It would begin the moment I booked a flight somewhere, anywhere – it didn’t matter. Up until that point I was excited to be travelling, even if it was just for work. I loved sorting through flights and hotels, and working out how I would get from or to the airport. But in that second when I committed to a flight the panic would set in.
At first, it would manifest as a vague discomfort nagging beneath each day. But the closer I got to getting on that plane, the worse the fear of flying would become. Four days out I’d have haunting, shadowy dreams about really awful things happening but nothing so specific that I could remember details when I woke up. The dreams fed into my steadily increasing disquiet until I would be utterly and totally convinced that I should not get on that plane, that to do so would be tantamount to suicide. This sense of foreboding would take control of the days leading up to the flight to the point where just getting myself to the airport was an act of will.
When I got there I took the first – and only – step I had to mitigate the fear. I had a drink. A glass of wine calmed me a little. Which became two. Which became three. Even if it was only 6.30am. Even if I was headed off to spend the day training a room full of people. The only way I could get myself on that plane was to dull my senses. I never got drunk. Never broke the law. The alcohol wasn’t a cure, but it passed as enough to get me to my seat without making a total fool of myself.
Outwardly, I was the picture of calm. I didn’t pace, chew my nails or sweat profusely. I didn’t cling to people or talk incessantly about the statistics of plane crashes. I didn’t have the energy for that. All of my resources were trained on one thing – just getting through this hideous experience with my sanity in tact.
I’d do my best to think of other things as I cued up, as I took my seat. I’d have music ready to listen to, something to read in my hand. But it made no difference. How could I concentrate on even the finest works of fiction when I knew the place was about to come crashing down to earth?
I’d strap into my seat, get my stuff arranged how I liked it, tilt my head back and close my eyes, breathing deeply despite the adrenalin thundering through me. Hyper-aware of everything going on around me, the first jolt as the plane moved away from the gate would start my heart pounding. I knew what was coming and I wanted to be pretty much anywhere else on the planet.
Taxiing wasn’t too bad – we were on the ground and clearly not ready for take off. But that moment when the plane turned into the runway, when the engines flared and the brake was taken off sent me into a dizzying spiral of terror. Rumbling down the tarmac my hands, white-knuckled, gripped the seat, teeth clenched like I had lockjaw. The plane would reach critical velocity, take off and I was in utter hell. Every bang, crash, rattle and creak sent waves of panic through me. I would sit there, every muscle in my body stretched to capacity and repeat to myself over and over, “This is intolerable, this is intolerable!”.
It may surprise you to know that around 10% of people suffer genuine anxiety when flying, and another 10% aren’t all that comfortable with the experience. For the most part, people are afraid of either one (or both) of two things. The first is pretty obvious – that the plane might crash. The second is the dread of losing self-control, of having an actual panic attack in public, while trapped on a plane with no way off. For anybody who’s suffered this, you’ll know how horrifying the idea is.
Of course, the silly thing is, flying is safer now than it has ever been since Messers Wright pulled the craft out onto the field at Kitty Hawk. It doesn’t require masses of scientific studies to prove that flying in a plane is safer than the drive to the airport – or indeed, staying at home. Planes are built with double and sometimes triple redundancies, crews are trained in every conceivable – and a few inconceivable – possibilities. Heavens, a pilot managed to land a plane on a frozen river and not a single person was injured! I think we can confidently say that flying is safe.
Which has absolutely no bearing on a fear of flying. Because that fear isn’t rational, like all those wonderful facts above. Fear is irrational and as a result, is much harder to control – largely because it’s a well-proven survival instinct. If none of us felt fear, our ancestors wouldn’t have survived long enough for us to be born.
I hadn’t always been afraid of flying. As a kid, I’d loved everything about flying. The idea of getting on a plane and going somewhere was unspeakably exciting. Then one day that changed – although it took years to work out how and why.
Understanding the Causes
When I was about 22, I went on a roller-coaster – not a common thing for me as I suffer from motion sickness. But I didn’t want to miss out and was prepared to brave the risks for the experience. I was seated in the front right corner of the forward carriage. Back then, they simply lowered a bar across your lap and it locked into place to stop you falling out.
