*Disclaimer: I am obviously not a doctor. The advice in this, or any, blog post can never replace the advice of any medical professional. What works for me may not work for you, and my opinions and choices are not necessarily right for everyone. Please seek medical help if you have a severe case of flight anxiety, consider all of your options, and make an informed decision based on what works for you.*
I spent over 47 hours in the air in less than 10 days in October. For those of you who have taken long trips overseas, this may not seem like a big deal. But for somebody who suffers from severe flight anxiety, this was crippling. I worried about it, dreamt about it, talked about it, and stressed about it for months leading up to the trip.
I have not always been afraid of flying. In fact, I used to absolutely love flying, sometimes even more than the actual trip itself. I grew up with two parents who worked in tourism, one of whom worked for an airline. It’s safe to say that there were times I felt like I spent more time in the air than on the ground. We were always on the move, and I was never afraid.
I first began to struggle with general anxiety disorder four years ago. It affected every area of my life – my work, my relationships, my sleep, and, yes, my travel plans. It had a lot to do with family turmoil, and the eventual death of my father. Instability was the fuel to my anxious fire. You can read more about my personal struggle with anxiety here, if you want to.
On a flight from Narita, Japan to Calgary, Alberta in March of 2014, I suffered my first Panic Attack. It was awful. My TV wasn’t working, the turbulence was terrible, and I had run out of ways to distract myself. I spent the majority of the 10 hour flight shaking, crying, sweating, and imagining, in graphic detail, the demise of everybody on board the plane. I felt like I was going crazy.
For years, I resisted medication, because I made the very personal decision that medication was going to be a last resort for me. I understand that medication is right, and altogether necessary, for some people, but I know myself, and I knew that I wanted to take a holistic approach first, before I took the anti-depressants my doctor had prescribed for me to help manage my anxiety episodes. It’s just the way I am…stubborn to a fault. In July of this year, I finally filled a prescription that my doctor had given me for Ativan after two major back to back panic attacks at work. But I still refused to take the antidepressants. I wanted to exhaust all of my other options first.
“I was always arriving at my destination completely exhausted and extremely ashamed of my newfound fear. I knew something had to change.”
I took probably a dozen more flights over the next two years. Most of them were short, but I still suffered through the majority of them in a panicked state. I cried on some and kept it together (on the outside) on others, but I was always arriving at my destination completely exhausted and extremely ashamed of my newfound fear. I knew something had to change.
When I had the opportunity to travel to Madagascar this year, I jumped at the chance. But I was terrified. I spent hundreds – literally hundreds – of hours stressing out about my impending doom in the air. If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, you’ll know that it’s not a rational thing. There were times when I was fully expecting to not actually reach Madagascar, because, obviously, I was going to die in a plane crash on the way there.
After copious amounts of time spent worrying, I finally decided I was going to take control of my anxiety. I was so tired of letting it take away from the amazing experience of traveling to a new place. I knew Madagascar was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was determined to enjoy every moment to the fullest. So, here’s what I did to overcome my Flight Anxiety.
1. I Educated myself about airplanes.
This was potentially the best thing I did for myself. It turns out, most of my fears about flying were not only extremely rare, but most of them were entirely irrational. Some people are afraid of the airplane wings snapping off, or the plane falling out of the sky during turbulence. Both of these things are mechanically impossible. I was afraid of engine failure, only to learn that planes are designed to have two, even sometimes three backup engines. And even if – in the worst case scenario – all the engines were to fail (virtually impossible), planes can still glide through the air without any power at all for almost 200 kilometres. I read a lot of statistics about plane crashes, and how extremely rare they are. Your chances of dying in a plane crash are roughly 1 in 11 million. Things more dangerous than airplanes? Driving, ladders, and food poisoning. Just for fun, type “Things More Dangerous Than Flying” into google and have a good laugh.
There were two resources that were most valuable to me during this education process. The first was a free podcast called The Fear Of Flying School Podcast. It can be found on iTunes, or other podcast service providers. It’s a few years old, but still entirely relevant and extremely helpful for those dealing with flight anxiety. During the episodes, the host dives into statistics, strategies, tips and tricks, education about airplanes, and also interviews with pilots and people who have also overcome their fears. The second helpful resource was actually Instagram. I realized that I hadn’t seen the way a plane actually looks when it takes off or lands. I began following several large aviation accounts that post frequent videos of such things. Aviation nerds love this stuff. Some accounts also post videos of planes taking off and landing in really bad weather, during strong winds, and some even landing without landing gear. While a bit scary, it was amazing for me to see how skillfully these pilots handled unfavourable conditions. and how graceful and amazing planes really are. Other videos are taken from inside the cockpit, and I really liked learning about everything the pilots see and hear as they fly. Check out my favourite account @aviationdaily to get started, and go from there.
