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Fear of Flying

Hi everyone. I am a woman in my 30s, and I have been attempting to deal with a plane phobia I've had for a little over ten years. When I was a child I traveled quite a bit, and never had an issue, but after an upsetting flight I had when I was around 20 years old, I have been terrified of planes ever since. Shortly after that incident my parents took me to Switzerland, and I sobbed the night before out of fear of being in a plane that long (and on the plane itself too. My dad gave me valium to try to calm me on that flight but it didn't work too well.)

It's been many years since then. Since the Switzerland trip, the last time I went overseas was my Rick Steves trip to Paris in 2018. I still am utterly terrified of planes (to the point if I think about flying I get my heart rate up and the fear starts to set in) but being able to go on a trip and see Europe is worth it. I just reserved a tour to Italy in 2022 which I'm very excited about but the fear is already starting to set in. Has anyone conquered their own fear of flying or have any tips? I'm not sure how to make it go away. I've been flying at least once a year since my phobia started and it has only gotten marginally better, i.e. I don't cry anymore. So far what I try to do when I am scared on a flight is ask the passenger next to me if they mind having a get-to-know-you conversation to distract me and that seems to be semi-helpful. (And I of course know the you're safer in a plane than a car bit.) But really I would like to be able to rid myself of the pre-flight fears and my extreme fear of turbulence. Thoughts?

Posted by
91 posts

Hi Alexandra! First of all, congratulations on booking your next trip. I'm sure you will love it, and you'll be so glad you went! As to your fear of flying, have you ever tried seeing a mental health professional for this? I'm not being flippant in the slightest. Phobias are no fun, and you may find that a psychiatrist/psychologist/therapist/counselor may have some real strategies for you that could give you some relief. You've got some time before your trip to work on this, and just think of how great it would feel to book air travel again with little worry. :) As far as tips from other travelers, I can share one with you (and you've probably heard it before): if you experience turbulence on your flight, look at your flight attendants. Chances are, they'll be chatting away and going about their jobs as if nothing is happening (because to them it's totally normal and nothing to worry about). I've been on some flights turbulent enough to stop cabin service (when the captain comes on the intercom and directs the flight attendants to take their seats and buckle up). I've noticed that the flight attendants usually just seem annoyed that their schedule got derailed! Then they sit down and talk away, read, etc... It's very reassuring. I know this doesn't help you in the lead up, but it's something I keep in mind while flying. Good luck!

Posted by
3815 posts

In addition to the great tips above, some airlines have their own "fear of flying workshops". I don't know about those in the US, but here in Paris, Air France has its own workshop, my sister-in-law went on it, and she was extremely satisfied. Her phobia symptoms were less pronounced than what you described, but it might still be worth investigating?

Posted by
11243 posts

Expanding on what Balso wrote, airlines in the U.S. offered fear of flying classes co-taught by a psychologist and a pilot. The graduation was a flight with the airline together as a group. I'm not sure if Covid put a stop to them. You might want to do a google search.

There is another course called SOAR that gets lots of high marks around the internet. I believe it's mostly self study but you can get counseling from the author as well.

https://m.fearofflying.com/

I learned to fly in college. One phrase drummed into us was "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. But there is no such thing as an old, bold pilot." Meaning--pilots, like everyone else, want to go home after work. They are not going to take a plane into a situation they feel is unsafe. And their airline can't force them to do so. The captain of an aircraft has final say as to whether he or she feels it is safe to fly. That's the law.

Posted by
843 posts

I am not a doctor. I don't even pretend to be a doctor. But I can use a search tool.

Defined: A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It is a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no real danger. Of the three major types of phobias, agoraphobia can occur when one finds oneself in a situation from which it is simply impossible to escape such as getting in an elevator or an airplane. Even minor discomforts and anxieties can escalate into phobias when the individual begins to shape his or her life around deliberately avoiding the trigger mechanism.

Phobia differs from simple discomfort by the amount and degree of anxiety that can lead to physical or mental incapacity. Irrational fear is not a thing one should attempt to deal with alone any more than, say, a broken bone. If this is affecting your life in a way that impairs your ability to cope with the environment in which you find yourself, find a therapist. Life's too short to not enjoy as much about it as you can and there's a combination of therapy and pills for just about any anxiety disorder. Beta blockers, antidepressants, tranquilizers, and behavioral therapy are all available for you to put this disturbance behind you.