We took off and it wasn’t too bad. Then we climbed to the top peak and dropped down the other side – but instead of going up again to dispel some of our speed, this roller-coaster did a sharp turn left – which would have made me a little nauseated anyway – except that the bar holding me into my seat chose that moment to come unlocked. The momentum pulled me out of my seat and half way out of the car. I was a bee’s dick away from flying to a spectacular death and only my steely grip on the bar stopped me.
I was a shaking, gibbering mess after I got off that ride, unable to speak or even walk for a good half hour. I did recover (although steered well clear of such rides in future) but I wasn’t to know that the experience had left a deep scar on my psyche that would surface years later.
For a long time, I just put up with it. I gritted my teeth and tried to focus on how great it would be when the plane landed. But work demanded more and more flying time and with each flight, my fear became more acute – to the point where I actually cancelled a trip because I couldn’t face getting on a plane. My boss was not impressed. It was time to do something about my fear of flying.
My first step was to understand the problem better, and I found a really good book: Flight to Delight. It focuses on a form of psychological treatment called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) which put more plainly, is a way of recognising triggers in your behaviour and then having techniques ready to deal with them. It works by identifying and then changing unhelpful ways of thinking and feeling. It might appear odd at first, but it’s a very successful technique.
The book lays out a series of questions to help define exactly how your fear of flying manifests itself and then provides ways to challenge those beliefs. Once challenged, you can then create a new set thoughts – called ‘self-talk’ that you use when you’re flying to better control how you feel.
It’s a little hard to describe how this works without going into immense detail, so I’ll just give you an example of one of my fears:
Fear of Flying Cure Step 1
The process begins with identifying the adverse situation: Flying to Auckland
- Identify the beliefs: that the noises and banging and bumping and shifts and turns when the plane takes off means we’re about to crash
- What are the consequences of those beliefs?: Afraid to fly to Auckland
So to challenge those beliefs we focus on the truth: That the noises and banging and bumping, shifts and turns during take off are actually examples of exactly what happens when a plane takes off safely. The plane is supposed to do that. When a plane does that, it’s proof that the plane is taking properly and safely.
The consequences of the new beliefs is that I felt a lot better about taking off in a plane because I could replace that awful negative repeating cycle of self-talk with this new truth. And yes, I went through the process of typing these out, laminating them and then reading them repeatedly throughout the boarding and take-off process – and it made a huge difference to my anxiety levels. Not a cure, but a big step forward.
One of the down sides however was that I had to do this reading and preparation for at least two weeks before every flight and I found that very difficult to keep up. Eventually I again found myself having to fly for work and dreading the very idea, my fears all back in force.
In desperation, I went to my doctor and told her my story. I expected a shrug and an instruction to stop worrying about it, but what I got instead was, “Oh you poor thing!” Her response completely changed my life.
Fear of Flying Cure Step 2
She explained a few things about traumatic experiences and what they do to the brain. Basically, there’s a part of your brain essential to our survival instincts, called the amygdala. It’s where the “fight or flight” response is driven. When you experience intense trauma, the event “image” is imprinted on the amygdala so that it can recognise the next time something that scary happens and can trigger the fight or flight response. Effectively it takes a snapshot of dangerous shit and gets you the hell out of Dodge before anything bad can happen. When you’re surrounded by tigers in a jungle, this is a great thing to have at your disposal. When you want to get on a plane, not so much.
You will recognise this response as the core of what we all know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What I didn’t realise was that my roller-coaster ride had given me exactly that problem. Every time I got on a plane, my amygdala recognised sounds and movements, thought I was going through the same thing again and immediately triggered the fear response of adrenalin pumping, high blood pressure, terror, etc.
The problem with curing this is that shifting those imprinted things from the amygdala is very difficult and sometimes impossible. Which is why when my doctor suggested anti-anxiety medication I decided to take it. She explained that while the medication won’t fix the problem, it will help change my experience of flying by suppressing the anxiety reaction and keeping me calm. She said there was a possibility that over time, repeated new, calm experiences of flying might replace that imprint of terror. I was willing to try anything.
