I’m a nervous flyer.

Nervous as in, “there have been times when I thought they were literally going to have to sedate me during turbulence.”

Nervous as in, “for several weeks before each flight I will jolt awake at night with my heart pounding in terror at the thought of getting on that plane.”

Nervous as in, “I really wish I hadn’t become so obsessed with what happened to MH370 , because that’s all I’m going to be able to think of now, anytime I fly. Well, that and the plane that crashed into the mountain, obviously. And the one that got shot down. And … NO WAY AM I EVER FLYING AGAIN, EVER.”

So yeah: I’m a nervous flyer, is what I’m saying. Did you all get that? OK, good.

I’ve had this fear for as long as I can remember, and as my fellow nervous flyers will probably testify, no amount of people telling you it’s “The safest form of transport!” or “You’ve a higher chance of dying in the car on the way to the airport!” will talk me out of it. Seriously, it just won’t. (It WILL make me scared of the car ride to the airport, though, so I guess that will distract me for a while…) Because, the thing is, I KNOW all of that. I’ve read the statistics. I know it’s (mostly) safe. (Tell that to the passengers on MH370, though. Oh no, wait, you can’t, can you?) But none of that helps you at 20,000 feet, when you hit a bit of turbulence and your life flashes before your eyes, so over the years I’ve had to figure out some other techniques to get myself onto the plane.

The fact is, I DO fly – I kind of have to, given that I enjoy holidays so much – and I’ve no intention of stopping just because I go onto each flight with the absolute certainty that it will be the last thing I do. These days I cope with it much better than I used to, too – by which I mean I’m still terrified, but I’m no longer actually in tears during takeoff: progress, people! Progress! Here are some of the things that have helped me deal with my fear of flying…

TIPS FOR NERVOUS FLYERS

tips for nervous flyers: how to overcome fear of flying

Pack earplugs in your carry-on bag

Obviously not all of the things that frighten you about flying are things that are within your control. I hate turbulence, for instance, and there’s nothing I can do to stop that. Also, I fear death, and… well, there’s not much I can do about that EITHER. A few years ago, however, I realised one of the things that increases my anxiety levels is the sound of the engines. You know that roaring noise they make during take-off? And how it’ll sometimes seem to just abruptly cut-off at some point during the ascent? That absolutely terrifies me, and, left to my own devices, I will sit there like a coiled spring, carefully monitoring every slight change in the engine noise, and shrieking, “WHAT WAS THAT, DID YOU HEAR THAT?” every time I think I hear it change. (Or, you know, stop.)

The answer to that is a pair of cheap earplugs: I wear them for almost the entire flight, and if anyone’s going to tell me that’s bad for my ears or something, I’m simply going to respond that it’s better than a 10-hour panic attack, seriously. Not only do the earplugs dull down the cabin noise, they also stop me analysing every sound the aircraft makes, which leads to a more relaxed flight – or as “relaxed” as a flight can be when you’re scared of flying, anyway.

Figure out your best distraction technique

I can’t really concentrate on movies or TV shows when I’m flying – they leave part of my brain free to worry about the fact that OMG I’M IN A TIN CAN THOUSANDS OF FEET ABOVE THE EARTH! Books, on the other hand, take up more of my concentration, so I always make sure I have a few really good ones on my Kindle (and also on my iPad, just in case…), so I can distract myself in the way I know works best for me. For you it could be music, or movies, or working on your laptop or whatever, but if you can find something that really occupies your mind, it’ll be a huge help.

Make the flight feel like a treat

I know, sounds impossible, right? One of the reasons I think flying has been easier for me over the last few years, though, is that I’ve tried to change my attitude towards it, and view it as a chance to relax a bit. When you’re self-employed, the run-up to a trip is particularly hectic and stressful, so I’ve reached a point where the flight itself is probably going to be the first time in weeks that I’ll be able to just sit down and read a book without feeling guilty about it, or like there are 100 other things I should be doing instead:  that mindset obviously doesn’t help much if we hit turbulence, say, but it does make the lead-up to the flight a little less anxiety-inducing for me.

If there’s a book I’ve particularly been looking forward to reading, I’ll normally try and save it for the flight, for instance, so I feel like I have something to look forward to, and I’ll also maybe buy myself a treat to eat on board or something – whatever it takes to make it feel a bit more pleasant!

tips and advice for people who are frightened of flying

Tips for nervous flyers

Think of something happy

This sounds really simplistic, but it’s a technique I read about years ago, and I’ve found it quite useful. Basically it involves focusing on something that makes you feel happy or calm whenever you start to feel anxious: so any time you find yourself starting to entertain thoughts of MH370 or whatever, you “replace” them with your happy thought, which can be anything you want. The book (I think it was a book, anyway – I honestly can’t remember where I read this, it was so long ago!) I read recommended visualising a child, or a pet or even a place that makes you feel calm: like I said, it sounds too simplistic to work, but it does help.