If proven therapies and treatments hold o appeal to you, try a trans-Atlantic cruise to get you to and from your RS tour.

Posted by
21717 posts

Trouble is that we don't have regularly scheduled trans-atlantic ships so that is probably out. As others have recommended, check with your local airport for fear of flying classes. From time to time our local newspaper will carry stories about these classes and they seem to be effective but you do need the professional assistance. Nothing we post or you can read will solve your problem. We all have some degree of phobias. Fortunately, for me, it is very easy to avoid the situations for my phobias. It is good that you are trying to address it. As with most mental health issue, recognizing and addressing it is the major first trip. Good luck -----

Posted by
3264 posts

Such good advice already. As someone who has had to deal with this for decades, I know where you're coming from. And can attest to the benefits of therapy, both behavioral and pharmaceutical. It gave me coping skills to deal with my phobia. Now I still have a degree of anxiety before and during flights, but have the tools to greatly reduce its impact. Please seek competent help as outlined in the previous posts.

Posted by
442 posts

So I used to be an Air Traffic Controller when I was in the military and developed my fear of flying from that (I know, this is not starting out well for you, but it will get better).

I don't like to fly, but like your trip in 2018, I don't let it stop me.

The thing to remember, is that the most difficult time of a flight is takeoffs and landings. Generally at cruising altitude, nothing happens (and that's a great thing; ftr, the tip above about turbulence and the FAs is spot on). So, during takeoffs and landings, I have to be distracted - I do Sudoku over and over and over again to distract myself (I rip paper puzzles out of a book and staple them together to accomplish them). I also have my own personal music list that I listen to (Herb Alpert, ftr).

I do try to sleep on the plane but that usually doesn't go well, a glass of wine certainly helps.

Good luck!

Posted by
1688 posts

Disclaimer: I have no expertise on this topic at all. However, I wanted to suggest the possibility that you might be dealing with PTSD here, stemming from the incident when you were 20, which would affect which type of therapy would be the most helpful for you. Fortunately, these days PTSD is well-recognized and truly effective therapies are available.

Posted by
3185 posts

I also have no experience on this topic but wonder if downloading some interesting podcasts that you can listen to on takeoff and landing might distract you from your anxiety?

Posted by
8286 posts

Alexandra, I have the same phobia. I detest flying, it is beyond scary for me. I haven’t had any therapy for it. Despite my extreme fear and anxiety, I do fly to Europe once a year, I don’t have time for a ship so it’s my only option. My love of being in Europe makes it do-able for me. I pretend like I’m just getting on a bus, and I tell myself air turbulence is the same as driving on potholes. I tell myself if flight attendants and passengers are calm, then everything’s fine. I sometimes take Valium and it helps, you might want to try again (10 mg… 5 mg does nothing for me). I also stock up on People Magazines (which I normally never read) and flip through them to distract myself. It helps a lot, then I give each one to a flight attendant when I’ve finished and their face always lights up, they are happy to get them (they get bored on 11 hr flights). I also have games on my iPhone that help a lot to keep me distracted and calm. I get up often and walk slowly up and down the aisles and stretch in the larger areas by exit doors. I do sometimes cry on take-off, for landings I’m so happy to be landing I don’t cry. It’s the determination to get to Europe that helps me.

I do better if I fly with a loved one but that’s not always possible.

An English friend of mine did the British Air Fear of Flying class and it helped her. She still hated flying, but like me, she learned how to talk to herself and get through it.

Posted by
27714 posts

Different things can trigger responses. I know that I absolutely hate flying, much of that around all the security theatre and overcrowded lounges and luggage games.

But I also know that a lot of it comes from several years of airport rescue drills and simulations I participated in 40 years ago. That was after decades of flying from the days of 707s upwards, including an engine explosion in about 1961, and plenty of private pilot training - then one day I just didn't want to fly again.

Today I will if I need to, I just do what I can to avoid it. Handy I'm in England and if we can ever travel again (you US and Canada folks are so lucky that European countries welcome you now, travel for UK folks is still basically out of the question) we just drive over or take a train.

