I distinctly remember the moment when my fear of flying first started. I was eight and my mom was having a panic attack on our flight to Puerto Rico. While my mother felt as if she couldn’t breathe and the world was closing in around her, my dad calmly sat back, nibbling on a cookie. Watching someone with authority, like a parent, have this type of reaction was enough to cause my own fear of flying.
I’m far from alone, though. Aerophobia, or fear of flying, is pretty common—more than 25 million adults in the U.S. share my pain. But why are so many of us terrified of the safest form of travel? The 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.
No matter how rare plane crashes or emergency landings may be, it’s the scary stuff that we fixate on most. But there are active steps you can take to ease the anxiety and make airline travel somewhat enjoyable (or at least bearable). While travel journalists have made it work sans flying, try a few of these helpful remedies before you write off air travel and deny yourself the chance to see some of the most incredible places on Earth.
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.
To the people clinging to their pill bottles: There’s nothing wrong with drugs 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 (and so do many other fliers). 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.
Give holistic options a shot
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. Same goes for alcohol. 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 or yoga. Endorphins help fix your life for a little while, IMO.
Once you’ve eliminated chaos from your diet, try 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 potentially chill you out, as well as reduce anxiety and pain.
You can also try a dash of lavender oil, chamomile tea, calming supplements (kava, vitamin B, 5-HTP), or melatonin, if you’re on a red-eye or long-haul and want to be knocked out the natural way.
Engage in some trusty breathing exercises
It’s kind of crazy how much breath exercise can affect the mind and body. Psychologists have debated this phenomenon for a while; do our physiological symptoms inform our thought processes or visa versa? Download a meditation app for a guided approach to clearing your mind and slowing your heart rate through breathwork. One of the breathing techniques 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 repeat 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 near Mount Fuji, a favorite pastime of anxious fliers everywhere.
During rough patches, it helps to look out at the wing and see how gently it’s actually moving. I asked Dr. Julia Vigna Bosson from Union Square Practice in New York 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.”
If you choose a seat near the front of the plane or the wings, you’ll also feel less turbulence.
Choose your playlist carefully
There are tons of resources online for calm- and sleep-inducing playlists; personally, I’ve found that they work, so it’s worth trying. To get you started on the right track, I even made you a playlist of the songs I most often listen to when I’m taking off and landing:
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. Tear-jerkers are also helpful because it’s tough to be anxious and sad simultaneously.
Tell your neighbor that you’re a nervous flier
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 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. But with flying, therapists have to get a bit more creative.
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 there are a few disclaimers, as Dr. Bosson politely pointed out:
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, a decade, Dr. Bosson suggests taking a trip to an airport before the day of your departure to familiarize yourself with an otherwise intimidating environment.