For a period of time this past year, few things sounded more terrifying than sitting in an enclosed space for several hours with hundreds of strangers—aka taking a flight. Now that the contagion risks inherent in doing so have notably diminished (stateside, at least), those feelings of anxiety should likewise decrease... right? Well, not quite. Psychologists say they're actually noticing an uptick in fear of flying.
"We've seen a big increase in the number of people contacting us about dealing with flight anxiety as they return to flying," says Tom Bunn, retired airline captain, licensed therapist, and founder of SOAR, an organization dedicated to helping individuals overcome their fear of flying. Bunn believes his perceived rise in fear of flying can be explained by more than just worries around catching COVID-19 while onboard—in fact, he contends that for a number of people, it has nothing to do with flying at all. Rather, he says, when something that was once routine becomes non-routine, it triggers a part of the brain called the amygdala to release stress hormones. "Stress hormones cause feelings that we associate with danger," he says.
So even if you once flew without a care in the world, the idea of boarding a flight now might make you feel more anxious simply because it's no longer something your brain is used to you doing.
And regardless of whether you were ever a frequent flyer, airplane travel requires you to give up a sense of personal control—something to which many of us have clung tightly this past year in whatever ways we could, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy from Fear.
For the past year, we've been powerless over the pandemic on a large scale, but we've been individually powerful (to a degree, and depending upon each person's specific circumstances and privileges) in the choices we've made to protect ourselves, whether by wearing a mask, social distancing, or otherwise. This has made us more aware of our individual responsibility for our own safety—and, perhaps, our own mortality, too—and that newfound awareness might make it difficult to give over our fate to strangers again.
"It’s natural to fear flying, given that being on a plane involves giving up personal control." —Carla Marie Manly, PhD
If you're feeling apprehensive about boarding a plane after being grounded, so to speak, for so long, what you're feeling is reasonable. "Whether you’re feeling newly afraid of flying or old fears are resurfacing, it’s important to be compassionate with yourself," says Dr. Manly. "It’s natural to fear flying, given that being on a plane involves giving up personal control. And after a year of being almost powerless at the hands of the pandemic, it’s normal for fears to surface as restrictions ease."
Fortunately, there is no shortage of tools you can utilize to face your fear of flying. Below find 14 tips for easing your newfound (or exacerbated) fear of flying in the post-lockdown era.
14 ways to overcome your fear of flying
1. Work through the ABC process
Remember those pesky aforementioned stress hormones? They serve the important purpose of making sure you are aware something non-routine is happening, says Bunn. At that point, he says you have a job to do and refers to it as "ABC."
"A" stands for assessment. "Automatic thinking is not assessment," says Bunn. "Assessment is needed to avoid jumping to conclusions. Is there evidence that the amygdala is reacting to danger? Is there an explanation—other than danger—for the amygdala to react and cause these feelings?"
So in this case you would assess if flying is actually dangerous, or if your amygdala is simply reacting to it because, for example, it's non-routine. "We, pilots, would not be doing this job unless it was safe enough. And, insurance companies are no fools; they sell pilots insurance at the same rates as non-pilots," Bunn says. In other words, the answer to whether or not flying is technically safe should be 'yes.'
Once you've made your assessment, you can move on to the next step, "B," which stands for building a plan. "Since flying is safe enough, if you need to or want to take a flight, taking a flight is a good plan," Bunn says.
Then, it's time to carry out your plan via the third step, "C", which stands for commitment. In this case, that commitment would be to take the flight. "When you reach this third step, there is no further need for notification," Bunn says. "The part of the brain where decision-making is carried out sends a signal to the amygdala to stop the release of stress hormones."
2. Focus on the positive reality
While in flight, Bunn reiterates the importance of focusing on what is really happening versus what you imagine is happening. "Why? Because what is real is not going to cause anxiety," he says. If you think something (likely, bad) is happening, he says to ask yourself if you have any proof of it. In all likelihood, the answer will be no.
Keeping your goals in mind for why you're traveling can be useful, as well. "It’s helpful to also focus on the reason you are flying—such as a trip to see family, a sea-side vacation, or connecting with a much-missed friend," Dr. Manly adds.
3. Take control
Even if you're being pressured to fly, Bunn says it's important to maintain a sense of control. "You still have a choice as to whether you fly or not," he says. "Make that choice—versus whatever the alternatives are—a conscious and deliberate choice."
"You still have a choice as to whether you fly or not. Make that choice—versus whatever the alternatives are—a conscious and deliberate choice." —Tom Bunn, therapist and retired airline captain
Another way to take control is to go to the window before boarding and memorize visually what is outside the jetway and airplane. "Use your photographic memory to record in detail what you see," Bunn says. "Then, when walking through the jetway, visualizing what is outside helps reassure you that there is an outside and the walls are not able to pressure you."
4. Be strategic about your space
Space, or lack thereof, can also engender or hinder a sense of safety and control. And many people find visual space more important than physical space to this end, says Dr. Manly. Because of this, you might want to consider taking an aisle seat—it'll give you more visual space than the other options.
Once you're seated, Dr. Manly says it can be helpful to obtain a sense of control around your physical space by stretching out your arms and legs into the area that is "yours."