I took just half a pill 20 minutes before I got on that first flight. Fifteen minutes later, it was like somebody had flipped a switch. I literally went from a state of high-stress anxiety – to chilled in the blink of an eye. Over the course of the next year, I could pinpoint exactly when the medication would kick in – and hand on my heart, it was wonderful!
I sat on that plane with my eyes closed, repeated my CBT positive thoughts and just let the plane take off. No butterflies, no adrenalin, no clenched teeth, no mantra of terror. Nothing. It was like I was chilling on a Friday evening with a gin and tonic in my hand. In short, flying suddenly became a pleasure.
As each flight went by, I continued to take the medication (nope, I’m not saying which one – your doctor will give you that kind of information). Almost two years after that first blissful flight, I finally reached the point where I had no choice but fly without the pill. I was doing a short hop from Washington DC to New York city early in the morning, after which I would be spending the day sight-seeing around the Big Apple. The last thing I needed was to feel sleepy and drowsy all day. So I decided to take a chance.
I got on that plane like a boss. And I enjoyed it. No more fear of flying. And yes, that’s right – drug and alcohol free. And I loved every minute of it. My one complaint? That I couldn’t see anything of NYC as I came into land at Kennedy.
I got off that plane walking on cloud nine! I couldn’t believe that at last I was finally free of that dreadful curse. That not only could I fly without fear, but that flying itself could once again be something enjoyable. I had never felt so free as I did in that moment.
I’m no neurologist and the scientific details are extensive – but for me, I no longer have a fear of flying and in fact, I love it. A combination of CBT and medication cured me of my fear of flying. Now any excuse to get on a plane now is a good excuse. And that’s just how I like it.
Do you or have you had a problem flying? Please share your experiences below. I’d love to hear from you.
Wow this is so similar to my fear of flying. I used to love flying and flew a lot when I was young because I lived abroad, than when I was about 22 I all of a sudden got petrified with the thought of being on a plane. I was on a flight from Atlanta to DC and we flew through a horrible storm. The plane suddenly dropped twice and I couldn’t see anything out the window. We were descending to the airport and I could feel the plane going down but not see the ground. Even my dad, who has flown small planes before, looked nervous. Obviously we made it safely and I’m sure the pilots didn’t even sweat the landing. Ever since then I have had horrible anxiety about flying. The media coverage of disasters doesn’t help. I’ll try your tips and hopfully be a success like you 🙂
I so feel your fear. It’s that kind of experience that can ruin flying for you – even when nothing bad actually happens. One extra tip I know a lot of people (including myself) use even today: watch the cabin crew. If they don’t look bothered, then nothing bad is going to happen.
I hope you get on top of your fear and enjoy flying again. 🙂
I started having anxiety reading this because this is EXACTLY how I feel when flying. I’ve basically stopped flying because I can’t stand the anxiety and the impacts to my health. Since you also get motion sickness, I hope you don’t mind answering this question. I’ve never taken the anxiety meds my dr offered because I always have to take Dramamine for the motion sickness and I was told to not take them together. Do you find that you’re motion sickness is okay with the anxiety meds alone? Thank you for writing this and I’m so happy (and admittedly jealous) that you are able to enjoy flying again!
I had exactly the same concern when I was prescribed the anxiety meds and asked my doctor about it – actually, I asked about how they would go together. She told me that I literally wouldn’t need the nausea tablet as the anxiety meds will prevent the nausea reaction to motion. I admit I was dubious – but she was right. When I started taking the anxiety meds, I never had any motion sickness. And even now, when I no longer need to take the meds, I don’t get motion sick in planes. I do still get it when a passenger in a car – but not when I fly. I’m sure there’s some fabulous scientific explanation for the change, but I don’t know what it is. I’m just happy that I can fly without taking any kind of meds at all. Talk to your doctor and see if you can work something out. If you want to fly, it’s definitely worth asking the question. 🙂
I really loved this article. It’s like you just described exactly how I feel right now (flying tomorrow). I actually shared this to my friends so they would understand better my fear. I’ve never talked the fear with my doctor, but maybe I should?
Anyway, thank you so much for this post!