The rubber band technique

Related to the idea of replacing anxious thoughts with something else is the rubber band technique, which involves wearing a rubber band around your wrist (a hair elastic will do) and snapping it any time The Panic starts to creep in. This is basically a distraction technique, and there are different variations of it – you could also try memorising a list of objects, say, or reciting the times tables – again, anything that will help distract you from what’s happening around you.

Rescue Remedy

I used Rescue Remedy for years, before realising it actually wasn’t making much difference to me. (That’s not to say it won’t make a difference to YOU, obviously: I know plenty of people who swear by it…) My own variation on this is the little stress toy I mentioned in this post, which I like to hold during take-off and landing, which are the scariest parts of the flight for me. This works for me purely because I THINK it’s going to work – if you can find something YOU think will calm you down, then you never know… it just might.

Watch the Cabin Crew

I’ve had a few flights where I’ve been seated near the cabin crew, and watching them (er, in a non-creepy way, obviously) really helps calm me down. These guys fly all the time, so if they’re still calmly going about their business without turning a hair, it probably means that noise you just heard is totally normal. If the cabin crew are freaking out, on the other hand…

dealing with fear of flying

Watch the airplanes

This last tip probably sounds a bit strange, but it’s another thing that’s really helped me. A few years ago, Terry and I were en route to our honeymoon, when we had a pretty scary landing (Rather than bringing the plane down gradually, the pilot basically got us down to just above the runway, then dropped us like a rock. It probably felt worse than it really was, but it felt like we hit the runway at tremendous speed, then skidded down it until we finally came to a stop – and no, it wasn’t just me who felt like that, some people were actually screaming…). For the next two weeks, I worried constantly about the return flight, and really didn’t think I’d be able to get on the plane. On our last day, however, and totally by accident, we happened upon a stretch of beach which was right next to the runway (as in, the planes would fly over your head and touch down seconds later), and where quite a lot of people had gathered to watch the planes come in.

Standing at the end of the runway was super-scary (I couldn’t actually do it: the planes were so low it felt like you could reach up and touch them), but after a while we moved back a bit to where we could watch flights taking off, as well as landing. In the space of 20 minutes or so we watched flight after flight take off or come in to land, and although I never would have expected it to be the case, I found it really helped me realise how commonplace flying really is. Sure, it seems like such a huge, scary thing to nervous flyers like me, but the reality is that there are thousands and thousands of flights every single day, and most of them pass completely without incident. As I said way back at the start of this post, hearing the statistics on flight safety doesn’t help me one bit, but actually seeing them take off DID: who knew?

     *    *   *

So, those are my tips for nervous flyers: I don’t think anything will make the fear go away completely for me, but it does get easier to deal with when I use these techniques. If you’re frightened of flying, I’d love to know what helps you!

37 Comments
  1. Good post, this I really needed.
    All my flights were about 2h, never more. Soon I need to travel and flight is 12h long. I dont feel comfy about that at all. I m already nervous when I think about that.

    I think I will use some sedative and sleeping pills.

  2. Aerospace is an incredibly conservative, risk-averse, industry. That probably doesn’t help to know.

    The roaring noise that goes quiet is like joining a motorway in your car. You need to press the accelerator to get up to speed, but once there you can back off and just use the cruise control.

    Have you considered having a flying lesson? It can be helpful to understand the noises and the processes.

    1. A flying lesson is honestly one of the worst things I can even imagine (not that I could afford it, anyway!) – it would be like asking someone who’s scared of snakes to go into the snake house at the zoo!

      1. You can sometimes get offers so it’s not massively expensive unless you want a licence. Not that cost matters in this instance.

        I totally understand that logic doesn’t help phobias. Just throwing out suggestions (friend is a flying instructor and seems to get a fair amount of pre-holiday nervous fliers).

  3. This is really useful post. I am absolutely terrified of flying. I have always been a little scared but since the two Malaysian planes and also the one that crashed into the mountain combined with an absolutely terrible flight coming back from Germany in the bad winds we had last year I just cant even bare the thought.
    It has got so bad I cant even watch planes in films! I hopefully will get better as I do want to go on holiday again at some point in the near future 🙂 I was even going to try hypnotism and see how that goes.

