In 2011 I travelled around Australia and New Zealand and in the space of just a week I became afraid of flying. Travelling from Queenstown to Auckland I experienced the scariest takeoff of my life. As we took off from Queenstown, the plane appeared to drop through the sky just minutes after leaving the ground. I can’t really put into words how bad it was. The drop in altitude was so extreme that my stomach appeared to end up in my mouth, the whole plane screamed. To make it worse, as the plane thrust it’s engines and started to make its way up through the air, it happened again! As if this wasn’t enough to create some doubts in my mind about flying, on the day I left New Zealand, I was headed for Kuala Lumpur and we ended up flying around a typhoon that was ravaging Australia. The seatbelt signs remained lit for the entire 12 hours we were in the sky and it was the most turbulent flight I have ever been on. This experience wasn’t helped by the fact that for at least half of the flight, Malaysian Airline flight attendants were running up and down the aisles screaming “PUT YOUR SEAT BELTS ON, ADVERSE WEATHER CONDITIONS!!!”
(Image Credit: Getty)
As one of my fellow travellers said to me on a particularly bumpy take off from Hong Kong once, “there’s nothing you can do about it now, you’re on the plane, what will happen will happen.” How reassuring! Thanks! But he was right, either you choose to fly, or you choose not to. For me, despite my fears, I want to see the world and flying is the fastest and most cost effective way to do it, so either I choose to fly, or I stay at home. One of the funniest things a friend once said to me was “I can’t believe of all people, you are afraid to fly”, and she was right, I have flown in planes for as long as I can remember. Flying into New York in 2005 I actually laughed to myself about a couple of guys in the back of the plane remarking at what a terrible flight it had been. To me it had been the most fun ever, just like a rollercoaster, a bit of turbulence just didn’t bother me at all and flying was the most exciting thing ever! Perhaps ageing has played a part in my growing fears, perhaps I just feel less immortal now than I did in my twenties, but it only takes one bad experience to set you on a path that you don’t want to be on. But, I haven’t let it stop me flying. I have just found ways to deal with my fears. Last year alone, I travelled on 21 flights. For someone afraid to fly, that’s quite a lot!
Twelve million people in the UK alone suffer from aerophobia. When you are on a flight, you will be one of 3 people on that flight who would rather not be there. It is always a comfort to know that you are not alone. So, how do I conquer my fears each time I board a plane? Here are my top ten tips!
1) Don’t Subscribe to Fear Mongering
It is so easy to take more notice of the bad press about flying than it is to remember the statistics. If there is a plane crash, it makes a global news story and we forget the millions of flights that happen without issue. It is because aviation accidents are so rare that it makes a good story for television and film too. Films like ‘Flight’ and ‘Final Destination’ cash in on the fear of flying already instilled in many of the world’s population. Broadcasters create television series about plane crashes because they know that enough people will watch them out of morbid curiosity. We have to remember that scenes like these are made to make us feel fear, they are playing on our already heightened sense of anxiety. The answer is, don’t watch them!
2) Do Your Research About Your Concerns
First of all, work out why you are scared of flying. Did you experience an incident first hand that put you off? Is it take off or landing that worries you? Perhaps the thought of turbulence makes you feel sick to your stomach when you know you have to fly? Or is it simply that you can’t understand how a big lump of metal can stay in the sky? Once you understand why you feel the way you do about flying, you can work on resolving those issues.
As I mentioned in my introduction, my personal fear stems from a particularly bad takeoff at Queenstown airport and a horrendous flight around a typhoon over Australia causing extreme turbulence. When I flew from Queenstown, the pilot piped up just as we were about to land at Auckland and apologised for the ‘bumpy takeoff’ and said it was completely normal. When I got home, I read up on Queenstown airport and found that the pilot was absolutely right, it was just a shame that he didn’t tell us what to expect before we left the ground! Queenstown airport is situated in the middle of a mountain range, where the air is much thinner and planes need more engine power than normal to get up off the ground. As a result of this, some dips in flight on take off are normal here.