I’m so glad you found my post useful. I have found it quite difficult in the past to communicate to people just how impossible it can feel when you’re so terrified of flying. I hope you can talk to your doctor and find a path out of the fear as I did. I hope your flight is okay.
Thanks for your comments.
Do you think the book really helped, u really need to do this have walk off a plane twice now my family went without me I cried for days
I’m so sorry you had that awful experience. Yes, I do think the book really helped. This type of therapy is widely researched and practiced by professional psychologists and is particularly good if you want to do it yourself. Give it a try and let me know how you go.
Thanks for your comments and good luck!
I’ve been there too. I’m hoping this year will br the year I can do it
This is spot on IE can relate to a T.
Ive not flown since January 2014. Had 6 failed attempts at flying/ bit of a (mental) blockage. Im guessing Xanax to ease me over the ‘hurdle’ (?
Great piece of writing.
I’m so sorry you’ve had such trouble flying. The medication is only part of the solution. Learning about what your brain is doing and teaching yourself a little about how to curb the worst reactions to flying are really the key. Fortunately, those are things that you can practice before you get on the plane. The medication will just get you over the first few flights until it becomes easier. I don’t take anything any more and really enjoy every flight I take.
Thanks for sharing your story!
I can also relate.
I’m currently in a pickle as my family want me to fly to my grannies birthday in a June in the UK and I’m based in Australia & the flight is the only thing stopping me!
I just don’t know how breathing techniques & cognitive can work for me as I can’t think straight at all when on board.
I was terrified for my 3 hour flight a year ago but I had to get on the plane as it was for MY wedding! Ha!
How did you manage to “keep calm” to achieve the calm cognitive thoughts? Was this without meds?
Also does the medication you are talking about make you sleep the whole time?
I’ll be flying with two kids so it’s not something I can exactly do!
Thanks in advance!
I feel your pain. I only ever found the first few hours of a long haul flight unbearable – unless there was turbulence, or when the plane started to go into landing mode. You know, where it turns and shifts and lines itself up to the runway.
Anyway, my advice is to do the preparation long before you ever get on a flight. Twice a day, take 5 minutes to just practice breathing in and out, with your eyes closed. Just breathe in and out, slowly, feeling how your body will automatically calm itself (seriously, it’s a physiological response to deep breathing).
Get into the habit of using that as a trigger to feeling calm. There’s no point waiting until you’re on the flight – because by then, you’re already in full-blown anxiety mode and the sensible, logical part of your brain is literally shut out of the thought process.
I would also recommend you seeing a doctor about medication for that specific anxiety – to take before you get on the plane. It’s an awful thing for anybody to suffer – but those who don’t just don’t get it. Your doctor should understand.
And as my experience has taught me, the more time you spend on a plane NOT being anxious, the more your brain recognises there’s nothing to be anxious about.
My cure didn’t happen overnight. It took about 3 years – but I still love flying and I’m so glad I took the time to address that fear. I never like my fears to stop me doing what I want to do.
Good luck 🙂
Hi! This article is really helpful, I feel that stress exactly. Are there any tips for a non-medicated flight? I have to fly without amxiety meds and I’m not sure how to calm myself down. Thank you!!!!
If you can’t take meds, then you definitely need to do the preparation before hand. Starting at least 2 weeks before you fly, every single day without exception.
You see, what you’re trying to do is to reprogram your brain to interpret the sensations your experience on your flight so that it recognises them as good, not scary – and that takes time and a little effort.
Firstly, start taking 5 minutes twice a day just do close your eyes and do a little deep breathing. Feel how it calms your body down and concentrate on how cam you feel. The more often you can do this when you’re not anxious, the easier it is to do when you are. Do it so much that the deep breathing becomes a strong habit.
I used to do start this in the waiting area prior to boarding. Then, once seated, I’d deliberately relax my body, breathe deeply and recite a Buddhist mantra. It was just 12 lines repeated over and over and as the plane started moving and taking off, I concentrated on getting that mantra perfectly correct, again and again. By not focusing so much on what was going on around me, and using my practiced breathing, I actually got my anxiety under control for those trips where I couldn’t take medication (or alcohol). It didn’t fix it perfectly, but it was a whole lot better than without it.