    1. Yeah, the recent crashes etc have really made it so much harder… I’d been doing pretty well up until last year, and I really thought I was starting to get a handle on it, but now there just seems to be so many other things to worry about, not to mention the horrific images you can’t get out of your mind 🙁

  4. I attended a fear of flying course many years ago which helped me hugely, I have all sorts of breathing exercises to do on the plane combined with visualization and breathing exercises before flights. They also taught us technique to stop a panic if one happens – closing your eyes and pressing firmly (not too hard) on your eye lids. It works, apparently it suppresses the auto-immune response.
    It’s a lot of work and I am resigned to the fact that it always will be, but I find that the breathing/visualisation combo works pretty well and then using the eye technique as a last resort on board if I feel a panic starting.

    One thing I recommend not doing is drinking – a family friend suggested I try that.. In the end I was more panicked during the flight than I’d ever been before.

  5. I haven’t flown for more than 9 years now. On our Honeymoon we even considered leaving 2 days early and taking the train home from Rome rather than get on the flight we had paid for. Both of us are truly terrified of flying (nausea for the days leading up to the flight etc) and it’s stopped us from going to places we would like to see as there is just no way we are getting on a plane.

    But… My father is quite ill and I want to see him more. As I moved to another country, and they moved to the far north of Scotland flying is my only option for a weekend visit (it’s 2 days travel each way by car!) so I have to try something. Loving reading means I can try a couple of these tricks. Fingers crossed!

    1. I know how you feel – every morning this week I’ve woken up with my stomach churning with fear: it totally ruins the run-up to a holiday 🙁 Hope you manage to see your dad!

  6. Great post! I am petrified of flying. It is the scariest thing in the world to me and it has an effect on my brain that makes it remember every little detail of every single plane crash that I’ve heard of. My head has a compulsion to think purely of 9/11 when I fly….which is nice.

    We’re actually flying in a few weeks and with all of the recent plane crashes I am on edge BIG time. I’m definitely trying your earplug technique!

    B x

    1. I had to fly three days after 9/11 and it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done (even although it was a totally smooth flight). Security was super-strict and they wouldn’t let us take anything into the cabin at all, so I didn’t have a book to try to distract myself, and they’d switched the entertainment system off, so all I could do was sit there in the dark (it was a night flight, which is even worse for me – I hate flying in the dark!) and replay all of the horrific images we’d seen over the past few days in my mind: I didn’t think I’d ever fly again after that¬

  7. I will definitely have to try earplugs. I can’t believe I haven’t thought of it before, but weird take off noises definitely freak me out more than anything. A plane I was on recently was so rattley I was pretty sure bits of it were going to fall off. I’m with you on watching the cabin crew, too. If they’re still serving tea and coffee its probably fine.

    I have heard it recommended by psychologists specialising in anxiety that mental arithmetic that is slightly too complicated to do by rote is one if the best distraction techniques. Basically your brain can’t panic and do math at the same time. During turbulence I turn on the flight monitor and add, subtract, multiply or divide the various numbers that come up (like speed x time in destination) and it really seems to work, for me anyway.

    At other times when I’ve felt panicked enough to have physical symptoms, I’ve found I can really calm myself down by listening to a metronome that is set slightly slower than my pulse (and decreasing it as my pulse decreases). I know there’s some science behind the idea that rhythm can alter brain functioning, so it might not be as crazy as it sounds!

    1. Haha, almost ALL mental arithmetic is too complicated for me (total maths phobe here!) but I’ve read that trying to recite the alphabet backwards or something like that will have a similar effect: I guess anything that occupies the mind has to be a good thing!

    2. Along the same lines, a trick I once read about involves cooking a meal (in your mind obvs) – going through each step methodically. I’m not scared of flying at all (love it in fact) but do get insomnia sometimes and use the cooking method for that, as well as the times tables Amber mentioned. I guess it only works if you cook but you could probably use the method with anything that has a lot of steps to it.

  8. I really admire the people who are able to face their fear and fly anyway, especially because I know a lot of people who will just REFUSE to fly. EVER. And as much as I understand that some fears and just not rational and not conquerable, this makes the people who fly in spite of their fear even more to be admired. This is you facing your fears, people! Respect!