(Image Credit: istock - Dave Alan)
As for the turbulence over Australia, I learnt that turbulence is also completely normal and to be expected. Pilots will usually choose the least turbulent path to make the flight as comfortable for passengers. Flights will change altitude to make the flight less bumpy, not because they are worried the wings will fall off (they won’t) but just to stop your coffee from spilling in your lap! Turbulence in the air is no different from turbulence in a car. There are bumps in the sky just as there are bumps on the road. We also have to remember that aircrafts are built to withstand turbulence. Their wings can bend over 24 feet, 150% more than safety recommendations. Wing flex is an amazing technology which allows the plane to cope with turbulence, they work like shock absorbers to make the flight less bumpy. It is really important to remember that the plane would not go up if it wasn’t safe. Airlines, pilots and traffic control monitor weather fronts and would send you around a storm, not through it. Bumpy does not mean you’re plane is going to come down!
3) Sit on the Wing
If turbulence is what worries you the most, you are more likely not to feel the effects of a bumpy ride if you sit on or near the wing of the aircraft. This is because you are closer to the plane’s centre of lift and gravity. Just like a seesaw, the part that moves the least is the centre and the bumpiest part of the plane is the back end. Another great reason for sitting on the wing is that you will be closer to an emergency exit, should that help you feel more comfortable!
Personally, if I can, I always choose a window seat on the wing. This is partly because I hope to feel any turbulence less, but for some reason I find this seat the most settling. I like being able to see the ground or the tops of the clouds. This may sound counter-intuitive, but knowing that I am tens of thousands of feet above the ground is comforting to me; it means we are still flying. I also like to be able to see the wing. Even though I know the wing isn’t going to be ripped off, knowing it is still there dispels any fears. I like to see the wing flex, it gives me an idea of just how bad the turbulence is and how well the plane is coping with it.
(Image Credit: istock - Cougarsan)
4) Know What to Expect
We have information at our fingertips these days thanks to the internet and smartphones. Whatever your fears, it is always good to know what to expect, especially if you are a first time flyer. Planes are a myriad of noises and feelings that we’re not used to and have no control over. Whirs and clunks, noisy engines and beeps, what do they all mean? Fortunately for us, there are thousands of videos on youtube now of takeoffs, landings and inflight turbulence which can help prepare us in knowing what to expect. Many pilots now have their own websites offering tutorials on the fear of flying and lessons on how planes and aviation works. Use these resources. Simulate your own takeoff or landing through the medium of video, do it many times and the real thing is bound to be less scary!
Here's a fantastic video from 'Virgin Flying Without Fear' which talks you through exactly what to expect on a flight and what all of the noises and clunks mean!
Know as much about your flight and your plane as possible and visualise it. Find out where you will be sitting and look at the layout of your plane. Imagine what your view will be from your seat, find out where the toilets are and where the emergency exits are. Once you’ve booked your flight, do your research as above and every night before you go to sleep, imagine yourself on that plane. Imagine yourself calm and happy, excited even, remember the videos, the noises, the engine thrust and your personal view and mentally walk yourself through it. Try and surround yourself with happy thoughts about flying like the amazing views from the window, the excitement you feel about your travels or the fact that you have a few hours to switch off with a great movie or a good book. If you train yourself to associate flight with happy, good things, you are more likely to feel this way on the day you find yourself on a plane!
5) Deep Breathing and Mindful Meditation
Many people recommend hypnotherapy to people who suffer with fear of flying. If you are like me and the thought of flying makes you anxious but it’s not debilitating, you might find that learning how to breathe and meditate might be enough to keep you calm. Deep breathing does not mean just taking long breaths in and out, it means breathing into your diaphragm and expanding your abdomen rather than your chest. As well as increasing the amount of oxygen to your bloodstream, helping you to relax, it also interrupts the body’s reaction to ‘fight or flight’, making you feel calmer and more in control.
