6.5% of the population has aviophobia, and with only 5% of the world’s population ever having flown in an airplane this figure is even higher. Maybe 30-40% of the population who actually flies have some fear surrounding being on a plane.
So I want to begin this guide to overcoming your fear of flying with an important point evidenced by those statistics – you are not alone. It may feel as if you are the only one who is afraid when you sit anxiously glancing around and wondering why everyone is asleep or watching movies, and whilst you fidget and look out the window and imagine the wings have dropped off or the engine has stopped every few minutes! But you are not, many many people have a fear of flying.
The severity of the phobia varies and can range from a mild nervousness, through to full-blown panic attacks or stopping flying altogether. Whatever degree your fear is, it is something you should deal with and take action upon so that it does not develop and stop you from being able to fly at all.
As the founder of this travel blog, and owner of a trip company Travel Girls Getaways having a fear of flying has been a huge challenge for me that is holding back my business, so and a few weeks ago I decided to take action. In this guide, I am sharing my fear of flying story, the action that I decided to take, why people have phobias, and how to overcome them.
My father is a pilot, my mother was an air stewardess, my brother just completed flight training and now flies commercial, my aunt was an air traffic controller, my grandfather flew planes in the war and one of my uncles owned an aviation business…. it’s safe to say flying is in my family. So how did I end up being the black sheep, and having an extreme fear of flying?!
In my younger years, I don’t remember being afraid, but in my teens I flew with my mother who had (despite once being an air stewardess) become a nervous flyer – her in-flight commentary was enough to set me on the path to fear. Then over the years, my small anxieties compounded with some unpleasant flying experiences. (I won’t go into what these were as my goal now is not to dwell on past bad experiences and instead to focus on new positive experiences – something you should also do!)
To get cope with my fear, I turned to drinking (A LOT) on the plane, and then to taking prescription sleeping tablets and reached a point where I was taking so much I could not remember the plane flight at all. I once fell asleep on the plane before we took off, we had been sat on by the runway for three hours due to a smoke detector not working in one of the bathrooms – I was so drunk I started texting my husband that there was a man in the bathroom with a snake and we could not take off until they got the snake off him…
I realised that drinking and sleeping tablets were not the answer to overcoming my fear, so I started flying with nothing at all. That obviously didn’t work and this year I took some flights where I went into a complete panic attack where I could not control my breathing, I could not slow my heart rate or stop the intense shaking in my legs. Then on a return flight from Africa in November I broke down in tears on the flight in front of our Travel Girls Getaways guests (not a good look!) and realised it was time to do something about this. So once I landed back in London, I started googling fear of flying courses and immediately booked the next one available.
Now I want to share what I learned on my fear of flying course and how I put it into practice to have a completely relaxed flight to Estonia to help you do the same!
FACTS ABOUT AIR TRAVEL
For many people, the airplane and their understanding of the plane and how it flies is the reason they are nervous. So understanding some facts about safety, training, and how the plane flies is a really important step to overcoming your phobia.
- 110,000 flights take off per day
- 1.2 million people are in the air at any time
- Flying is 100x safer than travelling by car
- 18x safer than staying at home
- 10x safer than being at work
- 8x safer than walking down the street
A fear of flying can be caused by the following:
- Lack of knowledge
- Lack of control
- Lack of familiarity
- Over familiarity
It is important to identify where your fear stems from so you can first address this by getting the knowledge and understanding of the airplane and air travel to help you overcome the fear.
THE PLANE, SAFETY, AND REGULATION
The airline industry is the most heavily regulated in the world, the pilot training is long and intense with re-evaluations every six months and the plane is tested under all conditions and equipped with backup systems for all eventualities – so you can feel safe in the knowledge that the air travel is the safest form of travel!
- The civil aviation authority sets regulations that ALL airlines in the world must comply with and if they don’t they are not allowed to fly into certain airspace
- You are only ever 180 minutes from landing should there be an emergency (on a flight to the USA)
- A plane can fly with zero visibility
- A plane can land with zero visibility but it can’t park which is often why you are diverted to another airport when there is fog
- A plane can fly with only one engine, and pilots practice flying with only one engine. However, if this does happen and an engine stops, they will land.
- A plane also has engine compensation systems and backup systems (again pilots practice losing these systems – every scenario is prepared for!)