  9. My tip is Valium!! I found out my company has a private doctor and he’s very sympathetic to nervous flyers and taking the edge off the panic. Makes me think that NHS doctors would be worth asking too and honest to god it is amazing the difference that tiny pill makes to my flight. I’m terrified of flying because it’s super painful for me and I also hate heights and the thought of being inside a vehicle so utterly outside of my control – but I don’t care as much with a panic suppressant! For the truly terrified, it’s well worth looking into because it’s changed my life. I still hate flying, but I don’t have panic attacks now! I agree on the cabin crew tip and saving up a book you really want to read – they also help take these off for me too 🙂

    1. I’ve had valium from the NHS too – I guess it might depend on the doctor but I went through a stage a few years ago when my fear was even worse than it is now, and I was barely even questioned before they handed it over, so it wasn’t hard!

  10. This has honestly helped me so much!! I am flying on Friday and I have started to get heart palpitations already! Taking off for me is definitely the worst part, the engineer noise just really un-nerves me! Thank you for hopefully helping me to chill out! 🙂

  11. Hey Amber, i had no idea you were scared of flying, too.

    The great thing about reading this post was how much it echoed my own experiences: like you, I thought I would never fly again after MH370. I was bad before, but that horrible event really cemented everything that worried me about air travel and the feeling that a plane could just disappear unnoticed.

    However I have just taken three flights including 2 transatlantic and am feeling significantly better about the whole thing. Not least because prior to this I actually DID need tranquilisers to get on the plane and this time I got by on just a couple of stiff G&Ts.

    A huge part of this was to do with identifying as you have that the noises of flying are responsible for a lot of my fears. I don’t use earplugs, but I found that noise cancelling headphones with some loud – upbeat – music makes pretty much ALL the difference for me. It takes away the scary sounds that my mind will latch on to and interpret as danger, and it puts me in a better mood as I’m playing my favourite music (I had a very specific playlist). I don’t find that attempts at relaxation do any good as fear is the opposite of that – but fast paced rock music can help trick your mind into thinking the fear is actually excitement.

    I also spent some time leading up to my trip doing the whole ‘plane watching’ thing. I knew intellectually that thousands of planes take off and land safely every DAY – but my brain couldn’t comprehend so high a number. So I would count the number I personally saw flying over in a day, and I found that just getting to 20 or 30 made me realise how normal it was.

    Anyway, one final thing I found helpful that you’ve not mentioned so I hope it helps you is simply timeboxing the hours spent in the air and giving yourself an activity to fill that time – hour, or half hour depending on length of flight. En route to Miami I built in little chunks of fun things and made myself see them through before I allowed myself to do ‘phobic’ things like obsessively checking the flight status map or thinking about disaster. These included extended games of Kandy Krush, chapters of a novel, eating a meal (if I could force myself despite the crippling tummy wobbles) or watching an episode of Silicon Valley. It really helps to tell yourself ‘all you need to do is get through the next hour’.

    Hope this helps – the results are so worth it 🙂

    1. Oh God, yes, M370 must have ruined flying for a lot of us 🙁 Up until then I was really doing so much better with it, but now I feel like there are all these OTHER things I have to worry about, specifically involving the pilots and their state of mind, plus terrorism etc – I sometimes long for the good old days of worrying about simple mechanical failure! I know it’s not actually the case, but it really feels like flying all of a sudden got much more dangerous over the past couple of years, and when you were scared of it BEFORE that, it’s pretty hard to deal with! Watching flights really does help, though: my in-laws live right under the flight path for Edinburgh airport, and when you’re in their garden there’s a plane going over every couple of minutes or so – it’s noisy, but it does help you realise how many of them are taking off and landing totally safely every day. I always build it up in my mind to this huge event, as if it’s the only plane that’s every flown, and have to remind myself that it’s just one of thousands of flights that day, and they’ll ALL land safely!

  12. VALIUM.That’s my tip! I used to be pretty okay with flying. Then one day I was looking through our family albums, and as it happens my grandpa was a plane crash investigator. So here are heaps of photos in one of our albums of him at work with all sorts of grisly wrecks, with full on pictures of the wreck. Mmmmhmm. Totally a case of you don’t want to look BUT YOU MUST LOOK, and study every detail in the picture scenario. That’s scarred me good! So like you I am pretty obsessed with reading about plane crashes in the media, I have to read *every* single article I find, especially if there are gruesome pictures. And I obsessively read up on airlines safety ratings to the point where I am Rainman. There are certain airlines that you will not get me to fly with, no way.

    1. Valium has helped me in the past but I have had such trauma getting NHS GPs to prescribe it that in the end I just said screw it and found my own solutions (or went private). The stress of trying to acquire it can make the whole experience even harder. I do honestly wonder how other people seem to get hold of it so easily, as it normally takes a couple of appointments and some hyperbolic language to get them to prescribe at all, and then it’s usually a 2mg placebo dose which I have to save up in case of a bad return flight.

