So, you successfully packed, woke up to your alarm, made it through security, and even scored a decent seat. You buckle your seatbelt and the flight attendant explains the safety information; the plane starts to pick up speed, and you’re officially on your way. All good, right? Not quite.
For anyone with flight anxiety, early morning departure times, long security lines, and turbulence can be stressful — even crippling. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 12.5 percent of Americans (about 40 million people) have a lifetime prevalence of aviophobia, or a fear of flying. Given this impacts so many individuals, we spoke with Dr. Maya Borgueta, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist, to learn more about flight anxiety and strategies to stay grounded while up in the air.
Flight anxiety can kick in before the flight and looks different for everyone
According to Borgueta, flight anxiety includes feelings of fear and dread that come up when flying on an airplane, or even just thinking about an upcoming trip. “It’s an extremely common fear,” she says. “Flight anxiety can look different from person to person. For example, one person may be fearful when turbulence strikes, while another is scared during takeoff and landing. People who are afraid of flying might range from being mildly nervous to experiencing panic attacks to completely avoiding flying altogether.”
Our “fight-or-flight” response in flight
Our mind and body influence each other to trigger symptoms of anxiety, also known as the fight-or-flight response. Ever notice yourself automatically experiencing catastrophic thoughts — like, I just know we’re going to crash, — and perhaps even visualizing them? When you do this, your body will react accordingly. “You might notice your heart racing, palms sweating, feeling hot or shaky, or even becoming short of breath,” Borgueta explains. “Your body is in fight-or-flight mode and puts you on high alert to respond to a perceived threat.”
But is there actually a threat, even though it feels like there is? As humans, being alert to potential danger is part of our natural programming. Our survival as a species has depended on being hardwired to recognize and avoid threats. But sometimes, this instinctive alert turns on prematurely or unnecessarily, like when we’re on a plane.
“Unfortunately, our brain takes shortcuts to quickly respond to a perceived threat, which means we react with fear before our rational thought process enters the picture,” says Borgueta. “Our ‘gut’ and internal alarm system are triggered to respond to the fright of being thousands of feet in the air with no way to escape, long before logical thoughts step in to remind us, for example, that airplanes’ ability to stay in the air is basic physics.”
“Relaxation techniques can help you get out of fight-or-flight mode when your anxiety starts to rise during a flight,” says Borgueta. “My personal favorite breathing exercise is called ‘box breathing.’ To try it, simply inhale to a slow count of four, hold your breath in for another count of four, then exhale for four. After the exhale, wait four seconds until you inhale again for four. Continue following this pattern.
Practice this technique during the week leading up to your flight so that it feels like second nature by the time you board. To hold yourself accountable, create calendar reminders, or stick a Post-it on your bathroom mirror so that you remember to practice.
Visiting a trained professional can be useful if your flight anxiety keeps you from flying, or if the buildup and experience of flying takes all the pleasure out of your trips. “A specialist can help you develop a plan for tackling your anxiety step by step,” says Borgueta. “This will usually include helping you get comfortable with the idea of flying in your imagination or watching videos of people flying, gradually allowing you to work up to the real thing. There are even therapists using virtual reality technology to let clients practice the experience of flying from the safety of an office.”
Come up with a rational reminder
You know those catastrophic thoughts like, What if I have a panic attack and make a huge scene? Before your flight, write down a few rational thoughts to counter this extreme thought. Repeat it anytime you catch yourself engaging in irrational thinking. “I’m usually fine flying, but when turbulence kicks up sometimes I get quite nervous,” says Borgueta. “When that happens, I’ll close my eyes, start my box breathing, and silently repeat to myself, Just because it feels scary doesn’t mean it’s actually dangerous.”
Borgueta explains that this serves as a way to remind yourself that your feelings don’t always match the reality of the situation. Try jotting down the following data: 2015 stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal there were 32,166 fatal car accidents in the U.S. that year, which lead to just over 35,000 deaths. But according to the National Transportation Safety Board, there were only a total of 27 airplane accidents in the U.S. that year — zero of which were fatal.
Now that’s a rational, comforting reminder.