yourself with an otherwise intimidating environment.
Try the mental shift approach
Here’s what works for me, and this seems a bit nuts. This is for the extreme person. The Nothing Else Is Working person. The Scorpio with Cancer moon. I accept death and imagine the worst case scenario. I imagine it won’t hurt as much as some alternatives and that, even if I do burn for longer than a lobster boils, it certainly cannot compare to the gnawing anxiety I’ve let ruin my life for the week leading up to the flight.
I know accepting death seems radical, but if you’ve ever felt an ounce of existentialism in your whole life you know that there’s no rational talking down from the Alan Watts-type What’s the Point of Anything? There is no point and we’re all going to die. The best we can do is go down with a sweet documentary playing, our chair slightly reclined, and a plastic wine cup to toast to the modern era.