Also, it’s worth doing the thought exercise to write down exactly what you’re afraid will happen and then the sound, rational, logical answers to that. Do this when you’re weeks away from flying. I had the answers written down so I could glance at them when anxiety started to grab me before I got on the plane. Soon I had them memorised:
That noise I’m hearing is supposed to be there. So is that bump. That’s the normal operation of the plane. In fact, if that noise WASN’T there, then there would be a problem. What I’m feeling and sensing and hearing is exactly what a perfectly operating plane sounds like. These aren’t signals of danger, they are confirmation of safety.
I hope that helps.
Hi, I don’t know if your name is Mckenzie but mine is. My friend call me Kenzie as well. I have flown a total of 9 times if I’m correct. All flights have been fine except for my last one in January 2018. Flying from fort lauderadale to Cleveland, Ohio it started as a smooth and normal flight. About an hour in we hit turbulence at first it was nothing major other then a few bumps but then it started to get slightly more intense, nothing I have felt before. I started getting scared. I tried to remain calm as everyone around me was fine. It stopped. I went back to being ok. About 15 minutes later it started up again except it was worse this time. I could see the plane it’s self tilting from side to side and bumping around way more then I have ever felt. I even let out a shout and dropped a tear. I will say I have never experienced fear on that level in my entire life. I was thinking about death, and only that. The turbulence lasted about 45-hour, and we finally made it and landed safe. Getting off the plane I felt weak and had chest pains. I wasn’t myself all night. I actually was down for a few days. Now 2 months later I have booked a flight to California, which will be the longest straight flight for me (5 hours) and I am petrified. I have read a few things on what i can do to help get me through this flight and I just hope and pray everything will be fine. I will be flying with 5 other friends so that is a lot more comforting then flying alone or just with one other person but I am still just as scared. That last experience for me was traumatizing and I hope to over come this new fear that I have developed. Your article was nice to read and comforting to know you over came your fear of flying.
Lovely post . Yes i am a fearful flyer. i am not ashamed of accepting it. After all we need not be perfect. But it was not like this at all,till a few years back. i loved window seats, requested for them, peeped out into the night, admired dark clouds, looked down at the ocean far below, marveled at some zig saw long dried out rivers that looked like international date lines from 40,000 feet above, oil rigs burning away into the night like torches, dead oceans God alone knows what all.
Six years back one flight changed it all! A beautiful normal journey turned into a hellish rocking cabin of no escape. The sudden storm from nowhere just made it into a dreadful metal coffin. It never stopped buffeting .The FA’s were strapped, no service at all for the parched struggling passengers.
I cried and prayed in desperation.As the plane ducked,bounced and shivered like a hapless dried leaf in a summer storm I prayed fervently begging my family Guru to save my life. I bribed lord Ganesha( the elephant Hindu God known to save people from bad luck!) with hundred coconut offerings, cash, kind,my service at the temple on Mondays. I called all Gods( we Hindu’s have 365 Gods dedicated for all days maybe more) to protect the ill fated Vessel. My family deity, Guru’s,from all religions. I begged God for forgiveness, to erase any bad karma and put me on the ground, just see the innocent face of my child once! But the plane never stopped shaking till destination Mumbai! After reaching the Mumbai skies it was not given clearance to land as the international flights were queuing up for take off. The buffeting flight remained hanging there for another good half hour.The ordeal seemed endless. We landed somehow! Phew! Hail Lord Ganesha and all Gurus!
After that night from an excited window traveller I transformed into a shivering fearful pussy cat strapped tightly and mewing at the first instance of turbulence from an invisible seat corner. I wait for the plane journey to end counting seconds minutes that add on to endless hours, with sacred chants under my breath , till touch down and run out at the first hint of gates opening.
Anyways ,all these years i suffered and travelled. Last month i decided enough was enough and cancelled an important assignment in Delhi, refusing to board that plane.
I realized my fear was real and crippling. A person going through this suffering is ashamed of speaking about it too. But I could not help it. Suffering in silence was taking a toll on me.
Though my family was supportive,they refused to understand such an irrational fear should exist, as the whole world traveled here to there in these metal bodies with wings?
