In fairness to all of us anxious flyers, our brains really go through it when turbulence strikes. “What is occurring in the brain is a normal and protective release of chemicals triggered by a frightening event,” explains Alyson Smith, MD, managing director of emotional health and well-being programs at Delta Air Lines. “These chemicals are doing their job by telling your body to prepare for danger—your heart rate goes up, you might grasp the arm-rest, and your muscles get tense.” If your brain has anxious tendencies to begin with, especially around flying, it might continue to release these fight-or-flight chemicals, making it more difficult to think rationally, she adds.
- Allie Malis, flight attendant and representative for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants
- Alyson Smith, MD, managing director of emotional health and well-being programs at Delta Air Lines
- Jared Hodge, pilot for Delta Air Lines
- Sigríður Svavarsdóttir, flight attendant for Icelandic airline company PLAY
Understanding more about turbulence and what causes it may help you deal a bit better during a bumpy flight (read: be less likely to spiral). Here’s what you need to know, along with how to deal with your turbulence anxiety the next time you’re in the air.
First of all, what is turbulence?
Turbulence occurs when irregular air currents disrupt the path of the plane. It’s not that different from experiencing the effects of wind that creates waves when you’re on a boat, explains Delta Air Lines pilot Jared Hodge. It’s common for the takeoff and descent to be turbulent, as well as briefly flying through the wake of another plane.
"Turbulence is a common event while flying and is rarely associated with any real danger or risk." —Alyson Smith, MD, managing director of emotional health and well-being programs at Delta Air Lines
Turbulence also depends on the weather. “During the summer season, heat thermals can impact why it’s so turbulent during takeoff and landing. When the ground is heated by the sun, warm air begins to rise and creates pockets of rising warm air,” says Hodge. Those pockets often create turbulence, especially if there’s a thunderstorm somewhere near the flight path, until the plane rises to a higher altitude. The same goes for the winter months: Cold, low-pressure air can create extra wind and therefore more turbulence in planes flying through that air, according to Hodge.
You could also experience a more turbulent flight if you’re going to be flying over mountainous terrain, adds Hodge. (Heads up if you have a cross-country flight coming up: You’re going to hit some bumps around the Rocky Mountains.) Most of the time, pilots have plenty of notice to help them avoid areas of turbulence, but there are times in which the plane unexpectedly hits rough air, and there’s nothing the pilot can do but go through it.
Can something bad actually happen when the flight gets turbulent?
It can be super anxiety-producing when the plane starts to shake and rattle, and it’s normal to think the worst. “However, turbulence is a common event while flying and is rarely associated with any real danger or risk,” assures Dr. Smith. (According to NPR, it’s “almost unheard of” for turbulence to cause a plane crash.)
To ensure as smooth of a flight as possible, pilots use a tool that predicts any weather events or turbulence along the way and try to climb to a higher or lower altitude to avoid turbulence as best as they can, explains Hodge. But if turbulence does happen, it’s not a sign of the plane going down or crashing.
That said, people can be injured during turbulence if they’re not sitting in their seat (all that bumpiness can make people fall). This is why pilots ask passengers to return to their seats during rough patches. Thankfully, these injuries are rare: Per the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 34 passengers and 129 crew members were reported seriously injured due to turbulence from 2009 to 2022. Considering that there were 853 million airline passengers in 2022 alone, your odds are pretty good that you won’t be injured due to turbulence.
How to deal with turbulence anxiety on your next trip
However, just because you know something bad likely won’t happen doesn’t mean that your anxiety will get the memo—particularly when your trigger is something as objectively unpleasant as turbulence. Try these tips to help you cope with turbulence anxiety the next time you’re on a plane.
Sit near the wing (or up front)
Where you book your seat might have an impact on the level of turbulence you feel. “While turbulence can occur throughout the aircraft, some passengers find that sitting over the wings or toward the front of the aircraft may result in a smoother ride,” says Sigríður Svavarsdóttir, flight attendant at the Icelandic airline PLAY. This is not an absolute guarantee that you won’t feel turbulence when it strikes, but a seat toward the middle (or up front, if you can swing it, financially) could make you more comfortable.
Fly at night or in the early morning, and open your window shades
The timing of your flight could have an impact on your level of turbulence anxiety, too. There tends to be less turbulence in the early mornings or overnight, says Dr. Smith. This is because there’s less thermal activity affecting the air, since the sun is not as strong during those times of the day. Yes, believe it or not, it’s one good reason to take those red-eye flights.
If you’re flying at night and have the window seat, keep your shade open. “Looking outside can help you deal with turbulence, because when it’s dark, you don’t have a sense of direction, which can cause more anxiety,” says Hodge.
Do a calming meditation pre-takeoff
To help ground yourself before the flight even takes off, do a visualization exercise. You can get creative when picturing something calming. It could be as simple as envisioning the plane landing safely at the end of the flight, Dr. Smith says. “Or perhaps, that you are a kid on a trampoline, or on a boat in the ocean instead of on a plane in the air,” she adds. Do some deep breathing, counting your breaths as you go, and put on some calming music in your earbuds.
Don’t hit the bar cart too hard
You might think a little airplane bottle of your go-to liquor will help take the edge off. “Contrary to popular belief, people still feel anxious when they consume alcohol, and sometimes alcohol makes anxiety worse,” says Dr. Smith.
The same goes for coffee. Having too much caffeine, no matter what time of day you’re flying, could make you more jittery on the flight. Svavarsdóttir recommends staying as hydrated as possible instead, so you feel your best (just not so hydrated that you have to pee every 10 minutes, though, because the turbulence is not going to be any more comfortable from the restroom).
Don’t experiment with new meds, either
If you’ve never tried certain medications that claim to “relax” you, doing so while flying isn’t the best idea. “Flight attendants do not suggest experimenting with new anxiety medications or sleep aids for the first time on an airplane,” says Allie Malis, flight attendant and representative for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. Try traveling with a friend or loved one who can help you talk through your anxiety instead, she suggests.
You also can speak to flight attendants any time throughout the flight. “Passengers might find comfort in informing the cabin crew of their anxiety, as we are trained to provide support,” explains Svavarsdóttir.
Stay grounded by checking the facts
As easy as it is to get wrapped up in worst-case scenario thinking, try to stop your brain from those thoughts. “Learn to avoid catastrophizing,” says Dr. Smith, describing a thought pattern common with anxiety where your mind fixates on the worst possible outcome and replays it over and over. “That usually means focusing on what you know is real instead of what might happen, or focusing on what is in your control, like your seatbelt staying buckled and your breathing remaining calm,” she suggests. (Check out some more techniques for escaping catastrophic thinking and other anxiety mind traps.)
Reassure yourself after the flight
It’s not uncommon for flight anxiety to continue after you land. If that’s you, give yourself time to relax and unwind—try to do something that brings you comfort after each flight, suggests Svavarsdóttir. That could be grabbing your favorite airport snack, blasting your favorite playlist when you get to your destination, or taking a walk in the fresh air after exiting the airport.
To desensitize yourself to the anxiety of the flying experience, Svavarsdóttir also recommends reflecting on the success of the flight, whether it’s that you safely landed, or that you were able to calm yourself mentally throughout. That way, you can use your prior experiences of safe flights to check the facts next time you’re in the air.
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