When people see the excitement I have for travelling and airplanes, it can be hard to believe I had a severe phobia of flying, up until quite recently.
I’ve heard so many people say they would love to travel the world, but a fear of flying stops them. It may sound ridiculous to some people (who’ve never dealt with such anxiety) but as someone who has been on both sides of the fence; fear of flying can be a serious problem. The good news is, it’s curable.
I developed a fear of flying quite suddenly at around the age of 10, it gradually got worse and worse. I can’t pinpoint what it was that kicked it off, except that at that time, I was suddenly flying a lot, and with little advance notice. One of my siblings had moved abroad and we were regularly having to visit them. There would be days I would come home from school and find out we were flying the very same evening. They weren’t short flights either, at 5 and a half hours, and that’s without the transit flights!
At first I just got nervous boarding the plane, felt uneasy during the flight, perhaps had some nausea, then it would all be over once we landed. This quickly evolved into being unable to sleep in the lead up to flights, I was unable to eat anything the night before, I’d wake up with stomach cramps and nausea, then proceed to throw up constantly, until we landed (seriously!). I would throw up before leaving for the airport, in the airport, on the plane, in the airport once we landed, and occasionally when we arrived at our destination.
For the duration of the flight I was unable to eat, drink, talk (seriously), read, move, look out the windows or do anything. My heart would race continuously. I was literally paralysed with fear. I missed out on so many great flying memories (and Air France’s legendary children’s packs!) because of this. Flying was a nightmare that plagued my pre-teen years and I wasn’t even going on holiday to make it worthwhile!
Despite that, I was still desperate to travel. Coming from a mixed-ethnicity family, since a young age I have always been so curious about different countries and cultures, I knew travelling was my way of experiencing them even more.
Somewhere in my teens, I decided to work on my fear of flying. There was no overnight solution, I still got bouts of panic here and there, but within a few flights I managed to hop on board a 12hr flight alone and I was fine!
Here are some of the things I did to help manage my flight anxiety, that may help you:
Understand your fear
Firstly, have a really good think about where your fear of flying stems from. Is it due to it being an unfamiliar or new sensation? Is flight safety a concern? Are you fearful of a plane crash? Does the discomfort of being in a pressurised cabin make your stomach turn? Do you have claustrophobia? Once you decipher all the reasons you are scared to fly, you can begin to tackle them one by one.
This was without a doubt the most important part of “recovery” – and is in fact part of the reason I am so obsessed with planes today! To work through my fears I must better understand them, and that’s exactly what I did (p.s doesn’t work with fear of cockroaches!). My prime concern was flight safety, I was convinced any plane I boarded would fall out of the sky, fly head-on into another plane, or overshoot the runway. No matter how many times I flew and landed safely at my destination – I always told myself the next flight would be the one that killed me.
To work on this fear, I started researching planes. I read everything; how they were built, why they were built, which planes had the best safety records etc. Documentaries were great for visual references. I quickly became obsessed with Air Crash Investigation and watched every episode. This might unsettle some people, but for me, understanding how much airline safety has improved because of historical plane crashes helped me understand the advances we have made in technology and how strict flight regulations are today to avoid such accidents ever happening again.
The reality is, flying is actually the safest method of transport. You’re far more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. According to the Civil Aviation Authority “There is an average of one fatality for every 287 million passengers carried by UK operators. This can be compared with a one in 19 million chance of being struck and killed by lightning in the UK or a one in 17,000 chance of being killed in a road accident.” Those are staggering figures. As I type this, there are currently 17,306 airplanes flying the skies above us, and I can guarantee you, we won’t hear of a single plane crash by the time this post goes up.
Planes are incredibly robust structures built to do the impossible – to fly. They are packed to the bring with some of the most advanced technology in the world and they are only getting safer. This video explaining the flight process may be of help.
Eliminating as much stress as you can BEFORE you get to the airport will give you peace of mind and make you less susceptible to anxiety. Some ways you can do this:
- Pack in advance so that you aren’t running round like a headless chicken trying to remember things at the last minute
- Gather all your important documents the night before (or days before) and put them in one safe place
- Keep check-lists (packing list, to do list) so that you are sure you’ve remembered everything
- Double check for your important documents when you leave home (set a phone reminder)
- Wear comfortable clothing that won’t restrict your movement or delay you getting through security
- Check in online to avoid queues and to give you as much time as you need to arrive at the airport and clear security
Build a good pre-flight relaxing routine
This may sound stupid, but being relaxed in advance can really help take the edge off fear of flying. The night before you fly, take time to just relax. Have a bath, read a book or listen to classical music – anything you find relaxing. This should help you get a better nights sleep and result in better spirits in the morning. Avoid foods that give you discomfort or that could potentially flare up any conditions you have (fizzy drinks are my enemy before a flight!).
Choose your seat wisely
If sitting in a specific seat terrifies you, make sure you make a seat selection at check in. Checking in online usually gives you the best pick of seats (do it early) but if for any reason you haven’t managed to, ask at the check in desk. They may be able to accommodate your needs if there is availability. If you are likely to require access to the loos, opt for an Aisle seat so that you aren’t stressed about asking fellow passengers to move for you.
Take something to calm you down
I found the natural remedy Travella helped me immensely, you can also buy this in Boots in some UK Airports. A few drops of Lavender essential oil on a tissue or napkin can also provide relief. Consult a pharmacist if you are looking for other options.
We all know the importance of being well hydrated in our day to day lives, but it’s a thousand times more important up in the air. Cabin pressure can cause you to become dehydrated quite quickly and make you susceptible to headaches, body aches, feeling unwell etc. Stay hydrated, even if you are unable to stomach anything else. Take a water bottle with you onto the plane to ensure you always have it at hand.
Converse with fellow passengers
Conversation will distract you. If you’re flying solo, be brave and make conversation with the person sitting next to you. Some of the most profound conversations I’ve had in my entire life are with the passengers sitting next to me on flights. During one of my very first super long-hauls between Singapore and Cairo, I felt fine until we had around 3 hours of flying time left, then the anxiety kicked in. I actually moved seats to sit near a fellow traveller who looked around my age and started a conversation. We turned out to have so much in common, and I aced the landing!
If you are struggling with anxiety every time you board a plane but are still required to travel, travel smart. Build your journey centered around your wellbeing.
If checking in and clearing airport security stresses you out, arrive at the airport extra early. If you are terrified of being on a plane for long periods of time, book a transit flight to give you a break from being up in the air. If you’re terrified of landings and find a single landing difficult enough – don’t book a transit flight. If cabin pressure and noise sets you off, invest in noise-cancelling headphones or try to fly on a different plane. I was surprised at the lack of cabin pressure and noise when I flew on the Airbus A380 (aka my favourite plane of all time!) – of course the A380 doesn’t serve all flight routes, but I would always pick it on a route if it’s an option.
The important thing is to make the journey less overwhelming so that you have the mental and physical energy for situations beyond your control that may arise.
Don’t be defeated. Fear of flying is extremely common, perhaps more than you may think. Give yourself the time to work through it, at a pace that is right for you. There is no single solution that will work for everyone, but I hope some of the tips listed above may be of use to you.