A pilot’s tips for dealing with your flight anxiety

Guest post by Lauren
Flying Super Hero Costume from Lovelane

As a pilot, the best thing I can suggest to deal with flight anxiety is to learn a bit more about aviation — air crash investigations do not count. Actually read about how planes fly, how they are built to withstand turbulence, the difference between what you and what your pilot actually thinks of as a life threatening situation, etc.

I’ve had more than my fair share of mid-air incidents — engine failures and the like — and at the end of the day none of it has stopped me flying, because I know how the plane works.

Here’s what I consider the biggest, most important bits of information I can give to people who hate flying…

Aeroplanes are built to fly

Not to crash, not to fall out of the sky, but to fly. If the engines all stop, they will still glide, gracefully and smoothly. And most importantly, the pilot — they want to go home too, they are not out flying because they want to die. So breathe, be calm. Pilots wouldn’t fly every day if they didn’t think they could sleep in their own bed at the end of it all.

It helps to know a few little bumps and noises you might encounter on a plane:

  1. You have just taken off, you are pressed back into your seat, the engines are roaring and the scenery is rapidly disappearing. There is a loud thump from beneath you, you might even feel it, you freak out. Relax, it is the wheels locking safely up into position for cruise.
  2. You are getting higher, past the initial rush, the wheels are in place, the engines roar comfortingly and the cabin crew are getting up and about. Then the engines go quiet. Relax, this is them throttling back for cruise.
  3. You are coming into land, the ground is getting closer when suddenly the engines roar and you are climbing like a bat out of hell. This is an aborted landing, there is a lot of reasons it could have happened. Perhaps there is low lying cloud and by the designated lowest safe altitude the pilots cannot see the ground, time to “go around.” Perhaps a bunch of horses just ran onto the runway (dumb arses that they are) — “go around.” Or perhaps there is some student pilot and her instructor sitting in their plane on the runway with an open mic wondering why the tower has not cleared them to takeoff already. (Ahem, not speaking from experience or anything…)

Most of the time, if the turbulence is severe, the crew will tell you

Provided the pilots have prior warning, they will tell everyone to get strapped safely into their seats before they encounter it. They will be ready for it, and if it is too bad up ahead, they will divert to avoid it.

Flying is all about getting people safely to their destinations

Safety is everything in aviation and every time there is an incident, not only is it investigated, but (at least here in Australia) all the pilots find out about it through a safety publication sent out every three months by the Aviation Safety Authority. So we can all learn from the mistakes of that day and stop them from happening again.

Flying is fun

Look out the window, imagine the people down on the ground, see if you can spot other planes in the distance, and follow the cues from the professionals.

Oh, and if your flight attendant is looking stressed, don’t assume the worst. It is more likely it’s because that arsehole in 13B is harassing them, rather than being something far more sinister.

What helps ease your flight anxiety?

Comments on A pilot’s tips for dealing with your flight anxiety

  1. If I’m really freaking out, I force myself to laugh. I giggle at each bump and make it fun. Yes, at first it’s incredibly awkward, but eventually the serotonin kicks in. I’ve found it also soothes people around me – I’ve even been thanked for it!

  2. Air crash investigations actually really helped for me – it was reassuring to get to the end of the article/episode/whatever and see the section about how things changed to make sure that particular thing won’t bring down a plane again.

    (Warning – some discussion of specific incidents below.)

    ValuJet 592, for example, can’t happen again because after that, the FAA regulations changed to require more/better fire suppression and detection equipment. KAL 007 is a large part of the reason GPS got released to the general public, and because of that, any plane that started wandering off-track like that now would have a much easier time noticing and fixing the problem. United 232 managed to land and save nearly two-thirds of the passengers, and because of it, engine parts are forged to much higher purity standards.

    I find it reassuring in the same way I find reading about the sinking of the Titanic reassuring – yes, that was a horrible and terrifying tragedy, but because of it, it’s very unlikely that something like that will ever happen again. Titanic is why ships always carry enough lifeboats for everyone; it’s why ships listen for distress calls in their vicinity 24/7; it’s why there’s a universally-agreed-upon maritime distress signal. It’s reassuring to think that it couldn’t happen again.

  3. What about anxiety based on the physical discomfort of flying – is there anything to be done about that? The recirculated air makes me feel ill; the cabin pressure makes my head and my ears hurt; even mild turbulence triggers motion sickness. Anything to make that aspect of flying more bearable?

    • I’ve heard good things about Dramamine for motion sickness and gum for the pressure issues; some sort of mask (like the ones doctors wear) might help with the recirculated air, but it’s not actually a problem I have, so I can’t provide much advice on it.

