Updated December 20, 2018.
Do you love going on vacation? Does the idea of landing in your destination fill you with excitement? Or does vacation get clouded with the threat of getting on a plane? If you imagine being on the plane getting ready for takeoff and your heart starts pounding, you get sweaty, and you’re afraid you might pass out–or if you try not to go anywhere you can’t drive–you probably have flight anxiety.
What is flight anxiety?
Flight anxiety is a fear of flying that is so profound that it can prevent a person from traveling by air, or causes great distress to a person when air travel is necessary. People who are affected by flight anxiety find flying terrifying and will go to extremes to avoid flying, which can sometimes be career- and life-limiting. Despite the knowledge that flying is much safer than driving a car, people with flight anxiety remain fearful of flying.
Many people go to their doctors when they experience flight anxiety because they believe they’re having panic attacks. Panic attacks aren’t very common. They usually come on abruptly, tend to peak around 10 minutes, and feel terrifying since they seem to arise out of nowhere. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, are much more common, and they occur as a result of being worried or fearful about something specific (such as a flight).
What can I do about my flight anxiety?
Taking a medication isn’t the only line of defense against flight anxiety; while that may be helpful for some, there are many other steps you can take to make flying more bearable. It’s important to employ a variety of options for addressing flight anxiety, because just one method might not work every time. Coping can be categorized into preventive and situational measures.
Before a flight, you can take preventive steps to help you cope:
- Exercise before a flight. Exercise helps tire your body out so that you’ll be more at ease when you board and settle in for your flight.
- Take early morning or late-night flights so that you have less time to ruminate.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine; both can make it harder for your body to adjust to being airborne and disturb your sleep cycle. Caffeine could increase any anxiety you may have, and alcohol could work against you as well, as it makes maintaining sleep more difficult, possibly resulting in your feeling less rested and at ease.
- Consider cognitive behavioral therapy to address the unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to your fear of flying. This is usually a fairly short, targeted therapy to identify what the fear is about, address how to combat the harmful thoughts, and teach you behaviors to employ during the flight to help alleviate anxiety. Many people benefit from short-term (4 to 8 sessions) treatment.
Situational actions are techniques you can employ during the flight to cope with flight anxiety. Here, they’re split into two categories: distractive or passive.
Distractive techniques employ your five senses to help prevent you from focusing on your fear:
- Sight: Bring a book, movie, or season of your favorite television show that will keep you engrossed. Be prepared for takeoff and landing by having a book or magazine on hand.
- Smell: Spray a scarf with a scent that is familiar and comforting to you, such as lavender, peppermint, your favorite perfume, or your partner’s cologne.
- Taste: Suck on hard candy, or bring non-caffeinated tea.
- Hearing: Listen to soothing music, a podcast, or anything that will distract you from your situation. To become more engrossed, listen just for the bass line on a song, or the drums, or try to name the background instruments as you hear them. Tune in to the in-flight entertainment system if you’re instructed to turn off your own music device. Use noise-canceling headphones if the sounds of screaming babies, airplane engines, or other passengers add to your anxiety. Many airlines will allow you to wear them during take-off and landing as long as you’re not listening to music or other electronic devices.
- Touch: Bring an object that soothes you, such as a soft blanket or something that you can put in your pocket to rub.
Passive coping involves taking a medication to treat the symptoms of flight anxiety. Some doctors prescribe anxious fliers with fast-acting anxiety medications like lorazapepam, but all benzodiazepines have side effects that may potentially have drawbacks greater than the anxiety itself. Additionally, you may feel tired for hours after the plane has landed, which could be problematic if you have a business meeting or are in a foreign destination that requires mental awareness of your surroundings. However, for some people, sometimes just having a pill in your pocket can soothe you even if you don’t use it, so if just knowing that it’s there is helpful, be aware that you don’t necessarily need to use it.
Without treatment, flight anxiety can be life-limiting. If fear of flying is preventing you from functioning the way you want to, and you’re unable to go on work trips or vacation with friends and loved ones, consider trying some of these techniques on your own, or talk to your health care provider to learn more about your options.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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