2. I Found a herbal anxiety remedy.
I have zero affiliation with this brand, but Rescue Remedy by Bach’s Flower Remedies changed my life. It comes in several different forms (pastilles, spray) but I personally really like the drops I got. 4-6 drops in a glass of water is all it took to chill me out. I didn’t feel weird or tired or high or anything, but this stuff just seemed to take the edge off. I took it on four of the six of my flights in October, and I sometimes even take it if I’m having a bad day for anxiety at home. It may be a placebo, but I don’t care. It worked for me.
3. I Loaded up my iPhone with anxiety resources.
I filled my iPhone with guided meditations, relaxing music, and little lists of breathing exercises and anxiety exercises I learned from my therapists. I also made sure to have a book and a few episodes of my favourite shows on my iPhone, just in case the inflight entertainment was lacking.
4. I Prepared my mind, body, soul and backpack for the journey.
Mind – education, meditation, breathing exercises. Body – get a good sleep the night before, try to get some exercise, avoid caffeine and sugar, stay well hydrated. Soul – find a mantra that you can repeat if you start to freak out. Mine were “In this moment, I am safe” and “A plane’s home is in the sky”. Backpack – just be organized. Get yourself packed and ready to go well in advance. Lay out your travel outfit. Make sure your itinerary is primed for smooth sailing. Keep a running list of last-minute things to remember. Prepare everything you can so you can relax before your flight.
5. I Let people know I was afraid.
This can be done at your discretion. I was traveling with a group of people from the company that I work for, but I only knew one of them personally. I made sure to tell him I was a bit nervous. I didn’t make a big deal about it, but even just telling him made me feel better. Some people also like to tell the flight attendants that they’re anxious, and usually, they will reassure you and check on you periodically to make sure you’re okay. You don’t have to suffer in silence, and there’s no shame in admitting when you’re scared. It’s easier to do that in advance than try to explain yourself mid panic attack.
“You don’t have to suffer in silence, and there’s no shame in admitting when you’re scared. It’s easier to do that in advance than try to explain yourself mid panic attack.”
6. I Distracted myself in the air.
Stay. Busy. Sitting in silence freaking out won’t do you any favours. During my nearly 60 hours in the air, I rotated between reading, writing in my journal, watching TV shows and movies, listening to music and podcasts, meditating, playing games on my phone and colouring in a mini adult colouring book I had brought with me. Distraction is key.
7. I Made good use of a G-Force Reader.
There is an excellent app called SOAR, which is put out by fearofflying.com. The website has an actual fear of flying school, which has amazing reviews online. It costs money, obviously, but if you have the cash and the time it might be worth considering. I didn’t do that, but the app has plenty of free resources that really helped me. For example, it talks about what you might feel and hear during all stages of a flight – takeoff, climb, cruise, turbulence, descent and landing. The best thing about the app, though, is the free G-Force reader. It measures the amount of G-Force on the plane, which can be especially comforting during turbulence. While you may feel that the plane is about to drop right out of the sky, the G-Force meter will tell you that you are actually well within the plane’s limits. To put things into perspective, I tested the G-Force meter while I was driving on a bumpy road, and the G-Force was actually way more severe on the bumpy road than it ever was on the plane. I had this app running a lot during my journey, and it really helped to put my mind at ease.
8. I Kept the Ativan handy, just in case.
Sometimes, anxious people panic about panicking. We worry so much about having a panic attack that it often causes a panic attack. Just knowing that I had the Ativan in my bag if I needed it helped me to stay calm. I kept telling myself that if things got bad enough, I would take one. Luckily, I never had to.
Do I still get nervous feelings when I think about flying? Absolutely. If you’ve ever struggled with flight anxiety, or any anxiety for that matter, you’ll know that it’s a constant battle to stay above it. But I have found that being well-prepared and consistent in implementing the things that help me have been monumental to my success in overcoming the worst of my flight anxiety.
Have you ever battled with flight anxiety? How do you deal with it?
What’s your favourite way to pass the time in the air?
What’s the longest flight you’ve ever been on?