But my fear is real. Horrible visions of turbulence from hell, plane plummeting to the ground, nose diving , being trapped in a small space with uncontrollable shaking till the crash into the Arabian sea, wings tipping to the sides, just come to me and I freeze.
I really did not know there were mediations for anxiety like this or people really took them for flying. As this part of the world believes more in meditation than medicines( Lol) I feared I could be branded mentally derailed.
I just went to my GP one day , asking him about my fear and if it was normal. I was pleasantly surprised when he said it was.
He just wrote a prescription and asked me to try it out at home before boarding any flight. It really works ! I feel happy and calmer . I was not worked up or anything when i tried medication at home. But i really prey it works up in the skies.The blogs like these remind me that I am not alone in my suffering.
My next flight is next month that I booked with nervous fingers gnawing my keyboard. I cannot say I am relaxed. My coping technique is I try replacing the fearful thoughts with happy ones. Then I have my meds. I will pop them and hopefully ,happily look out of the windows. One day might travel drug free!
Happy flying to me!
I’m so thankful to have found your post if for no other reason than to find that I’m not alone. I loved flying when I was younger too and am not terrified. I haven’t flown in a decade but I HAVE to for work in 5 weeks and I’m completely freaked. I’m looking at every possible option including CBT. I am going to look up that book you recommended right now. Medication is not an option for me which sucks because I know that’s how many people cope with the paralyzing anxiety. Thank you for writing this.
Wow! Reading this sounds like ME! I flew at 14 (NJ to CA) and 16 (crossed the Atlantic) without batting an eye. No fear! Didn’t fly again until I was in my 40s and suddenly…petrified. 4 yrs and over a dozen flights later, I am still trying to get over this fear that begins long before the actual flight. Like you, it’s hidden. To look at me you’d never know how much I’m freaking out inside. I take meds and like you, that helps. Distractions (movies, reading) helps too. As much as I hate it, I keep doing it, hoping I’ll get better in time. Tomorrow I essentially retrace my first flight and leave Philly for Orange Co airport. This time with my 3 adult kids!
Reading this helped. Helped me see that others suffer silently as well and it IS possible to get over this. Thanks
I have to fly in 2 days… and just thinking about it puts me on the verge of a panic attack- I have Xanax but my anxiety is so high I don’t feel it does anything for me. I’ve tried reading and watching a movie- listening to music. My last flight 2 months ago my best friend tried to hold my attention by practicing our ASL. Turbulence is what terrifies me. I know it’s normal but I can’t seem to get past it. In my head the plane is not on a bumpy road- (although I will close my eyes and pretend I am on a bus)- so it makes no sense to me that pockets of air should make the plane ride turbulent. Terrorist terrify me too. I’ve managed to convince myself a 1.5 hour fight is manageable. My next flight is 3 hours and I fear going all Benny and Joon on the plane. (Panic attack and flipping out)- I don’t have two weeks to practice but I did make note of what you said. I’m willing to try anything. I wish I could just sleep on a plane. Anyone know any tricks for that? Benadryl doesn’t work on me.
I’m kinda jealous you were able to pin point the trigger fear. I’ve gone to so many psychologists and they keep saying some form of past trauma is most likely triggering my fear but I can’t figure out what major event caused this. Your situation is identical to me. Loved flying up until my early teens and then it turned to pure terror. I’m getting better every time because I’m forcing myself to just keep “practicing”. I hope I get to the point where I can find it a pleasure to fly.
So sorry you’ve had no success pinpointing the underlying cause. The funny thing about my issue was that I had no idea that the roller coaster WAS the problem until it just suddenly occurred to me that a horrible incident in my past might be causing the problem. The moment I thought of it, I knew it was right – as the motion and movement felt exactly the same to my poor addled brain.
I hope you can work it out – but really, as you say, simply practicing and doing the exercises will get you there in the end anyway. I look forward to you enjoying flying as much as I do now.
I can’t seem to find the book. Can you provide the link?
You can get the book on Book Depository. This is the link https://www.bookdepository.com/Flight-with-Delight-Susie-Rotch/9781876687236. Good luck!