I blame the birth of my flying phobia on three things: university, my friends and family, and the media.
I was 24 before I travelled outside of the UK. My first flight ever had been a few months prior, from Birmingham to Glasgow, to see Sum 41 at the 02 Academy and eat haggis in a suspiciously empty Wetherspoons. Nothing had made me feel uneasy about flying, so when my boyfriend and I decided to do a road trip across America, the thought of the eight-hour flight there didn’t bother me at all.
We bought the tickets, made an itinerary, booked places to stay and various buses that would get us from Boston to San Francisco. The only thing left to do was finish uni and get the degree I’d been working towards for three years.
One of the final modules focused on representation of trauma, particularly within post-9/11 literature. I chose this topic for my final essay too, which in hindsight wasn’t my best idea. (It’s still super interesting, even if it did kick-start my phobia.) Lectures were spent analysing different ways trauma resulting from the attacks was portrayed, and then I’d go and research the events themselves in as much detail as possible so I could confidently write about it. I listened to audio, watched documentaries, saw photos and videos of the hijacked planes crashing into the buildings from different angles. I began to associate flying with the images I was repeatedly viewing; after all, out of my entire life, I’d only flown for grand total of two hours. Not enough for me to be rational. And so, the anxiety began.
(I only just scraped a 2:1 on that essay. It wasn’t worth it.)
When I told my family and friends how nervous I felt, they had very different ways to comfort me. My friends shared their worst flying experiences to show that they’d survived and therefore, so would I. One swore they were going to die when they hit bad turbulence coming home from Germany. Another always got sick because of the food served. They told me how easy it was to get ill because of proximity to hundreds of people and the supposedly recycled stale air in the plane.
My family reassured me that I’d be fine, as long as I wore compression socks. If not, I’d get deep vein thrombosis and a blood clot would travel up my leg and into my heart, killing me without warning. I still don’t know if this is a real thing caused by flying, but I was soon convinced that even if we landed safely, I’d die from a blood clot anyway. Great.
There were two crashes in the weeks leading up to the flight. Of course, I read every article that I came across, and then the suggested related articles about previous accidents and missing planes. All that research on 9/11 also filled YouTube with recommendations of crash scenes and conspiracy theories. The risks of being in a plane crash are incredibly low, but it was difficult to believe that when I was being bombarded (admittedly, mostly at my own doing) with so many stories telling me otherwise.
So, my anxiety blossomed into a fully formed phobia. It may not be as extreme as those who completely refuse to travel by plane, but it is definitely there. Over time, I’ve been able to work out what helps me deal with the stress I feel when it comes to flying (and I’m definitely still learning, too!) Here are some things that help me, and hopefully they’ll help you too.
Tips and Tricks for Anxious Flyers
Not everyone who experiences flight anxiety have the same reasons for it. I’m not claustrophobic or afraid of heights, but I hate strong motions I can’t control (like turbulence, landings/take offs and just the idea of falling. Ugh). Others could be afraid of an emergency mid-flight. My brother has a phobia of flying because he isn’t the one in control and the pilot is a complete stranger to him. Everyone has different triggers, and it’s useful to work out what yours might be.
Researching what turbulence actually is and learning that it’s more an inconvenience than a genuine safety issue helped a lot when I went through a particularly bad patch coming home from Portugal (despite my iPod deciding that Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ was the perfect song to play the moment the plane started shaking). General research about how planes work stop me from finding reasons to panic. What if we landed too hard and the tires burst? What if one of the engines fail? Are these windows strong enough to withstand something accidentally hitting them? I was able to reassure myself and calm down a lot simply by recapping on all the research.
2. The rule of three
Have at least three distractions. I always take something to read, something to listen to and something to do. This might take some trial and error. It took me several flights to work out that listening to podcasts doesn’t work because my mind wanders too much, but music can keep me occupied for hours. If I’m reading, it has to be magazines, short stories or books with shorter chapters. I usually take a puzzle book for my ‘something to do’, but having games, TV shows or films on your phone/iPad is a good idea too. Just make sure you have enough to keep you busy the entire flight!
3. Plan ahead
It helps my anxiety a lot when I over-prepare for navigating the airport. Checking in online, grouping electrical items together to avoid rummaging around for them, removing my belt and wearing shoes that can be slipped on and off quickly, liquids sealed and ready to go and my three distractions easily accessible in my carry-on. I also usually take paracetamol before boarding, just in case I get a tension headache (which I’m prone to) or cramps – it’s one less thing I have to deal with and worry about for a little while. If you get travel sick, then taking something for that an hour before your flight is a good idea too (my doctor told me to get Avomine, which is for travel sickness and helps anxiety apparently. You can buy it over the counter.)
4. Do what you gotta do!
There might be certain things that make you feel more at ease before and during flying. Maybe that’s going to the gym before the airport, making sure you eat something, or actively avoiding any media that might cause anxiety in the days/weeks leading up to your flight. I’ve muted words on Twitter and unfollowed/uninstalled news accounts and apps so I’m not constantly on edge with the breaking news notifications. (To be honest, doing these things improved my day-to-day mood anyway!)
Sometimes the things that help you might not make sense to other people. For example, I for a while thought anything relating to Drew Barrymore was lucky (…I told you it might not make sense). I was reading her autobiography Wildflower on the flight to Glasgow, so watching one of her films on the way to America just felt right. I also have a small knitted monkey called Jerry that travels with me. I’m positive that chaos would ensue if he wasn’t in my backpack.
Lining up early to board the plane helps some people because it makes them feel like they’re actively doing something rather than waiting around and letting their anxiety build. Some others complain about this, even though no harm is being done and it has nothing to do with them. Obviously, be considerate and avoid things that could cause harm (for example, no yoga in the tiny aisle of a packed plane, and don’t even THINK about smoking/vaping in the bathroom). Otherwise, find what helps you and then do what you gotta do!
5. Allow yourself to be anxious
Yeah I know, the whole point of this list is to help you avoid it, right? Thing is, I found I made it MUCH worse if I tried to constantly fight it. The more I actively repress it, the less likely I am to think clearly in order to put these tricks into practice. Instead, I accept that I’m anxious and I feel sick and shaky and like I want to cry (if I’m not already), and then I move onto thinking about why I feel that way. That’s when I can start reassuring myself with the things I researched and figure out what I need to do to distract myself. Acknowledging that you’re feeling anxious can help prevent a full-blown panic attack, so don’t be too hard on yourself!