    • This is my issue. I just took an overseas trip with 7 flights over 4 weeks. I don’t get anxious because I’m afraid of the plane crashing (not really…), I get anxious because flying is uncomfortable. The seats are small, the area is cramped, the air smells bad and I hate the tiny toilets. I am a fidgety person and I hate sitting in one spot for 1-14 hours.

      I don’t have much advice for how to fix the ill feelings, but here’s how I made them more manageable:
      + Pay for extra leg room. This was mostly for my super tall boyfriend, but I benefited too. Having extra room for my legs AND my carry-on backpack meant I could stretch out but also have everything in reach (no shuffling in the overhead locker for a pen or eyemask).
      + Get a mild tranquilizer. On our first major flight, I barely slept for the entire 14 hours we were in the air. No matter what I tried (and I tried for hours), I couldn’t relax. On the way back, my partner gave me a Xanax. It didn’t keep me sleeping the entire flight, but it relaxed me enough that all I had to do was rest my head and I would nod off for a few hours.
      + Pack a bag of gummies. I tend to grind my teeth when I’m anxious, so I kept a bag of gummy bears in my bag before long flights. When it’s hour 3 of an 8-hour flight and you feel grumpy and uncomfortable, a handful of gummies can break up the boredom and cheer you up. If gummies aren’t your thing, go for malteasers, corn chips, whatever your indulgence. Note that sucking on a hard lolly can often help release the pressure in your inner ear.
      + Overload yourself with as many boredom-busters as you can handle. Get whatever you need to distract yourself from all the uncomfortable sensations around you. My carry-on was stuffed with a ipad, kindle, sketchbook/journal and my phone. (To be honest, I barely used any of them, but knowing I had plenty of options to pass the time made a difference for me.)
      + Accept that flying makes you anxious and indulge yourself in whatever you need to make the flight as pleasant as possible. If it means ordering an overpriced alcoholic beverage from the bar, do it. If a trashy magazine will distract you for an hour or two, go for it, even if you normally can’t stand them. Wear whatever trackpants you feel comfortable in and make no apologies. Save all your favourite albums to your phone so you can listen to Hamilton or Disney on repeat.

      I hope these help!

  4. Thank you for the article, any advice for fear of turbulance? I don’t feel safe being thrown around by turbulance in the plane, and when I try to grip something to get stability, armrest etc, that’s being bumped around too by turbulance. I can try to rationalise it, yet when turbulance happens all I can think is “Why did I let myself get thrown around a tin can in the sky?! Why?!” I panic, I sometimes cry and have been known to go into the safety position in my seat, surrounded by non-chalent businessmen chewing gum + reading magazines.

    • This was my main fear of flying… and i’m a travel agent. hah!

      The first time I went on a travel Business Trip, i read everything I could about what turbulence is, what causes, it, and why it’s not going to make the plane fall out of the sky. I basically memorized it. And then when I was on the plane, it became a mantra to myself: “Turbulence is not going to make this plane flip over. Turbulence is not going to make this glorious gliding machine lose its airstream and drop. This plane is built to fly. This plane is not going to fall out of the sky.” I would repeat that to myself in my head over and over, sometimes with my eyes closed and using deep breathing. The first few times with half a small dose valium. After a few flights with this and feeling good about it, I no longer suffer through severe physical anxiety symptoms (muscles clenching, nausea, heart racing, etc) every time I hit a bump in the air.

  5. Thanks for this article! I’m enduring a four hour layover at this very minute, and this article is very timely.

    I HATE flying– it makes me so anxious. I try to understand that turbulence is not a problem and it’s like little bumps in the road when driving, but my stomach drops every single time. What’s made a huge difference for me (aside from “flying-only” anxiety meds that I take before I board) is watching the attendants. 9/10 times they are still serving drinks and going on about their business, and I figure if something were really wrong, they would sit down. 10/10 times they do not look panicked, even if the pilot does ask them to sit down. Realizing that the plane would glide to the ground instead of fall out of the sky helps a lot too, and thinking to myself “the pilot does not want to die any more than I do” (I try not to think about that suicide pilot that killed all the passengers a few years ago… gahhhhh).

    The other big part of the anxiety is the comfort of flying, because I’ve had some really horrible experiences with other passengers (and even crew) because I’m 6’4″ and can’t sit in a regular seat, so now I suck it up and pay the Tall Tax (i.e. “extra space”, which damn well should be discounted for people who can’t physically sit in the regular coach seats FFS) to avoid the severe anxiety that an attendant will threaten to throw me off the plane for “causing a disturbance” (read: the laws of physics not “allowing” the person in front of me to recline her seat, and yes, true story), and paying the stupid extra money for the exit row at least alleviates that anxiety.

