October 21, 2021

Tackling Flight Anxiety

Sometimes when we feel out of control, we pursue control like it’s the Holy Grail. The search for control is, of course, futile; there are only so many things we can influence. 

After nearly two years of a pandemic, this need for control has manifested in an unexpected way: flight anxiety. On a recent cross-country flight, a flight attendant shared that more passengers than ever are anxious in the air. Some of these fliers are seasoned travelers who never had a problem at 30,000 feet. But the pandemic was destabilizing and, reticent to expose ourselves to Covid-19 infection, we clung close to our homes. With decreased travel, our fears multiplied. Now the airplane seemed less familiar and more dangerous.

I could hit you with statistics about how safe air travel is. Nothing has a perfect record, but you are much safer flying to Bora Bora than you are driving to the local grocery for milk. It doesn’t feel that way because you’re not “controlling” the plane, but neither are you controlling the other drivers on the road. It’s illusory control. But that probably won’t help you either. 

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably staring down the barrel of an imminent flight and looking for tips. So here are my top five ways to tackle flight anxiety. I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped my clients. 

  1. Cancel noise. Normal airplane noises often trigger anxiety in nervous flyers. The roar of the engine, the groan of the landing gear, the chime of mysterious notifications that seem charged with ominous significance. If this sounds like you, go get yourself some noise-canceling headphones. You don’t need to hear all those noises. You need to relax. 
  2. Tell your flight attendant. Before the flight begins, inform the flight attendant of your anxiety. This way, the flight attendant can periodically check on you to make sure you’re doing okay. Often, flight attendants will explain what’s going on with the flight so the nervous flier feels more “in the know.” Informing your flight attendant will also help if you find yourself crying out in fear during the flight. 
  3. Download the Calm App or another meditation app. The Calm App is so soothing, within minutes of toggling it on, I’m completely at ease. In addition to meditations and soundscapes, the Calm App offers stories and songs, including a particularly soothing, trippy, lengthy masterpiece by Keith Urban. Even anxious fliers fall asleep to that one.
  4. Visualize. If you’re an anxious flier, you probably experience intrusive thoughts of aviation disasters and all the things that can go wrong. Why not counter these images by visualizing a smooth, uneventful flight? Along these lines, I like to encourage clients to park by John Wayne, LAX, or whatever airport they’re flying out of, and watch planes take off and land. The repetition, the sheer number of planes taking off and landing each day, is a huge consolation. It makes one flight feel less significant and more routine.
  5. Have medication at the ready. If you have experienced panic attacks or other severe reactions to flying, it can help to seek a prescription for anxiety medicine from a psychiatrist. You can use these medications as a backup or even take one prophylactically before the flight. Do what works best for you. 

I wish you a safe and smooth on your upcoming travels.