5. Prep a self-care toolkit
Dr. Manly also suggests packing a “care package” for yourself that includes your go-to comfort items, such as a deck of cards, sketch pad, reading material, earbuds for listening to a soothing playlist, lip balm, and your favorite candy or mints. "Knowing you have distractions and self-care tools at the ready, you’re more likely to feel comfortable," she says.
6. Take desired health precautions
Given present (and recent past) circumstances, it's understandable that you might have some hesitation or fear around germs and cleanliness issues. "If [this is the case], simply take sanitizers and unapologetically—but respectfully—do what you need to do to feel safe and comfortable," says Dr. Manly.
7. Utilize the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise
Once you're onboard the flight, focus your energy on something other than your fear of flying. Bunn recommends the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, which is a way of occupying your mind so anxiety-provoking thoughts can't take hold.
First, sit or recline comfortably, and focus on an object in front of you—you'll want to keep that focus throughout the exercise. Then say "I see" and name something in your peripheral vision (you can do this silently, but Bunn recommends trying it out loud first to see which works better). Do it again, naming something else in your peripheral vision, and then continue until you've made five statements.
Repeat this exercise, only this time say, "I hear" instead of "I see," and name five different things you hear, separately. Next, say, "I feel," and name something you feel externally, not internally, e.g. "I feel the chair underneath me." Continue until you've made five statements. That completes one cycle. "It takes intense concentration—exactly what you want," says Bunn. "As you concentrate on non-threatening things, the 'fight or flight' hormones get burned off without being replaced. As they get used up, you get more relaxed."
For the next cycle, you want to switch things up slightly so your mind doesn't get bored and drift off to negative thoughts. So, instead of doing five statements, do four. Then, in the next cycle, do three, then two, then one. Finally, return back to five and repeat the exercise until you are as relaxed as you want to be.
8. Practice breathing exercises
"Free and portable, breathing exercises help us bring the calming parasympathetic nervous system onboard," says Dr. Manly. "For example, imagine a tiny dot in the center of your forehead. As you breathe in to a count of four, imagine the dot getting bigger. As you breathe out to a count of four, imagine the dot getting smaller. This breathing exercise—what I term 'pin-dot breathing'—is a personal favorite. I even change the color of the dot to suit my mood and needs—lavender is a favorite."
9. Consume distracting media
"Keep the 'visual channel' of your mind fully occupied with something concrete to keep imagination from gaining a foothold," Bunn advises. For example, he recommends buying magazines with splashy color pictures, and flipping through them to keep the 'visual' part of your mind busy. "This is also a great time to focus on needlepoint or puzzles if you like those activities," he says. Movies and video games are great distractions, too.
10. Filter out plane noises
Wearing noise-canceling headphones can help to filter out anxiety-inducing plane noises. If you're not watching movies or TV, Bunn recommends listening to music.
11. Acknowledge your feelings
While distraction can be key, it's not always possible. "Feelings are hard to ignore when they get big," says Bunn. "Instead of blocking them, notice them as soon as you can." He recommends writing them down. "Dumping thoughts and feelings out onto paper helps prevent buildup," he says.
12. Meet the captain
Of all his tips, Bunn believes this is the most effective. "Meeting the captain keeps you from feeling alone," he says. "It also puts you in personal contact with control. You will sense their competence and confidence. It helps to know they also want to get back home to their family, and they have been doing so for years."
"Meeting the captain keeps you from feeling alone. It also puts you in personal contact with control." —Bunn
To make this meeting happen, Bunn advises telling the gate agent that you need to board early because you're an anxious flyer, and that you need to speak to the captain. Not all gate agents will help you with this, but if yours agrees to do so, he recommends staying close to them so they don't forget you. "If the gate agent will not board you early, ask them to point out to you where you will be getting on the plane," says Bunn.
Once you're on the plane, find a flight attendant who isn't tied up in directing people to their seats. Tell them that you are an anxious flyer and are working on it with someone who says it's important that you meet the captain. Explain that you understand about security, so you would like the flight attendant to ask the captain for you while you wait in place.
It's critical, says Bunn, that you not approach the cockpit on your own. "Even if the captain or flight attendant signals you to come in, a sky marshal seated to the side might not see that," he says. "Wait to be accompanied."
13. Expect and understand the routine physical sensations of flying
If your anxiety is heightened, your brain may ring alarm bells around unfamiliar sensations, of which there are a few in flight. "Imagine this: You get in an elevator on the ground floor, and press the button for the 10th floor. The door closes, and as the elevator starts to rise, you feel heavy. As the elevator approaches the 10th floor, it has to slow down and stop. As it does, you feel 'light-headed.' In an elevator, you know what the feeling is about. You are just slowing down your ascent. Though this feels like falling, you aren't falling at all. The same thing happens in an airplane when we level off after a climb, or when we reduce power after takeoff," says Bunn. In other words, you may feel lightheaded at various points on the flight, but that does not mean you (or the airplane) are falling.
You'll also want to prepare yourself for the experience of something called noise abatement. "On some takeoffs, we reduce power after reaching about 1,000 feet (roughly 25 seconds after liftoff), which can be frightening if you don't know what it's all about," says Bunn. "Ask the captain when you meet him or her if the power will be changed significantly after take off, and ask how it will feel."
14. Seek pro help
People with major flight anxiety who don't find luck when implementing the above tips run the risk of believing their cause is hopeless, says Bunn. In this case, he suggests seeking professional help from someone like himself. "Regardless of how intense the fear, we can fix it," he says.
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