Last Saturday I travelled back from Cape Town, where I spent a glorious few weeks enjoying the sunshine with family and friends. It reminded me how grateful I am that I’m able to board a plane and be with my loved ones on a different continent within half a day.
But travelling by aeroplane arouses a deep sense of anxiety for many people. In fact, Anxiety UK estimates that at least 1 in 10 people experience fear of flying.
In today’s blog, I’m sharing 4 ways that you can deal with the fear of flying. Even if this specific type of fear doesn’t apply to you, these 4 strategies are useful when it comes to working through any anxiety-provoking situation.
1. Recognise that your Fear Doesn’t Reflect Reality
The protective system in the brain is responsible for keeping you safe. It weighs up whatever evidence it has about this particular situation, and makes an assessment about whether you’re safe in that situation or not.
If it decides that you could get hurt, it sets off its “fear alarm”: bombarding you with a sense of fear and worried thoughts as a way to let you know you should avoid this situation at all costs.
But in the case of flying, as with many fears, the protective system is so zoomed in on the negative evidence that it’s not making an accurate assessment.
The more aware you are of a risk, the more afraid you’ll feel. This doesn't mean there is actually more risk - just more awareness.
Chances are your brain is over-focused on plane crashes you’ve heard about on the news and the scary safety sequence that happens before you take off. What it’s not taking into account is the reality that more than 99.99% of flights arrive safely. The chance of a plane crash happening is as low as 1 in 11 million, and new technology has meant that turbulence hasn’t caused a plane crash in over 4 decades.
The first step, therefore, is simply to acknowledge that your fear does not reflect reality and to realise that you cannot trust that fear. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you’re unsafe.
How to put this into action? When you land safely at your destination on the other side (and there’s a 99.99% chance you will), be careful not to believe fear when it says, “Phew, luckily I made it!”
Instead, intentionally point out to yourself that your arriving safely was not the exception, but the rule: “It makes sense that I arrived safely because flying is a very safe form of transport.”
2. Train Yourself to Stay Calm
In the time preceding your flight, you can mentally practice staying calm on a flight, which will prepare you to be calmer during the real thing.
This is a process called “systematic desensitisation” and is a cognitive-behavioural therapy technique used to overcome phobias.
Chances are, even imagining taking a flight will cause anxiety for you. Systematic desensitisation works by pairing the thing that makes you anxious (flying) with relaxation techniques, so you train your body to stay calm in that situation.
Here’s how to do it:
Start by making a list of the different parts of the flight that make you anxious, from least anxiety-provoking to most anxiety-provoking. The first thing on your list should feel uncomfortable but manageable – if it doesn’t, go even smaller. For example “arriving at the airport” might need to be your first step; something like “experiencing turbulence” might be last.
Put your hand over your heart and begin taking slow, deep breaths into your belly (you can refer to step 4 of this blog for guidance). Once you start to feel more relaxed, begin to imagine the first step of your anxiety list. Your anxiety will rise, but keep breathing until you calm down again.
Repeat this step until you’re able to stay calm while imagining it. Only then move onto the next step and repeat steps 1 to 3.
Moving too fast can be overwhelming. It’s really key that you start with the least stressful event and work your way up in that order, only moving on to the next step when you’re able to imagine that step and stay relatively calm.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing this practice on your own, consult a professional who can support you through it.
3. Anchor Yourself in the Positive
The purpose of negative emotions is to prompt us to action (in the case of fear, it’s “avoid this”). The purpose of positive emotions is resilience and recovery from stress.
You can strengthen your ability to stay calm and to withstand the anxiety by actively seeking out positive emotions. This is not about “being positive”; it’s about intentionally seeking out good feelings that will anchor you and keep you distracted from your worried thoughts.
Positive emotion calms down the protective system in the brain, making it less likely to activate a strong fear response.
The night before the flight, plan to do something that makes you really happy. During the flight, even the movies you choose to watch can help: pick a comedy or something inspiring, which will elicit warm positive feelings, rather than an action or a thriller. Oxytocin, the “love hormone”, is especially powerful in calming the body’s stress response, so you may want to hold the hand of a loved one or go through photographs of a happy time during take-off.
4. Just Breathe
Have you ever noticed how, during any stressful situation, you hold your breath? Your protective system causes you to do this, the moment it decides you’re at risk, because holding your breath accelerates the stress response and makes you more sensitive to everything that’s going on around you.
The best thing you can do to calm yourself when you’re experiencing fear or panic, therefore, is to breathe.
It’s simple but powerful because it reverses the body’s stress response and sends the message to your brain that you are safe.
The points I’ve given you above will strengthen you to be more resilient in preparation for taking a flight. They’ll help reduce your fear of flying over time. But breathing can help you to cope with panic when it arises.
Some tips for deep breathing:
Sit up straight and breathe into your belly, rather than your chest. Your belly should go out when you breathe in, and in when you breathe out. This may take some practice!
Try breathing in a 4-4-4-4 count. Inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold of 4 – and keep repeating. But this is mainly about slowing your breath (especially the exhale) so use whatever count feels right for you.
Place your hand over your heart while you breathe to further calm yourself
The Calm app includes one of my favourite breathing tools: the “breathe button”. You can access this on the free version of the app without signing up for the free trial.
Wishing you a wonderful journey, and a calm flight.