Take a long breath in through the nose and count to ten, making sure to expand your abdomen, then release the air steadily for ten counts through the mouth. I usually find that as I become more anxious, I breathe faster, perhaps only managing six to eight counts as I breathe in. Trying to keep to ten counts is a great distraction as you are concentrating on counting and breathing rather than what is going on around you.
Mindfulness meditation is more of a long term therapy, something that you should start practicing long in advance of your flight, but is a continuation of the deep breathing exercise previously mentioned. Dr Sara Lazar of Harvard University has done some amazing research into the theory that meditation can aid a fear of flying. She explains that once a person starts meditating regularly, the structure of their brain typically changes. In particular, the areas of the brain that make you feel anxious tend to shrink. Mindfulness meditation begins with deep breathing but it trains you to be aware of the present moment with a non-judging attitude. Your mind locks in on one element of what is around you, for some, it’s the way the air feels as it passes through the nostrils. Eventually, you develop this into noticing, accepting and not judging your thoughts and emotions. It’s about focusing on the present rather than what might happen in the future and gaining some perspective on your thoughts and feelings of anxiety.
But, for it to be used practically in a situation such as flying, it is an art that should be practiced every day. Start with deep breathing and gradually introduce mindfulness. Start by concentrating on the air passing through your nostrils, if your mind wanders, bring it back to your nose. As your practice continues, develop your mind, concentrate on sounds or feelings, then thoughts, but always keep it in the present, always bring it back to the present.
6) Imagine That You Are on The Road
Back to turbulence! If you are mid flight and you suddenly hit some bumpy air, sit back, breathe deeply and imagine that you’re on a coach on the M1. When you’re travelling by road, you know that you are on terra firma and to you, this is a normal every day occurrence. Despite the fact that we are more likely to be the victim of a road accident than a plane crash is difficult to imagine as we travel by road every day. So if you would normally feel safer on a coach than on a plane, just close your eyes and imagine that on a coach is exactly where you are.
Here is an experiment I have conducted myself. I have travelled by coach and by plane a lot for work. I had a cup of water ready for a coach journey across Snake Pass in the Peak District. We’re talking windy, bumpy and difficult to navigate roads. I took the lid off of my cup of water and as predicted, it didn’t stay in the cup for very long. I did the same on a flight to the Netherlands. It wasn’t a particularly bumpy flight, but we did encounter some turbulence; not one drop of water was spilled.
(Image Credit: istock - kickimage)
When you are in the middle of a bout of what feels like extreme turbulence, I completely understand that it feels like the plane could fall out of the sky at any moment and it feels like the plane is lifting and fall hundreds of feet at a time. However, anything described as moderate turbulence by a pilot, which we would call considerably bumpy air, generally the plane is only being displaced in altitude by around 20 feet, usually less. Of the small number of passengers injured during turbulence, most of them will have been travelling without a seatbelt on. So, if it helps, buckle in, close your eyes and imagine yourself driving over the tops of the beautiful Peak District!
7) Distract Yourself
This is an obvious one. Just as I mentioned before about concentrating on your breathing patterns or expanding your abdomen as a way of redirecting your thoughts, there are many ways to distract yourself on a flight. If you are travelling with someone, tell them about your fears and ask them to keep you distracted with conversation. If you are travelling alone, start up a conversation with the people next to you. I once got through a four hour flight in no time after befriending a fellow passenger who was travelling to Colombia to take supplies to a school of disadvantaged children. Her story was so engaging, I barely noticed we had landed.
