My fear of flying was conquered with some good storytelling

Guest post by Rebecca
All photos by the author.
All photos by the author.

I used to tell myself that flying makes me anxious. I’m talking “grab the hand of the stranger sitting next to me, cry, hyperventilate, desire to fling open the plane door and jump” anxious. This is the story of how all that changed…

After most of my adult life being an anxious flyer, I started to see the anxiety level creep up. The stories I told were based in anxiety and fear. They had no factual grounding. The Lorazepam I’d been taking wasn’t always able to cut through the anxiety. I was still having anxiety attacks on airplanes. So it was time to change the story. After a lot of research, I signed up for a Fear of Flying Clinic in Seattle.

During the course of three full weekend classroom days followed by a flying Seattle to Sacramento to Seattle day, I learned more about flying than I ever hoped to know. The staff — a retired pilot, a flight attendant, a therapist who used to be a flight attendant, an air traffic controller, the head of maintenance at a local airline, and two graduates of the program — all spent countless hours answering our questions over and over. And over. They gave me the facts to create stories that are based in science and math rather than fear. And the story began to change.

I went from “I hate flying, I don’t feel safe. I’m never getting on a plane again.” To “I might be willing to fly, it seems like it might be safe.” To, at last, successfully flying and feeling just fine. Here are a few of the stories I learned to tell…

airplane wing

“Delay is your friend”

If something is “wrong” with the aircraft or the flight path, you will be delayed. This is, ultimately, a good thing. It means that the airline staff is using an abundance of caution to get you to your destination safely.

On my “graduation” flight from the Fear of Flying clinic, there was a wind storm in Seattle. Our return flight was delayed initially an hour, but then shortened to 10 minutes, due to a ground hold at SEATAC. This was to spread out the landing planes and make sure there was a safe distance between them for landing. This is good. Delay is my friend. It helped me return safely to Seattle.

When we visited the SEATAC control tower as part of the clinic, we saw the forecast for planes coming in for the next three hours. We could see that there was one 15 min block that was forecast to have 20 planes land. The rest all had six or seven. The air traffic controller told us that some of those planes would be pushed back, into other time slots, to keep traffic regular and safe at the airport. Most passengers would never even know their plane was pushed to another slot. This was what was happening to us, but we did know. The wind meant for an abundance of caution we needed longer intervals between landing planes and therefore we got pushed back.

“There is a doctor aboard every plane”

This is not a physical doctor, but a virtual one. I didn’t know prior to the Fear of Flying clinic that every commercial carrier in the US has a contract with a company like MedLink, to serve their passengers. This company provides direct access to a Level One trauma center doctor for the flight attendants to consult when needed. The flight staff and the doctor can then consult on the situation, treat the patient and make an educated decision about diversion of the plane. On my “graduation” flight the woman sitting behind us passed out. MedLink was called, and she was attended to.

“Turbulence might be uncomfortable, but it is not dangerous”

This is probably the key one for me. Turbulence was a major part of my anxiety. But it is safe. It may be uncomfortable, but it is perfectly safe. The pilots in our clinic spent hours talking to us about turbulence, what causes it, how they train for it, when they avoid it (they fly around or over thunderstorms, not through them), and when they choose to fly through it (entering the Jet Stream can be turbulent but get you there a lot faster). Ultimately, the plane can take a lot more stress than you get in just a few minutes of turbulence. And turbulence is naturally occurring — like around mountains or the jet stream — and of no concern at all. My former story about planes falling out of the sky due to turbulence got replaced by this mantra.

in case of an emergency

As I said earlier, our “graduation” flight was during a wind storm in Seattle. One that caused the 520 floating bridge to be closed, a semi to overturn on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and about 200,000 people to lose power. I was uncomfortable during that landing as it was bumpy. I also know, I was perfectly safe.

The Clinic staff, including our Behavioral Counselor, helped me create a new story, one of safe flying. The story now is that I can fly and be just fine. Delays, I’m fine. Medical issues, I’m fine. Turbulence, yep, still fine.

Any other people with massive fears of flying? What are your stories?

Comments on My fear of flying was conquered with some good storytelling

  1. I’m not afraid of flying and never have been, but this is awesome! What a great program to set up and run. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • Thanks. It really is an excellent program. And lots my my non-afraid friends said they would have liked to take the class, as we got to tour the mechanical hangar and we got to tour the air traffic control tower. It was super cool!