- If there is an issue and a plane needs to land, oftentimes they will circle to burn off fuel. The reason for this is not because of fear of fire, but due to the weight of the fuel. The fuel is held mostly in the wings of the plane if the plane lands with this fuel it puts a lot of stress on the aircraft and therefore it is better to try to burn this off. However, a plane can and will land with all the fuel if necessary.
HOW DOES THE PLANE STAY IN THE AIR?
Nivin Phoenix, the pilot who taught at the Flying With Confidence course I booked, gave us an explanation of how the plane stays in the air and key things we need to remember when we are on a flight. The aircraft is held up by an interaction between the pressure above and below the wings which causes lift.
The wings are actually what is flying the plane and not the engines. Of course, the engines are required to get the plane up into the air. But should the engines fail, you would not simply drop out of the sky because the lift created by the air and the structure of the plane and wings means it could glide. (In any case, there are backup systems for engine failure so you should not worry about this!)
Nivin also helped us to understand how lift works by explaining that it’s almost like the plane is in jelly the whole time. If you were to imagine a spoon pushing through jelly, this is much like a plane pushing through the air. Whilst this analogy might be weird to some, it gave me a lot of comfort throughout my next flight imagining we are stuck in the jelly which is holding us up!
Another key point that I found really helpful was that Niven explained: “the plane wants to be in the air, in fact, it doesn’t want to come down and land, it’s in its element in the air!” – I kept repeating this to myself on my next flight!
One of the most uncomfortable things during a flight is turbulence. Despite knowing it was not dangerous, I would still tense up and take a poll of every person sitting around me and ask them if everything was ok.
“Turbulence is uncomfortable, but never dangerous.”
Nivin, our pilot on my Flying With Confidence course explained that whilst turbulence is uncomfortable it’s never ever dangerous. Imagine again the plane is in the jelly (the lift caused by air) then turbulence is the plane just being pushed around in the jelly, but we are safe and the plane is strong enough to withhold this.
Turbulence can come in a few forms, as you pass through clouds, as you enter, exit or are in a jet stream (a fast-moving pocket of air that sometimes planes fly in to speed up the journey – think of the turtles in Finding Nemo to imagine how this works!), wake turbulence which is turbulence caused by the planes own jets if you are circling whilst waiting in line to land, and clear air turbulence.
You can also feel more bumps as you cross the equator, or when you fly over the ocean, lakes or mountains. The key thing to remember and repeat to yourself is “turbulence is uncomfortable, but never dangerous”.
WHY WE HAVE FEARS
Coming from a family with a strong involvement in air travel, a lot of the mechanics of the plane, and physics of why we stay in the air was not new to me. I had this knowledge but when I was on a plane I was not able to talk myself into forgetting my fears or convince myself of the facts about the plane I knew to be true. My fear overtook and became uncontrollable.
Because of this the part of the course I was most excited for and had the most hope would help me was the session with Patricia Furness-Smith, an ex air hostess and psychologist who specialises in phobias.
Patricia explained the personality traits of people with a strong fear or phobia, are control freaks and people with good imaginations. These people have the ability to create a heightened sense of danger in a situation. Yep, I put my hands up to both of those traits!
PSYCHOLOGY OF PHOBIAS
The second and key part of a phobia is the use of our amygdala, the emotional part of our brain. The amygdala works on pattern matching, it works with our senses, what we see, hear, smell, touch and if it perceives any of these things to be a threat or dangerous it will fire up.
Why is this important when you think about your fear of flying? Well, the amygdala logs past experiences and then looks for matches in the future. So if you have a bad experience on a plane (or even a perceived bad experience), it will match this in the future and create an enhanced reaction when it sees a pattern or match.
When this happens your body will go into short term emergency survival mode and the following things will happen:
- You won’t be able to make decisions
- You won’t be able to think properly
- Non-essential processes in your body will shut down
- Your digestive system stops (giving you a dry throat)
- You will need to use the toilet regularly
- Your body will become flooded with stress hormones and start prioritising the emotional part of your brain and ignoring the rational/cognitive part of your brain
- Blood vessels can constrict, causing fast blood flow from the heart to legs and uncontrollable leg shakes
- Tips of your fingers and toes can get very cold
- You will feel isolated and alone and being on a plane where you perceive everyone else is fine will only enhance this feeling and the stress
When you consider all of this, you can begin to understand why talking to yourself rationally, or having someone else talk to your rationally about why air travel is safe whilst you pass through turbulence will not work. And this is the key to beginning to understand your fear and to overcome it!