To give you an idea of how old I am the first 15 years of my life we went back and forth between New York and Southampton by steamships.

I understand. Three quarters of the way when you can talk about it. Congratulations.

I remember that American Airlines used to run fear-of-flying classes at DFW. I bet that Nashville has something similar. Good luck. You'll take that trip and love it.

Posted by
8396 posts

I am afraid and am still fairly claustrophobic, but I can now fly with much less anxiety. I have a list of past "incidents" but can now control my mind, avoiding the "what if" thoughts or memories or newspaper details I have read in the past
Valium did nothing if we hit an air pocket. Even valium plus alcohol was in effective.

This helped a little: a book on overcoming fear of flying which gave me a little logic handle to grab.
But my “cure” has been Netflix with noise-cancelling headphones. That did it. I don’t notice take offs, banking, or landings. I’m too busy with some silly show I’ve downloaded. And I don’t take any more valium or drink alcohol. Pre-pandemic we flew about 16 times a year.
Waiting to board a plane last week, I found a “conquering anxiety” podcast from Tenpercent very effective at deepening the breath and lowering the anxiety.

You will find your own cure. You’ve taken steps already by signing up for the tour and choosing to get out into the world no matter how much effort is needed.

Posted by
1833 posts

Alexandria, Read "Fear of flying" by Erica Jong. That should help. Monte

Posted by
1775 posts

Does it help to hear how many of us have gone through the same thing? I’m a big advocate of mental health professionals, but my problems surfaced before that approach was well-publicized. But then I had to start traveling long distances with small children at home, so I had to maximize my time. I leaned heavily on the strategy of distraction, i.e. talking to seat mates, buying magazines I only got to read on those occasions, etc. I also selected seats over the wing as they supposedly felt the turbulence less and for years preferred aisle to window because I didn’t want to see the ground. Additionally, I seemed to do better when I flew more frequently than once a year. The first couple of years I seemed to share a row with people who were either pilots or had some connection to the aviation industry. I’d watch them for signs of concern, which never happened.

You’ve gotten lots of options; I hope you’ll find what works for you.

Posted by
172 posts

Alexandra- please spend some time with a therapist as It will probably be your only solution in working through this.

Everyone here is wonderful and very well intentioned but there is a HUGE and SUBSTANTIAL difference between 'being afraid" from a general phobia as to a 'fear of flying' in the abstract point of view (airline classes can work here by education and exposure) and "being afraid" after having an actual bad flight triggering event. In simpler terms- a child may be afraid of a dog (never spends time around them) and a child may be afraid of a dog after having been badly bitten by a dog. Both are afraid of dogs but the mental and physical impacts in both situations is totally different as are the methods of 'over coming' that fear. A simple fear of flying class in your situation is not going to work.

Posted by
25 posts

Thank you so much for all the replies!

I never knew that there were classes for fear of flying, that sounds like a great idea. I will definitely look into those.

I'm lucky enough to have a therapist I've been working with so I will definitely steer our sessions into tackling this issue. Also thank you to those who made me realize that this is something born from trauma. I understand that it sounds silly but I never saw it from that perspective before.

And thank you to those who shared their own experience with flying phobia. It's good to hear from you and I appreciate all your words of commiseration.

Posted by
2708 posts

I know you tried valium when you were younger, but perhaps there are other medications that might work better for you. I am not a doctor, but my main advice is to talk to a psychiatrist or other doctor who can help determine this. There's a stigma around medications for mental health conditions, and this is unfair. So if you are comfortable with it and a medical professional recommends it, then perhaps a medication could help. Definitely in conjunction with distraction or other strategies. I'm imagining some sort of anti-anxiety medication that calms you down a bit so you can focus more on distracting yourself or other things you come up with. A close family member of mine has severe anxiety (not around flying), and a medication has helped him be able to put into practice the strategies he learns with a therapist.

Posted by
3349 posts

I would agree with another contributor from this thread who suggested seeking professional guidance. You might consider consulting your current healthcare provider for a referral to meet your specific needs.

Posted by
668 posts

I don't suffer from fear of flying, but I am claustrophobic. When being in an airplane (normally the very small ones) gets to me, I do meditative breathing; slow, deep breaths. Helps me a lot. This is certainly not going to resolve your issue, but it is one more thing that might help. Good luck, and congratulations on having the courage to sign up for a tour that will require flying.

