There’s something about soaring 35,000 feet above the earth’s surface in a 90,000-pound tube that can evoke fear in the best of us — especially if you’re not familiar with flight mechanics or aerodynamics.
Having a fear of flying is completely normal and more common than you might think. In fact, the fear of flying — otherwise known as aerophobia or aviophobia — affects a large percentage of the population. While there’s no hard and fast way to overcome a fear of flying, there are certain practices and carry-on essentials that will make the experience of flying much less anxiety-inducing.
From understanding your specific triggers to coming equipped with the right anti-anxiety carry-on gear, here’s what you’ll want to do before you board your next flight.
The reason for a fear of flying varies by person, and ultimately, it comes down to knowing what triggers your fear — and what you can do about it. “The fear of flying is like a fear of public speaking to me, and the general best advice to overcome it is to practice it,” says Bayram Annakov, founder and CEO of App in the Air.
“First off, understand the root cause of your fear and study it. Knowing your trigger always helps with fear of public speaking; knowing the cause of your fear will help you overcome it as well.” Once you’ve established why you’re fearful of flying, you can consider what steps you can take to put it at bay.
Generally, the more you do something, the easier it becomes. Starting small will help you to ease into flying without feeling too overwhelmed or jumping in too quickly. “I used to avoid flying at all costs until I was offered a job in Los Angeles, 3,000 miles away from my family,” says Jenn Lloyd, founder of Sick Girl Travels. “I soon found myself confronted with facing my fears or not seeing my family.”
Lloyd’s tip? Take small steps to ensure you’re ready to fly. “Don’t wait until you have to fly internationally for your sister’s destination wedding to tackle your fears. Start by taking short trips where you’re only in the air for an hour or so. It will help you become accustomed to flying, and you’ll know what to expect.”
Aviation enthusiasts, often affectionately called “AvGeeks” are passionate about all things planes. There are even communities dedicated to the art of flying and plane spotting at airports around the world. By educating yourself on the science of flying so you don’t worry so much about things that bump in the flight, you’re putting yourself at an advantage to your fear.
“Turbulence was my biggest trigger,” says Lloyd. “But once I began to read about how airplanes fly and how they’re designed to handle turbulence, I found it easier to manage my anxiety. The Guide to Psychology has an excellent piece on how planes work.”
“Talk to a professional — no, not a psychologist (though that can also help), but an airline professional,” suggests Lloyd. “From safety checks, taxiing and takeoff, all the way through landing, hearing about what goes on outside of the main cabin helps you feel less at the mercy of total strangers.”
If you have anyone in your life who works as a pilot or flight attendant, it can help to sit down with them and hear their experiences. But, speaking to the crew on your flight can also yield a lot of information. Airline crew have seen their fair share of nervous flyers and have the tools and knowledge to help put you at ease.
When it comes to getting on a plane, it matters where you sit. Having more space to move around and to get up and walk around when needed could make all the difference in helping you feel at ease.
“If you’re plagued by claustrophobia, make sure you pick an aisle seat before flying,” says Lloyd. “Choosing an air carrier that allows you to pick your seat assignment beforehand can help you feel less boxed in. This allows you the extra room on one side and permits you to get up and walk about the cabin as needed.”
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Not all flying experiences have to be jammed in the economy cabin, shoulder-to-shoulder with other travelers. In fact, up at the front of the plane, you’ll often find business- and first-class cabins with lie-flat seats and more space to stretch out and relax. If nothing else, having a bed to help sleep better on a plane will help you to forget you’re even in the air.
“Nothing calms my nerves more than being treated to the luxury of the first-class cabin,” says Lloyd. “Of course, this is incredibly cost-prohibitive for most of us. Enter airline miles. The first time I flew from Los Angeles to South Africa, I cashed in my miles and treated myself to a reclining massage chair in first class. Seeing flying as a chance to pamper yourself and relax frames it as an entirely different experience from being forced into a cramped row in economy for 16 hours.”
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Caffeine, booze and high sodium foods can cause your heart to race and fuel your anxiety, says Lloyd. If you’re a nervous flyer, you’ll want to avoid all of these things before and during your flight.