If you are on a long haul flight, these days it is likely that you will have your own inflight entertainment system. Use it, watch a great film (not one about plane crashes), put on a familiar TV show or sitcom or listen to the radio. If your flight doesn’t have an entertainment system, make sure you travel prepared. Download podcasts to your phone or MP3 player, or take a laptop with you preloaded with shows and films and make sure that you are fully charged. Games are great too, either on your phone or with a fellow passenger. Anything that gets your brain thinking can be a great distraction; think quizzes and tactical games. Lastly, fuel your imagination and buy a best selling book at the airport and hope that it’s a page turner. It is amazing, the power that Mr Darcy can have over a jet engine!
8) Focus on Other People and Other Things
The first thing that I turn to when I am concerned, is to concentrate on what is going on around me. Are the seatbelt lights on? If not, you’re absolutely fine. If they are on, I turn my attention to what other people are doing, particularly the crew. If the flight attendants are continuing as normal, serving drinks and food, smiling, joking and chatting to passengers, then everything is fine. If I can’t see the crew, how are other people reacting? The vast majority of people around you will be acting completely normally, it is unlikely anybody will be panicking and so neither should you.
(Image Credit: istock - Flyshygirl)
For me, while turbulence can send my heart into my mouth at times, the worst part of flying is takeoff. I can tell you from experience that it usually takes about 20 minutes from the point of leaving the ground till the time the pilot turns off the seatbelt sign. Once that seatbelt sign is off, I know I can relax. But it’s usually a lot sooner that the crew are allowed up and I find that a comfort too.
9) The Rubber Band Technique
This is another distraction method. Keep a rubber band around your wrist. As soon as any negative thoughts or anxieties enter your mind, snap the rubber band against your wrist. At this point, telling yourself to stop being silly can help and snap you back into a reasonable way of thinking. Do this enough and you will soon associate the snap of a rubber band with making you feel stronger and more in control of your fears, over time, it will alter the course of your thoughts. The ping and snap of an elastic band causes some momentary pain, more of a sting, and this distracts the brain from what was initially worrying you.
Well, this is a happier one to end on! Visualising what you have to look forward to can help enormously in getting through what could for you, be a terrible ordeal. Some people use physical things like a photograph of your destination or the people that you are travelling to see. If you don’t have anything like this to hand, use your imagination.
Sit back, close your eyes and try some of that deep breathing. Imagine yourself on the beach, feel the warmth of the sun on your face, the sand between your toes, hear the water lapping at the shore, feel the light breeze around your body. Imagine yourself seeing the faces of the people you love as you come through security at the airport and how it feels to have their arms around you. Imagine stepping out of a taxi into a busy square, the skyscrapers towering above you, the smells of street food surrounding you, the sounds of traffic, car horns and people nattering away on their mobile phones.
Wherever you are going, whoever you are going to see, you have got on that plane because to you, the risk of flying was not as great as the pleasure of whatever you are travelling to. Remember that, visualise it and when you get there, be grateful that you made the trip and be proud that you got through it.
Here are some great websites aimed at relieving fears of flying that you may find helpful:
The best apps I have found for meditation include ‘Calm - meditation and relaxation’ (free for iPhone and iPad), ‘Simply Being Guided Meditation’ (available for iPhone, iPad and Android), ‘Headspace’ and ‘Room to Breathe Meditation’ (available for iPhone, iPad and Android).
Other apps reported to be useful to fearful flyers include ‘Valk’ priced at £2.99, described as your “in-flight therapist”, which gives you flight safety statistics and turbulence and weather reports. It also has an inbuilt “panic button” which provides you with stress reduction techniques on demand should you need them. ‘Soar’ is another great app, which teaches you the basics of flying and provides a course that you can subscribe to, helping to alleviate your fears. Be warned, the in-app purchases are quite expensive!
Use the free apps ‘Flight View Free’ to see the likely path of your flight and then use ‘Turbulence Locator’ to see what you can expect on your flight. For £1.49, purchase ‘Turbcast’ which combines both of the previous apps. Enter your flight number and it will tell you the turbulence forecast for your flight. Sometimes half the battle is knowing what you’re in for.
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