THE BLOG

Afraid of Flying? How to Cope

02/11/2015 02:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

Almost everyone has gone through a phase of aerophobia (fear of flying). I'm still dealing with it to this day. Luckily, I haven't turned down many trips. But it has gone through varying stages of extremity:

1. Won't set foot on an airplane.
2. Will fly only with drugs.
3. Will fly without drugs, but intermittent and unpredictable panic attacks will occur.
4. The world's so beautiful from above! (But damn, did these planes get smaller? I can't move!)

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Out the window: Orlando, Florida (Amanda Law)


The airlines have a commitment to safety.

We all have stories. There was the time I was flying back from Turkey and right after lift-off the plane slowed down significantly (What's happening??? Are we going to crash?!), and the pilot came on the intercom to announce that there was a suspicious smell in the cabin and we were circling back to JFK to land. I called my mom from the airport to tell her that I couldn't get back on the same plane. She knew and I knew I was being ridiculous. Her response: "It's probably the safest plane in the fleet right now." Probably true. While the passengers hung out in the airport for an hour, they took the plane for two test flights. What did they find? Turns out a flight attendant had accidentally turned the microwave on with nothing in it. Remember this: Your fear doesn't make it true.

There are people nearby who can help.
More recently I was on another flight from New York City, headed back to San Francisco, at night. I looked out the dark window at the twinkling lights below. Where are we? Are we too high? I think we might be too high. Those lights look too small. What's the normal cruising altitude? We are TOO HIGH. My breathing got short and my hands became sweaty. I wanted to be on the ground, immediately. But since that wasn't possible, I knew I needed help. I squeezed past my rowmates and headed to the back of the cabin and approached a flight attendant. "Um, are we OK? I mean, are we flying at the right altitude? I'm kind of freaking out right now." The flight attendant smiled as if this happens all the time. "Oh, hon. Everything's fine! Come join us." And that was how I joined the flight attendants in a game of charades, mid-flight, in the back of the plane. It totally worked. On another occasion, I tapped the guy sitting next to me. I told him that I was experiencing anxiety and needed to talk to someone. He was more than happy to chat. The key: Distract yourself by connecting with those around you.

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Out the window: San Francisco, California (Laurel Hechanova)

What's that sound?
I can't tell you how many times the unfamiliar airplane noises sent my mind to a bad place. What's that sawing noise? Why is the wing bending so much? (If it didn't, the wings would snap in half.) The plane's slowing down! (Approaching cruising altitude.) The best solution to this one is to learn more about airplanes. Seriously! How many planes have you been on, when either sitting at the gate or taxi-ing to the runway, you heard that sawing noise? The one where it sounds like a mechanical malfunction. It just keeps sounding off: rrrnt-rrrnt-rrrnt-rrrnt. That can't be right! According to JetBlue's blog this is "the power transfer unit, which equalizes hydraulic pressure between the engines after a single engine taxi." Don't get it? The important information is that the plane is supposed to make that sound. But do some homework. There are numerous resources that exist precisely to help you quell your fears. (Fear of Flying Help, an online course by an experienced commercial airline pilot, is highly recommended.)

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Out the window: Raleigh, North Carolina (Ashley Soucar)

It's all in the prep.
I used to fly with a bouquet of basil. It may sound dumb, but the very smell of it makes me happy. When you're so terrified of flying that you almost scream "STOP!" and head to the exit while the plane is taxiing to the runway, you'll do most anything to alleviate your fears. Another time, when I was going through a rough patch of my life, a psychiatrist offered to prescribe me some anti-anxiety meds for an upcoming flight. I was especially fragile, and it made all the difference. I'm not a huge proponent of prescription drugs, but sometimes, a little boost is needed. That said, I try to avoid coffee and wine when I know I'm going to feel anxious. There have been flights when I felt perfectly fine (on my way to a Caribbean resort, for one), but a trip across country when it's especially turbulent...that's when I read a juicy book (research and buy it in advance of your trip), watch a movie I've really been wanting to see (download it to the device you're taking with you), or talk to the person next to me.

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