Last Updated: 4/16/22 | April 16th, 2022
I have a confession to make: I have a huge fear of flying. I hate it. It scares the living shit out of me.
This is how my typical airport experience goes:
Before the flight: “I can’t wait to get on a plane and relax and watch some movies. This is going to be great!”
During takeoff: “Why are we turning like this? Are we rolling over?! Why does the engine sound that way? I don’t like this. Are we going to die? Get me off!”
During the flight, as I watch a movie or do work: “I can’t believe we’re flying. Science is amazing. I have Wi-Fi in the sky! Look at all the pretty clouds!”
During turbulence: “What was that sound? Are we supposed to turn like that? Why is this so bumpy?! That was a big drop! What’s wrong? We’re all gonna die!!! Ahhhh!!!”
During landing: “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. It’s going to be fine. Breathe.”
After the flight: “I love flying. Let’s go do it again!”
Flying gives me a lot of anxiety. I grip the armrest white-knuckled at least half the flight! It’s gotten so bad over the years, I can no longer fly without taking a Xanax beforehand. And I’m not alone: over 30% of people get anxiety while flying.
For me, it’s because I’m scared of heights… or, more specifically, falling. I don’t like bungee jumps, being near ledges, or even looking down from a tall building. It sets my heart racing and gives me slight vertigo.
Heck, sometimes on high bridges, I need to walk on the inside of the sidewalk and look down at the ground in order to get across.
And, even though statistically, flying is one of the safest modes of transportation (there is a one in 11 million chance of dying in a plane crash, but one in 100 in a car), I don’t have a similar reaction when I’m driving. I feel safe because I’m in control.
“I’m driving, I’m great — it’s everyone else I need to watch out for,” I (and most people) think.
However, when we are in a plane, it’s all up to two strangers we’ve never met in the front of an aluminum tube going 500 miles an hour 37,000 feet above the air.
A lot of the fear of flying is about that lack of control. I mean, how do you know those pilots know what they are doing or don’t want to fly into a mountain? You don’t really.
On a rational level, I know I’m going to make it to my destination. Almost 99% of planes crashes don’t have any fatalities, so even if we do crash, the odds are in my favor.
But the lost sense of control freaks me out. I mean, who are these pilots? Did they get enough sleep the night before? Are they sane? Are they experienced enough to know what to do in an emergency?
I recently sat on a flight next to a guy who provided counseling for pilots and flight attendants with substance abuse problems. On the one hand, I was comforted by the fact the FAA has stringent rules (sadly, not many other countries do) related to the issue. On the other, I was disturbed by how much of a problem he told me this was in the industry.
There I am, 35,000 feet above the ground, with my fate in the hands of two strangers. It combines my two biggest fears. I mean, what if we go down? You have twenty or thirty seconds of sheer terrifying falling as you realize THIS IS IT! (Having experienced a rapid descent once, I can tell you it’s not fun.)
I basically look like Kristin Wiig from Bridesmaids when I’m in the sky:
But I fly around 100,000 miles a year, so I have to learn how to deal with my fear. Flying is part of my job, and gets me to where I want to go the most efficient way — and I want to go a lot of places.
And since I’m not alone, I want to share three tricks I’ve learned to help get over the fear of flying (or, at the least, cope with the anxiety):
- Fake it — As the saying goes, fake it until you make it. When I’m flying, I like to imagine myself as a normal person. What would a person who isn’t afraid of flying do right now? They would sit there, read the in-flight magazine or sleep, and be calm. They would tune it out. So I turn my headphones on, take a deep breath, and read a book or focus on a movie. I tune out my fear and pretend it doesn’t exist. I distract my mind and have it focus on something else. This trick works wonders, and by the time I tune back in, we’re at cruising altitude and the anxiety is gone!
- Recite the facts — I like to recite facts about airline safety to reassure myself that planes are safe and I’m going to be fine. I’m always repeating to myself things like “Planes are safe, planes are safe — they have strict safety rules” or “Turbulence doesn’t cause plane crashes — it’s just changes in airflow” or “Cars are far more dangerous.” Use your rational mind to realize how silly the fear is and how there’s no reason for you to be afraid. The fact that we as a society make a big deal out of airplane crashes is because they are so rare.
- Drink — When I can’t fake it or my rational mind isn’t working, I drink to calm my nerves. It works wonders as well. On long flights, it’s me, those mini-bottles of wine (or an Ambien), and sleep until my destination. Sometimes just taking the edge off is the only way to deal with it.
- Pay attention — This really only works because I fly so much, but I’ve found that knowing what a normal flight sounds like can really help. I look at Flight Aware to see what normal speeds on takeoff, cruising, and landing look like for my flight. I pay attention to the engine a lot so I know, “Ok, it’s supposed to sound like that.” Knowing what a normal flight is like helps me realize that mine is normal too — and that takes the edge off.
It wasn’t always this way — I used to love roller coasters, heights, and flying, and wasn’t afraid of falling off a bridge. But something changed over the last few years.
Now, I look down from the plane and think, “We’re far up. We’re screwed. Someone get me a glass of wine!”
So, while I might never get over my fear of flying, I can manage it and not let it control me.
After a few deep breaths, some wine, realizing there are safety standards in place, and zoning out on the latest in-flight films, I calm down, enjoy the flight, and marvel at the science that gets me halfway around the world in fifteen hours.
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