Managing a Fear of Flying

Have a fear of flying? Read on to learn how I’ve managed my fear.

Panic attacks.  Cold body sweats.  Nausea.  Hyperventilating.  Tears.  I’ve experienced each of these symptoms, often at the same time, due to a fear of flying.  While I don’t know exactly where or when I picked up this fear, I have suffered from a fear of flying since I was a pre-teen.

Growing up, my family and I did not fly often.  Our vacations mainly consisted of driving to Sanibel Island on the west coast of Florida or to Walt Disney World.  The few flights we took to New York were generally pleasant until I reached the age of 12.  I have a vague memory of my grandmother speaking to me about her worries on airplanes and, thinking back on this now, I wonder if listening to her was the start of my own fear of flying.

My fear looked something like this: I would remain completely silent for the entire flight with my eyes closed and facing forward.  I could not speak with anyone, answer any questions, or look in any other direction than directly at the seat in front of me.  If I happened to catch a glimpse out the plane window, I would immediately become dizzy and nauseous.  Generally speaking, if the plane experienced any turbulence, I would break into a sweat and I would often cry as we began the final decent.  All of this was unmanageable and seemed to get worse with each new flying experience.  I felt limited by my fear but had no way to control it; it was all in my head.

I’ve yet to see a colonial woman but I’ve certainly felt this crazy about flying before!

Once in college, I realized that traveling to other cities around the United States was worth the stress of flying.  I wasn’t going to allow my fear to keep me from exploring the many great sights my country had to offer, but I needed a way of managing it.  A brief explanation of all the ways I’ve tried to fight my fear:

  1. At first, traveling with my significant other seemed to do the trick.  I gripped my boyfriend’s hand and kept my eyes closed, trying to sleep, for the majority of the plane ride.
  2. When this wasn’t enough, I began to use a form of meditation, repeating the word “one” over and over again in my mind when I felt especially nervous.
  3. Next, I started listening to music for the duration of the flight.  I discovered that the original cast recording of my favorite Broadway musical seemed to be the most soothing.
  4. Once I turned 21, I added alcohol into the mix, drinking a glass of wine before boarding a flight in the hopes I would pass out immediately after take-off.  This often worked well until I woke up again.  I’ve definitely ordered my fair share of drinks on a plane to help maintain my sleepy state.
  5. Buying alcohol at the airport is expensive though, and I eventually switched to a small dosage of Xanax to calm my nerves.  Taking a 10mg pill on my way to the airport often helped for the duration of my flight (and would put me to sleep, too!).  However, my general physician refused to refill my prescription in fear of creating an addiction, so I wasn’t able to keep this up.
  6. I became a reader post-college and soon discovered that if I started to read before take-off, I would often fall asleep once we were in the air.  My naps never seem to last long enough but I would get back into my book when I woke up again.  Assuming the book was an interesting read, I was able to absorb myself in the story rather than my worries.
  7. Prayer, and lots of it.  For a while now, I’ve called my mom pre-flight to pray with me and continue to say my own prayers before, during and after the flight.
After a few drinks on the plane...
After a few drinks on the plane…

Over the years I have continued to use any combination of these techniques and continued to push past my fear of flying.  While all of these strategies are helpful, I’ve found that the most effective way to get over my fear is to keep flying.  Maybe this sounds crazy – force yourself to do something you hate again and again?! – but I’m determined to travel and I refuse to let this fear stand in my way.

I’ve grown into a calmer flyer (although I still have my moments) and continue to meet the challenge head-on.  In the last year alone, I’ve cried through a 10-minute flight on an 8-seater plane in Puerto Rico, almost vomited on a short flight from Brussels to Naples, and felt surprisingly comfortable on a 9-hour international flight back to the States.  Next week I will board a 10-hour flight across the Pacific from Honolulu to Sydney, Australia, a flight that, just a few years ago, I swore I would never take.  I am proud to say that I will continue to manage this fear in the name of travel and hope that my story will encourage others to do the same.  There’s an incredible world out there – it’s calling our name!

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Published by Ali Gaffey

An American girl full of life and adventure!

One thought on “Managing a Fear of Flying

  1. Growing up, I never had a fear of flying, even on flights in which I experienced turbulence. This year, however, I feel myself becoming increasingly nervous when flying, which is so odd! It all goes back to a particularly turbulent flight earlier this year on my birthday. I was flying from Cancun to Miami, and I had a moment where I genuinely thought the plane was going down — the turbulence was horrendous. Since then I’ve become extremely sensitive to turbulence (I actually knocked over my orange juice on a flight to Montreal earlier in the summer because my 45-minute Air Canada flight was about 40 minutes of really bad turbulence). Rationally, I know turbulence is not a big deal, but as with many things we fear, sometimes your brain freaks out way more than it needs to. The tips you provide here are great for handling any fears, and it’s great to see you pushing ahead to fulfill your desire to travel!


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