Every time I sit in my seat on a plane and the engine starts roaring on the runway it hits me. The ”oh shit, can I still get off?” feeling. The same one as when you sit on a roller coaster and the security bar clicks. But too late now, honey. Maybe you ended up here because you feel the same way.
It’s funny, because I have been been flying my whole life and the fear of flying hit me only as an adult. It started with one bad flight involving a panic attack, turbulences and way too much imagination, but somehow it’s never left me since. Some flights are easier than others and I think I’m finally getting past it, and then on others it hits right back, my palms are sweating and I’m jumping in my seat at every sound and movement of the plane. But because I refuse that the fear of flying would keep me from seeing the world, I have not stopped flying for it and rather have tried to find ways to make flying less uncomfortable whenever possible and just survive with it when not. I haven’t managed to find a miraculous solution that would get me rid of the fear of flying completely, but I have found some ways to ease the anxiety when I fly.
If you’re afraid of flying, you most likely have already heard the phrases ”flying is the safest mode of transport” or ”you’re more likely to die on your way to the airport than on the flight itself”, and you probably know rationally that flying is not something you should be afraid of. I have spent an insane number of hours watching videos on how airplanes are built and how they work, as well as aircrash investigations. That might sound counterintuitive, but for me those have actually helped me understand how many things have to go wrong for a plane to come down from the sky in a fatal manner and how rare that is. Understanding better the technical aspects of a plane help me realise why a plane makes certain movements or noises, and what keeps it in the sky in the first place. Overtime, I got so keen on this content that I actually developed a real passion for aviation… While still being afraid of flying, yes. But this has helped me, and maybe it can help you too. But as a shortcut, here are some ways I have managed to control my fear of flying a bit better over time.
My tips for getting over fear of flying
1. Rationalising flying
– Changes in sounds and feel are normal. You’re in a goddamn tin can flying in the air at 900km/h. It is normal that a plane makes different noises and feels different in different stages of the flight, quite in the same way as a car makes different noises going at different speeds. Different types of aircrafts also behave a bit differently, so a sound that you’ve never heard before might just be because you haven’t flown in the specific aircraft type or in the same specific conditions. Don’t panic about changes in the sound of the engine or other sounds or if the plane feels different. It’s part of the normal functioning of the plane.
– The Swiss cheese model is a basic safety priniciple in aviation: the idea is that for each possible accident scenario, there is a number of slices of Swiss cheese piled one in front of the other. In that way, if there is a hole in one place, it will be covered by several other slices, and it is incredibly rare to end up in a situation where there is a hole in the same spot on all slices. In other words, there are so many safety processes and mechanisms backing one another up that even if something would fail, it wouldn’t be a reason to panic.
–Turbulence is uncomfortable, but not dangerous. You probably have heard that one before. When the plane is shaking it’s so easy to start panicking, but airplanes were made to fly, and considering how frequent turbulence is, it would be crazy that a plane wouldn’t be able to handle it. This comaprison is maybe less scientific (thanks Tiktok), but it helped me conceptualise it: a plane in the air is like if you put a small object (like a small ball of paper) into a jelly. If you shake the jelly, the object shakes in it, but it doesn’t fall to the bottom. When passing through turbulence, I just try to think about being that little ball of paper in a jelly, and it kind of helps.
– I often get nervous because I am not in control and don’t know what’s happening. That’s why also watching videos about how a plane works has helped me be more at ease. But there’s someone up there with you who knows exactly what’s happening all the time and who is fully in control. Pilots are a extensively trained professional whose mission and calling is to take you safely from a to b. Think about that. You might not know what’s going on, but they 100% do, and they probably didn’t even notice the bump you just freaked out about because it was completely normal.
2. Body and mind tricks
– When I’m nervous as the plain takes off, goes through turbulence or takes a turn, I sense my whole body getting really tense. But I’ve noticed that it only makes me more stressed, and with a tense body I also feel every movement of the plane mroe strongly. So when I notice myself doing that, I try to relax my body instead. I put my feet firmly on the ground, sit straight, close my eyes and breathe in and out. I focus on my breathing and let my body move with the movement of the plane. Suddenly it feels lighter, and before I know it the ”rough patch” is already behind.
– Another technique I use sometimes is quite different: sometimes when I get nervous it helps to ”feel the power of the plane”. Think about it – you’re sitting in a metal tube thousands of meters above the ground that goes at close to 900km/h. Just think about the power of the machine that carries you for it to be able to do that. Thinking about that brings some sort of comfort that the plane’s got my back.
– I often get nervous during landing. The feel and sounds change a lot, the plane often has to make big turns, and you see the ground getting closer. I start wishing we’d be back in cruising altitude where at least there are not that many changes happening, but then I tell myself the the plane has to land eventually. This might be dumb and thinking about it also makes me feel a bit silly in the moment, but it really helps. How am I expecting to get down if the plane is not allowed to land? Everything that I’m feeling, hearing and seeing needs to happen for the plane to land. I also start narrating in my head different steps related to landing to rationalise all the changes happening (turning to align with the runway on final approach, changing flaps, decreasing speed, landing landing gear down…) and it calms me.
– Figure out which seat feels the most comfortable. Turbulences for instance feel the strongest at the back of the plane, so if possible I try to not sit too far in the back. Try also different seats between aisle and window and see which one feels better. On one hand, the window seat allows you to see what’s happening outside which might help (for me it’s somehow usually reassuring), but on the other hand not seeing for instance how steep the bank angle is when the aircraft turns might keep you calmer on the aisle seat. On your next flights, just pay attention to where you sit and whether that makes you feel more or less comfortable.
– Finally, when I prepare for a flight I make sure to have distractions of all sorts. One thing might work in one situation and another in a different one, so I try to have plenty of options. I always keep my noise cancelling headphones with me (I usually put them on even if I wouldn’t be listening to music just to soften the noises around), a book, movies, games on my phone, music.
And voilà. It’s not a magical remedy and what works for me might not for you, but I hope you get something out of my list that makes your next flight a bit less uncomfortable. Let me know your best tips if you have any, I’m always looking for new ways to trick my brain into relaxing.