Posted by
6343 posts

OP I suspect poster Monte was attempting to be amusing regarding his suggestion to read Erica Jong’s book Fear of Flying. Google the synopsis.

Find a professional to help you understand and hopefully with therapy conquer your fear of flying. Life is to short not to be able to enjoy traveling.

Posted by
773 posts

Do you mean you took plane flights with your family when you were under about 20 years old, without fear of flying, but then developed a fear of flying? This is not a simple fear of flying. See about discussing with your therapist about what flying is reminding you of. I never had a fear of flying. I don't know why. My mother is afraid of flying. She has never taken a plane flight. She is afraid of heights, crossing big bridges, travel in bad weather; she has been on boats but she is still afraid of them and always has been, which started when she was s kid at summer camp and they coerced her into sitting at the bottom of a canoe while others rowed it.

I took my first plane flight when I was 16, on a class trip with the school band. I kept thinking something scary was going to happen. The only scary part was my mom's reaction to the trip before I left. Nothing scary happened on the plane trip. I realized my mom was wrong about flying. I took my next trip for a class when I was 24 and my other trips to Europe starting when I was 33. You are close to my age.

I have some anxiety of traveling alone, which has nothing to do with travel itself. It has to do with my mom's reaction when I tell her about an upcoming trip. She cries and becomes psychotically fearful and panicked. She then calms down just before my trips and starts recommending places to see... she mentioned her last memory of her dad, seeing her dad as he was getting on or off a plane when her dad was on the way to a conference; her dad got amyotropihc lateral sclerosis and died when he was 36, in December 1959, when my mom was 6. My aunt on my mom's side is equally phobic of flying. This aunt has never taken a plane flight either. This aunt is fine with small boats but not fine with big ships. But you have taken plane flights in the past with minimal trouble... This isn't a simple phobia of flying. Phobias usually start early in childhood. I know my fear of interacting with people and talking in public didn't start as an adult, it started early in childhood due to the way the subconscious part of my brain reacted to my dad's behavior. Your fear of flying isn't the point. It is a symptom of something else.

Edit: Are you more fearful when you travel with your family or others or when you travel alone? I hated traveling on road trips with my parents as a kid, but I am totally fine traveling alone as an adult.

Posted by
3264 posts

We'll let the WM check that link on Jason's post.

Posted by
31471 posts

Alexandra,

There seem to be two common methods that people use to deal with phobias about flying. Some use the "pharmaceutical approach" with Ativan or whatever, and that provides some relief. Others use the psychological approach with "fear of flying" classes or visits to a psychologist. As you're already working with a therapist, that would be a good place to start. One of the most effective approaches seems to be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which provides good results with many people. I've been researching that as I'm hoping it will be a solution for a relative that has a needle phobia.

For most of us on this side of the pond, flights are the best and quickest way to get to Europe. I enjoy the experience for the most part, but always a bit relieved when the wheels touch the ground. I try to avoid flights within Europe whenever possible, not so much because I'm afraid to fly, but rather because I detest the "dog & pony" show of the airport experience and travelling in sardine class seats. Trains are much more comfortable!

Hope you find a solution for this soon. Happy travels!

Posted by
27714 posts

for folks contributing you might not that this zombie from June was just reopened by a first poster with a dubious link

Posted by
861 posts

All great suggestions. I’d like to add hypnosis perhaps. My friend was a smoker for years, went to one and is now a non-smoker. Ive never been to one, but she swears by him. It’s just a thought if the other ideas don’t work.

Posted by
9 posts

I had a friend with terrible flying phobia- she used hypnosis & she has been a world traveler since. Very successful for her. My aunt used hypnosis for weight loss also-was successful..
Good luck!

Posted by
659 posts

Alexandra,
For what it’s worth, I struggled with a fear of flying in my 30s and 40s. Don’t know why it was those two decades. I can attest to having a 57-year old sister, and two 58-year old friends you flight attendants for American and United. My sister is a very fearful person yet she flies 5 days a week and has no / nada / zero stories about a plane every being in danger.

Bumpy, yes. Flying around storms, yes. Diverted flights, yes. But she NEVER has felt her life threatened.