  2. I used to be a terrible flyer. As in “give me those sleeping pills and let me pass out and if I don’t have my sleeping pills then I’ll cry for the whole duration of the flight” kinda passenger. I also considered flight fright seminars, but never made it because of money. Now I better tolerate flights, because I researched websites and the online resources are a huge help. I brush up what I know before each flight.
    Learning that turbulence won’t harm the aircraft and that commercial airplanes can actually take a lot more turbulences than passenger planes was a lifesaver.
    Also, planes cannot fall like a stone. Even with motor failure, they can glide through the air. How many movies have we seen with planes falling out of the skies that misguided us thinking it could happen?! Nope. Not in real life. *sigh of relief*
    I really recommend doing some research online for those who can’t make it to Flying clinics.

    • Same. Many years ago I found a wonderful “ask the pilot” style website that was instrumental in helping me feel less anxious about flying. That fact about freight vs. passenger planes and turbulence (it’s really just for the passengers’ comfort that passenger flights avoid turbulent areas) is one I still retell myself.

      I’m not “cured” though. These days, I don’t fly as often as I did just because of different life circumstances, so when I do fly, it starts to feel like a bigger deal again. So my best advice is – fly frequently!

      • To me, “cure” is not the goal, but flying with minimal anxiety and without medication is. I’d like to get to the point that flying is just another mode of transport.

        • The quotes were meant to undermine the meaning of the word “cure.” I guess that wasn’t clear, sorry!

          There was a time that’d I’d attained that very goal you mention – I could fly back and forth across the US without any medication and with hardly any worry, even during turbulence. Then, one flight with bad turbulence when I was sitting in the back of a small plane and my soda flipped over undid all that . . .

  3. I am terrified until the plane stabilises after take off and then fine until landing. Turbulence is uncomfortable mostly due to the sinking feeling in my stomach similar to when I’m in an elevator. I feel as though I’m going to be sick and make weird gasping noises a lot. I quite enjoy plane travel though. I tend to make sure I read the in flight magazine thoroughly until the plane is stable after take off. On my last flight I crocheted and that took my mind off things until the plane dropped suddenly due to air pockets. Ugh.

    • I’m glad you are finding ways to deal with the anxiety. I have taken to wearing motion sickness reducing writs bands when I fly and that helps with the air-sick induced anxiety.

    • This. I really don’t mind flying but I REALLY hate take-off until stabilisation. Ugh. I find myself having to use a lot of mindfulness techniques to concentrate on my breathing and not every little movement and noise the plane makes….

  4. Wow, thanks so much for sharing this. I get anxious on planes (mostly because I get really claustrophobic) so ativan really *does* help me relax. Its just enough to take the edge off. But I’m really glad to hear that turbulence, while uncomfortable, isn’t unsafe.

  5. In addition to reminding myself of facts and information about how flying works, some techniques I use to help me feel more comfortable if I do start feeling anxious while flying:

    – turning up the little AC fan and blasting it on my face – I read about this tip on a fear of flying website. When I get anxious, I get flushed, and the AC balances that out a bit, plus it takes away a bit of the claustrophobic edge

    – using muscle relaxation techniques like tightening and relaxing all the muscles in my body – it reminds me that even if I’m not in control of the plane, I am (mostly) in control of my own body

    – reminding myself to sit back, relax and enjoy the fact that the flight attendants and pilots are taking really good care of my safety, and I don’t even have to do anything! I always have to watch out for myself when driving or doing other daily activities, but on a flight, they are the ones who have the (literal) helm. It’s scary to me to feel out of control, but sometimes I can convince myself that there are benefits to not being the one in charge!

    • I am the daughter of a pilot and I have ZERO problems with flying, which is not the point of my comment, promise! I’m really interested in responding to the following:

      “– I always have to watch out for myself when driving or doing other daily activities, but on a flight, they are the ones who have the (literal) helm. It’s scary to me to feel out of control, but sometimes I can convince myself that there are benefits to not being the one in charge!”