OVERCOMING A PHOBIA
Patricia began with telling us a few things we should no longer do, as these things will never ever work in helping us to overcome our phobia of flying:
- Stop being angry at yourself. Don’t diminish yourself, or say to yourself your fear is stupid. This will only have the opposite reaction and actually heighten your fear.
- Mind over matter will not work. Emotions are 8 – 9x more powerful than cognition – therefore you cannot talk yourself out of a phobia and you cannot think yourself better.
- Both of the above apply to people travelling with you. Someone telling you you are being irrational, or that your fear is silly will not help. If you travel with someone – have them read this article and / or the books I recommend later so they can begin to understand your fear and help you to overcome it.
She explained that the way to get over the phobia is not to try and talk ourselves out of, rather start forming new behaviors, new memories, retrain the amygdala and learn methods to control our fears in order to overcome the confirmation basis that has helped us form the fear in the first place.
HOW TO GET CONTROL OF YOUR FEAR
Patricia told us that we must let go of any habits or behaviours we have had before or during the flight in the past that are associated with our fears, whether this is carrying a lucky bracelet, sitting in a specific seat or touching the airplane 3 times before we get on. Whatever it is we must stop that and create a new way of travelling.
For me, this applied to the way I sit when we take off, I sit forward in my seat to give the message to my body I am sitting up straight. Patricia told me sitting tensely like this was actually sending an immediate signal to my brain and my amygdala that I am ready for any threat or danger, increasing my heart rate and setting off panic before we even get in the air. She told me I must lean back in my seat on takeoff, relax my body and make sure I form a new habit and a new memory on my next flight. (Sidenote: I did just that on my next flight and it was one of the most pleasant take off’s I have had!)
Before The Flight
Before you take a flight start preparing weeks or months before. Not your packing, but learning your breathing exercises, reading the books I recommend later and meditating so that when you get on the flight and put these all into action it is not the first time you are doing them. They are practiced and will come more naturally.
In addition, do the usual things like drink plenty of water in the 72 hrs leading up to the flight to help with dehydration, pack your favourite things, whether this is a great book, some movies on your iPad or a magazine. Again try and do something different from what you have done in the past. I used to listen to party music and play Candy Crush to take my mind of the take-off and I have switched that up with more relaxed music and a magazine to completely change my behaviour and form a new memory.
At The Airport
Do whatever you can to relax at the airport. If that means spending a bit of money on getting a lounge pass to get away from all the hustle and bustle at the airport then do that. I use Priority Pass for lounge access and find it really helpful to be able to go into a calmer space and do some meditation and breathing exercises before the flight.
On The Flight
Follow the 4’Rs:
- React Take a rubber band and place this on your wrist, as soon as you feel anxiety coming twang the band on your wrist (to the point of pain) to reset your brain. Then yell to yourself STOP and then if it is during turbulence or another part of the flight repeat one of your mantras to yourself – for example, “turbulence is not dangerous, it is just uncomfortable” or “we are in the jelly”
- Regulate Begin your breathing exercises using the 7-11 breathing technique to slow your heart rate and control your panic. It is physically impossible to have a panic attack whilst regulating your breathing with this method.
- Relax Muscle Groups Use different breathing and body exercises to relax specific muscle groups. I strongly recommend buying Patricia’s book Flying With Confidence to learn all the exercises and use these on the flight. I can attest that they work!
- Rehearse a positive mental image that you can conjure up anytime to help relax you. This is a poly-sensorial approach that will use all your senses to induce relaxation.
All of the above recommendations and explanations about the psychology of phobias are explained in more detail in Patricias books linked in the next section.
On my fear of flying course, I was given the Flying With Confidence book which includes all the learning from the day and detailed descriptions of the breathing exercises we learned. I found this incredibly helpful to guide me throughout the flight, reading specific sections and following them to help control my anxiety.
I will now make sure to bring my hard copy, as well as have backups on my Kindle and phone of the books so that I always have them with me!
- Flying With Confidence by Patricia Furness-Smith and Captain Steve Allright
- Live Well & Stress-Free by Patricia Furness-Smith
- Flying With Confidence A Guided Relaxation by Patricia Furness-Smith
FEAR OF FLYING COURSES
When I decided I needed to take action for my fear of flying I knew that just a book, a blog post or an online course would not be enough and I needed to take an in-person course to address and understand my fears. I needed to discover the tools to overcome my fear and also to control it.