    I travel a LOT these days and am on planes almost monthly, and exposure helps a lot as well. Once it becomes more and more routine, it gets easier and easier… but I’d still take a cross-country drive over a flight any day.

  6. Tbh, none of these things are actually helpful to me because anxiety/panic isn’t necessarily rational. While I “know” all of these things, none of that matters when I’m in a plane in the middle of a thunderstorm, or in a steep dive/incline, or having to circle the runway, etc. Xanax + gum + gripping the armrest as tightly as possible 🙂 seem to help. Also, it’s really difficult to get back on a plane after a mid-flight panic, so kudos to all reading who have done that.

    • Same here. I have read all the articles about “understanding how planes work” and they don’t help me one bit mid-air when I am physically feeling jostled by turbulence. It’s not a fear that turbulence is going to cause my plane to crash; it’s just a fear of a scary physical feeling. I can’t control my anxiety reaction (palms sweating, heart racing, seat-gripping…) with knowledge or mental will.

      I travel pretty regularly by plane, and I hate (and feel anxious from) the physical feeling of turbulence EVERY. DAMN. TIME. The only thing that helps me a little bit is using my noise canceling headphones and listening to music pretty loudly. I think xanax is going to have to be my next step.

  7. I find it really helpful to look out of the window. It seems counterproductive at first, but to me it’s so reassuring to witness that despite the turbulences or weird oversensitive gut reactions the plane does not seriously lose height or tip over. After the initial uncomfortable feelings (I really hate taking off. I also hate rollercoasters and swings for the same reasons.) I actually enjoy watching the landscape move underneath me. As long as the weather allows it, of course.

  8. I’m the daughter of 2 pilots, so flying feels more natural to me than anyone else I know. I actually get excited. That said, many of my friends are terrified or were terrified and these are some of the things that have helped them
    1. If the fear is really strong going to classes with a therapist specialized in this can be huge. My father in-law-discovered a huge part of his fear of flying was related to family troubles and associations he had built with that. Building new associations with other terrified people actually really helped him break the cycle and also help those around him with their journey. It’s one of his favorite stories to tell and now (almost 20 years later) he’s starting to get his own pilot’s license!
    2. a friend of mine asked everyone she knew to record her messages or stories and email them to her. She made them into a playlist so she got to hear people’s stories to distract her.
    3. Take a flight lesson. Obviously this one is trickier, but sometimes knowing the actual mechanics does help with the anxiety!
    4. If comfort is the issue bring something that makes you feel safe. For some friends that’s a blanket or scarf they can wrap themselves in. For others it’s a great book.

    Obviously there are many other things that may help, but thought I’d share the ones people have shared with me!

  9. “What helps ease your flight anxiety?”
    Nothing. LOL.
    I work in flight test. I have an entirely different list of worries. ( Most of them, I hasten to point out, are entirely inapplicable to the commercial airline world.)

  10. Good article. Am saving it for Future Me to re-read for my next trip.

    What helps me? I have a self-care routine from start to finish.
    1. I listen to a white noise app on my phone to drown out the noise.
    2. I keep a small makeup bag stocked with OTC pain meds, lip balm, other meds, lotion, eye drops, etc. and store it in the pocket in front of my seat. It reassures me to have what I need without having to dig for it.
    3. I also keep a credit card in the purse so I can buy in-flight food and entertainment if I want it.
    4. I fly with a kitty-cat neck pillow and my teddy bear. I look like a child, but I don’t care; they offer me comfort and I’ll take it.
    5. I make sure I have a good meal before I get on the plane to settle my stomach.
    6. I drink ginger ale on the plane to settle my stomach.
    7. I watch the flight attendants. If they’re still serving drinks and moving around the cabin, we’re not on the verge of dying.
    8. I watch other passengers. If they’re not panicking, I’m probably okay, too.
    9. I have a visual comparison for whatever’s going on. Take off? There’s the wind-up, the pitch, and so on. Bumpy through the clouds? It’s like flying through soup. Decent a little bumpy? It’s like riding a leaf drifting gently to the ground. It’s a constant, soothing, creative narrative in my head and I can roll with that.
    10. I take doctor-prescribed sedatives before and during the flight. (This one’s the most important.) 🙂

  11. My flight anxiety has nothing to do with the actual flying. It’s 1. being claustrophobic, and 2. bathroom issues. I can freak myself out real good by thinking about feeling sick and not having ready access to the bathroom. My tip – couple of benadryll (or something real if you’ve got the prescription) and a strong drink

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