      Don’t forget that pilots and cabin crew are in training ALL. THE. TIME. My dad has medical checkups twice a year. He has to go into a simulator every three months where he is thrown a scenario that could range from lightning strike to a normal landing, to a take off on a windy snowy day. He had to study for 8 months solid (like, the didn’t even roster him to work) before he became a captain. Before every flight he spends a day studying the maps of the airport he’s flying to, and the maps of every country along the route, looking online at weather forecasts, etc. etc. Cabin crew are similar.

      Part of a pilot’s job is to become so familiar with their actions and duties (even in an emergency scenario, say, landing on water) that they can do it without even thinking about it. You know how the safety briefing on a plane is always the same? “In case of an emergency, masks will drop automatically from the ceiling” It’s meant to be. It’s meant to be so routine that we can all quote it off by heart. So that if you ever ARE in an emergency, the instruction bypasses the “OhmygodI’mfreakingout” part of your brain, and instead your brain pulls “pull the mask downwards to start the flow of Oxygen and place over your nose and mouth” out of long term storage, and you can do the right thing. Pilots do the same process, but on STEROIDS. Over, and over, and over again. Flight after flight. For every possible scenario that could ever happen (Even ones that aren’t applicable. They know how to do a water landing off by heart even if they only ever fly across inland Australia)

      And the control thing is very interesting, because I have, like, the opposite reaction to a lot of people. They say “I feel safer in my car, because I’m in control.”
      I feel like “I’m an idiot. I’m not a professional driver! I passed my test 10 years ago and drive perhaps once every 2 months, I am not very familiar with this process, there is no way I trust myself. I don’t know if the person driving that other car is a pensioner who is also crap at driving, but legally there is nothing stopping us from being on the road. Pilots on the other hand are practically machines who are tested, monitored, quizzed, trained every month. I am so much happier to put my life in the hands of such a well-prepared professional than I am in my own hands!”

      Sorry for the long comment, I just love aviation and hope somebody finds this interesting and/or helpful.

      And besides, best part of flying is sitting down while someone brings you food and drink and you get to watch movies all day. What’s not to love? 🙂

      • To be fair, I have had anxieties about driving in the past, too! haha.

        I tell and retell myself all of the things you’ve said – nice to read it from the other side of things.

      • You sound like the staff of the clinic. All people who are passionate about aviation!! Thanks for sharing!

        I also really appreciated the conversations about the training pilots and flight crew go through to be able to confront each other if needed if they think someone else’s judgement is wrong.

      • I agree with you 100% about the control part. I want to be in complete control. One thing I hate about driving is that I am in control of my car, but not anything else–all the other cars on the road could do anything at any moment. Of course, I still managed to total my car on an empty road when I fell asleep at the wheel.

        All my life, I’ve felt safer and more comfortable in airplanes than in cars. I was a flight attendant for 2 years, and while our retraining wasn’t nearly as extensive as pilots, we still had to go through a 2-day retraining course every year.

  6. I’m pretty sure I’ve worked on that engine in the picture! 😀 I work on engine software, and seriously there is so much safety redundancy built in to EVERYTHING in the plane. The tests they do for the engine? They throw whole (frozen, roadkill-reused) geese into it while it’s running and see what happens. If it can’t still fly the engine after, it doesn’t fly at all. For most dual- or more engine planes, if one full engine explodes, you can still fly safely home. Oh, and don’t worry about an exploding engine doing anything to the plane itself, either; we actually do basically explode an engine in a very expensive “blade-out” test to make sure no shrapnel of any sort escapes the engine covering (except out the rear, where it belongs).

    Despite all this, I still get a bit nervous when flying, simply because it’s mind-boggling to me that we’re shooting through the air, AND I’m completely trapped. But really, it’s no different than being in a car on a highway; you can’t exactly get out of the vehicle in that case, either. In an emergency, a plane can land early just like the car can exit early. And a plane has a lot more resources to deal with an emergency, as has been stated. Congrats on learning to control your anxiety!

    • Thanks. Yes, the “frozen chicken” scenario for testing engines was explained to us. As a back-yard-chicken farmer I pity those poor birds!

      Thank you for making the engines go. The redundancy built into everything was also part of the class. And the fact that even if a plane lost BOTH its engines, it would still have about 250 miles to coast down and land, and there are tons of places to land in that distance!

      • Haha, when I first learned about the frozen bird test, I asked where they got the birds, and they assured me they were all either put down because of illness or had naturally died. 🙂

        • I assume they are rejects from the local poultry farm, ones that can’t be sold for whatever reason.