You’ll also want to be mindful of what you watch on board. “Viewing sports, action films or thrillers can again get your heart racing,” shares Lloyd. “Consider comedies or relaxing music instead. You want to keep your mind and body as relaxed as possible and not get wound up so tightly you feel that panic attack creeping in.”
Sometimes, it’s all about where you’re going. Whether it’s an overwater villa in the Maldives or a ski chalet in the Rockies, in many cases, you’re looking forward to reaching your final destination. And, that’s a great way to focus your attention.
“Focus on the destination, not the journey,” suggests Lloyd. “When you feel those negative thoughts creeping in, think of how great you’ll feel once you’re on the ground enjoying that hard-earned vacation.”
It might sound bananas, but learning the ins and outs of flying from the ground up might be the ticket to overcoming your fear of flying once and for all. “Going out of your comfort zone to fly with a professional will make you realize there is no mystery and you’ll understand how the plane actually works,” shares Annakov.
While learning to fly can be on the pricey side, even starting with a couple of lessons could help to put you ahead of your fears.
Not only should you be aware of your mindset and the steps you can take to overcome your fear of flying, but heading into your next flight fully equipped with the right flight essentials can help to do the trick. From calming scents to necessary reading material, here’s what you should pack for your next flight if you’re still working to overcome your fear of flying.
The NodPod weighted sleeping mask is a must-have solution to travel anxiety and fear of flying. The gentle pressure offers a sense of comfort and relaxation that will help you tune out the cabin around you and sleep your way through your flight. Note that the adjustable elastic works in all positions, so it’ll stay nice and tight even if you’re sleeping upright. You can find more of our best sleep masks of 2022 here.
From traditional meditation sessions to relaxing sound recordings, the Headspace app has become a go-to for many nervous flyers. Members have access to hundreds of different recordings to best suit their interests and needs, and all tracks are downloadable and easy to play in the air.
Aromatherapy might seem like the wrong practice at first glance, but there’s a fair amount of science-backed research to back up the merits of essential oils, especially for stress and anxiety. Lavender essential oil is one of the best options for fostering a sense of calmness and relaxation — but you’ll want to make sure you opt for a small roller ball for easy use. This 10-milliliter vial is small enough to pass through security without issue while the roller-on application allows you to quickly dab at your temples or chest from the comfort of your seat.
Captain Tom Bunn founded the SOAR approach more than forty years ago and it continues to be one of the most effective self-help techniques for nervous flyers. Its massive success is mostly thanks to the SOAR method’s focus on how anxiety, claustrophobia and panic are triggered in flight and how to permanently control the release of excessive stress hormones. The comprehensive program has helped over 10,000 nervous flyers overcome their fear and enjoy the process of travel.
Smart travelers know the importance of a good pair of noise-canceling headphones. These top-rated Sony headphones make it easy to tune out the world around you and focus on your favorite films, podcasts or meditations. The soft over-ear headphone is comfortable enough to wear for the entire flight while the long-lasting 35-hour battery will ensure you’re never without juice. In fact, this set won the title as the best overall noise-canceling headphones during our testing.
Weighted blankets are scientifically proven to help lessen symptoms of anxiety and foster a better night’s sleep — and really, there’s just something inherently soothing about a blanket that feels like a hug! The BARMY Weighted Lap Blanket is a particularly good option to bring on your next flight as it’s small enough to pack into a carry-on bag but will still offer the same comforting benefits as a full-sized throw.
The fidget toy market is oversaturated at this point, we know, but there’s a reason the stress-relieving devices remain in-demand — they really work. This doctor-developed fidget cube is super discrete and can easily fit comfortably in the palm of your hand when you’re feeling particularly anxious in the air. The monochrome cube also comes with its own carrying case for added convenience.
If you prefer the comfort of a good book over the latest in-flight entertainment, it might be worth investing in a Kindle. The compact design allows you to store all your favorite comfort books in one spot — without having to lug five pounds of paperbacks with you.
Compression socks are essential for travel. They come with a number of benefits that range from medical prevention to comfort, and can help to make the flying experience more enjoyable. This fun set from Charmking comes in more than 37 different color combinations and offers the right amount of compression to ensure you arrive at your destination with reduced leg swelling and feeling your best.
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