I looked at several courses and decided on the British Airways Flying With Confidence course. I choose this one because I liked the look of the structure of this course, the timing worked great for me, I could be part of a small group of 10 people in the Primary Plus option and that it included the psychology section which I felt would be most beneficial to me.
I took my course in London Heathrow and there are other options available in the UK. British Airways, Virgin and Easyjet all offer courses in the UK, and if you are not based there you can simply look up “fear of flying courses’ on Google in your location to find courses close to you.
- British Airways Flying With Confidence (starting at GBP 249 in Glasgow, GBP 335 in London)
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Without Fear (starting at GBP 267)
- Easyjet Fearless Flyer Online Course (starting at EUR 47)
BRITISH AIRWAYS FLYING WITH CONFIDENCE COURSE
The British Airways Flying With Confidence course was structured into a morning session with a pilot explaining the training they undertake, the safety of the aircraft, airline industry regulation, the noises you hear from the plane throughout the flight and how the plane actually flies.
The second session was with a psychologist diving into why we have phobias, how to understand them, and how to overcome them – with a specific focus on how to manage our phobia on a flight.
The final part of the course is to take a short flight at the end of the day with a pilot commentary explaining the noises and sounds we hear on the plane. On the Primary Plus course, I also got to sit with the pilot and psychologist.
I honestly cannot recommend this course enough. If you go into it with the right mindset and a real desire to understand how to overcome your fears it will help you.
Please note this is NOT a sponsored article – I put my money where my mouth is and paid GBP 699 to attend this course and take action against my fear!
- Don’t give yourself a hard time, remember that you are not alone and that your body is reacting to its primal fears that we are all born with as a baby – fear of loud noises and of falling. You just need to learn how to control these fears.
- Don’t tell people you have a fear of flying before you even get on the plane, you are already sending yourself a negative message that you are afraid and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you do have fear during the flight you can alert an attendant, but if you try not to make it a big deal to everyone around you then you may be able to overcome it.
- Sit towards the front or on the wings of the plane as it can be less bumpy during turbulence than the back of the plane.
- Don’t tense up or grip the seat handles this will send an immediate signal to your brain that there is imminent danger and will set off a panic attack.
- Bring your Flying With Confidence book with you and reference it through the flight to help with your breathing exercises.
- Download some calm sleep music or playlists to play during the flight.
- Download guided meditation podcasts to help you with your inflight meditation.
- Know that even if you take a course, buy one of the books I recommend or read this blog post, change won’t happen overnight. You will need to practice the techniques taught to you and you will have to work at controlling your anxiety.
- If you do take a fear of flying course I recommend booking a flight anywhere the following day so you can immediately put your learning into practice.
- Create a cheat sheet (or use mine) to reference in the flight if you feel any panic coming on
“Worry does not empty tomorrow of it’s sorrows. It empties today of its strength.”
~ Corrie Ten Boom
TO CONCLUDE – WHERE AM I NOW?
At the time of writing this article, I completed the Flying With Confidence course four days ago and I took a flight to Estonia three days ago.
On the flight, I put into practice EVERY technique I learned from our teachers and had a really pleasant flight. My husband told me afterward, it was the best money we had ever spent, that he did not want to interrupt my ‘zen’ during the flight as I looked so relaxed and that he no longer wishes we could be on separate flights when we travel!
In addition, he feels he has the tools to help me if I did have a panic attack again, as we were not equipped in the past and were probably doing all the wrong things to try and overcome the panic. By writing copious notes during the course I was able to tell him exactly what I had learned so he could understand the fear more and help me in the future.
I have to admit that taking the course did not mean I immediately overcame my fear of flying. I did not feel scared on the flight but that was because I made sure to follow the advice I had been given to control my anxiety rather than suddenly being ‘cured’. The flight was 2.5 hours and I spent that entire time ‘working’ on controlling my behaviours, my breathing and reminding myself of my positive mantras.
I now feel that I have the tools to be able to control my anxiety in the future and I am excited to start building positive and new memories when I fly to make each flight easier than the last!
DOWNLOAD MY FREE PDF FEAR OF FLYING CHEAT SHEET
After taking a whole book of notes during the course, reading the Flying With Confidence book and putting into action the advice I learned, I created a cheat sheet to have handy with me on every flight so I can remember the key things that worked to reduce my anxiety. You can download a free copy of the cheat sheet in our free Travel Library.
I hope that this article has helped you to understand your fear of flying and has given you some basic tips to start overcoming your fear. If you have any questions at all or have your own tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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