          But as a college faculty member, I also know the chickens used for dissection in anatomy and physiology often come from costco.

  7. I am totally terrified of flying. I’ll do it, if I have to, but I hate it. Like hate it to the point that in discussing going back to Disney World since neither of us have been since we were children I told my husband I’d be perfectly willing to sacrifice time spent at Disney World so we can either drive or take a train or something else ground related. I’ve also pretty much destroyed his hopes of an anniversary trip to the UK because of my crippling fear of flying over the ocean. I really don’t have any idea where this fear comes from as I’ve only been on trips involving plane travel three times in my whole life and all three trips were totally fine. Limited turbulence, no delays, no issues. It’s just like this fear hit me out of nowhere as an adult.
    This article was very informative and sort of made me feel better. But that’s from a logical standpoint, and from a logical standpoint I’ve always known there’s no reason to be so afraid of it. It’s trying to remember that long enough to actually consider making plans involving flying that’s the trouble!

    • I’m glad the article helped. You should see if there is a similar class nearby! Before taking the class I also thought I “got it” intellectually. The class was such an overwhelming reinforcement that I got to move the “getting it” from my head to my soul! Seriously, the pilot who led most of the class answered the same questions (mostly about turbulence) around 500 times. I feel like I KNOW aviation now.

      Happy travels!

  8. I do not want to start a brand battle. But as a nervous-but-generally-okay flyer, I have noticed that my cheaper flights were generally scarier. Maybe it was just coincidence. I picked a very discounted flight from a domestic american company once. The plane creaked. Literally the whole way. I have never heard a plane creak like an old yellow school bus. My seat had a kind of wobble that was scary. And there was frost between the double window panes. Not condensation, actual frost.

    I don’t think I breathed properly that whole flight. I will never fly that airline again.

    Also, I have anxiety about missing my plane. I arrive impossibly in advance jusy in case there is an issue with luggage or customs. I hate lay-overs for the same reason. I’m sure I’ll get stranded in an unknown airport or won’t find the gate.

    • I also have issues with the fear of getting stranded. I don’t even like to let other people drive me to events because I’m afraid they’ll leave me there, and getting stuck in a strange city during a lay-over is definitely a fear of mine. To help with that, I try to put safety nets in place for myself. I make sure I have clean underwear and a clean shirt in my carry-on in case I get separated from my checked bag. I make sure I have enough money to buy food for a day or two (and preferably enough for a couple of taxi rides and a hotel room), and I write down important phone numbers and addresses.
      Try to memorize your loved ones’ phone numbers. If your cell phone dies or you’re separated from your bag, eventually someone will help you call home. Make sure you have a number to call.

      You can also spend a few minutes checking in with your airline, and ask them what they’ll do to help you if:
      1. Your flight is cancelled while you’re laid over.
      2. Your flight is delayed until the next day.
      3. The airport is shut down due to a security threat. (This happened to me during a lay-over when I was a teenager. Scary as hell.)
      And lastly, it never hurts to work your online connections. Chances are good that near most major airports is someone you know who would be willing to come rescue you if it was absolutely necessary.

    • All domestic airlines are governed by the same safety regulations. Foreign airlines that fly to the US have almost exactly the same standards as well. I’m sorry you found your flight “creaky”. And the poster above has great suggestions for what to do if “stranded.”

      • I avoid the super-discount US airlines but mostly just because they make me less comfortable though not in a directly fear-related way. I have noticed older interiors, fewer amenities, etc . . . just an all-around less pleasant experience for me (but it all depends on what you’re looking for/what you care about/etc). Since I dislike flying as it is, I figure I can at least make the experience as pleasant as I can afford, and I can afford the cheap-to-regular prices.

    • A lot of the flight anxiety I used to have (and to some degree, still do), comes from hearing things rattling in the cabin. I’ll hear the beverage cart bustling around during take off and landing and my jerk brain tells me that it’s some vital component coming loose. No matter how much I know that isn’t the case, that’s the first place my mind goes. To mitigate that, I make sure I have a really engrossing book with me, and a pair of headphones and my iPod. As soon as I’m allowed, I get some music going and really concentrate on my book. The music helps me to not hear other passenger’s reactions to turbulence, too, which also sets me on edge. I hope that might be a good alternative for you!

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