      However my recent drug free flights were almost as calm as my last drugged one was (and I have had a not great one with drugs also) so I do wonder exactly how much difference it does make…

    2. Oh my God, what a thing to have to in your family album! I know what you mean about having to look, though – for some strange reason, there have been a few air crashes while I’ve been abroad, with a return flight to get onto (trying to convince myself that this is just co-incidence!), and my family always try to stop me seeing the news coverage of it, but once I know about it, I just can’t help myself. I was absolutely fascinated by the MH370 thing and read everything I could find about it – not the brightest move when you’re scared of flying!

  13. Great, great post. I too am a nervous flyer (to the point I was in such a state once I was ready to get off a flight before takeoff!) I find meditation helps me (as well as a double brandy in the airport lounge!) This year I found a brilliant mantra in a magazine which really really helped me – “flying is an enjoyable part of the holiday” saying that over and over really got me believing!

    1. It does help if you can try and look at it like that… I remember the first time in years I was OK with it was during a particularly bad winter a few years ago: we had tons of snow, which lasted for weeks (very unusual for us) and had basically had us house-bound all winter… Terry and I booked a trip to the Canary Islands just to get away from it, and I remember being scared getting onto the plane, and just telling myself, “OK, this is what’s going to take me away from the snow” – sounds stupid, but it actually made me feel a lot better about it!

  14. Great tips! I too am a nervous flyer and like you, noise is a real trigger for me. Ah, yes, ear plugs, why didn’t I think of that? I am the ridiculously stupid looking passenger on the plane with her fingers in her ears and her eyes squeezed shut! You know, the one with the look on her face that says “if I can’t hear it, and I can’t see it then it’s not happening”!

    1. I’ve totally been that person! Before it occurred to me to take ear plugs I’d always go through takeoff crouches down in the seat with my fingers in my ears – must have been really re-assuring for any other nervous passengers near me!

  15. Wow. I can’t imagine how hard it must be, to be so afraid of flying but still love travelling! It would totally spoil my holiday if I was dreading part of it as much as that! I think you’re brave to keep going anyway. Perhaps you could do a nice cruise for your next trip 😉

    1. Ha, boats actually scare me more than planes: I have all the luck with my fears 😂 You just have to get on with it if you want to travel, though: I hate the weather here so much that I’m willing to do it just to get away from the rain for a while!

  16. Thank you!! This has helped calm my nerves already for my next inevitable plane journey. Like you I love holidays way too much to give it up completely so I am always looking for little ways to help myself get through it. I love the idea of treating yourself, I often buy myself a magazine at the airport or even a new skincare product to pamper myself while I feel much less than glamorous!

  17. I’m not as scared as you, Amber, but I DO dislike flying.
    In my case it’s not the noise that worries me, but the movement of the plane (especially during take-off and during turbulences).
    Some tips from me:
    – Music, because it helps me relax, especially now that it’s allowed during take-off and landing.
    – Slow, conscious breathing.
    – I’ve also tried valium / alcohol (not together!) in those phases when it got really bad. Yes, they can help.
    – I usally firmly grab the armrests and even “grab” to the seat in front of me with my feet. Thus I try not to book one of those seats with extra leg space.
    – My best bet during turbulences: closing my eyes and imagining that I’m traveling in a tour bus on a very bumpy road. Works like a charm.
    – During turbulences I sometimes like to look out of the window to see how little the plane moves in relation to the land or how little the wings move. Does not work when the wings are actually vibrating a lot.
    – I second the idea of watching the crew.
    I have to say, though, that I usually fly only inside Europe, and I’m really scared of the idea of a long-distance-flight. But I want to travel a bit farer some day, so we’ll see.
    Sonja

  18. I’m happy to have stumbled on this post by accident – I initially came on here to admire/envy your beautiful wardrobe & locks! I haven’t read all the comments so perhaps someone has mentioned it already, or know if it works, but I have recently purchased a Fear of Flying MP3 recorded by a clinical hypnotherapist Ursula James via her website and going to try that out for the next three weeks, see if my attitude towards flying changes – and perhaps report back here! Have you ever considered hypnosis? Or tried it for flying? Was definitely put off by the image portrayed on TV by stage hypnotists and Paul McKenna etc. but reading about clinical hypnotherapy recently I’m feeling brave enough to give this a go.

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