Top 10 Tips for Anxious Flyers


Over the course of many years of treating anxious and fearful flyers, I’ve come up with various strategies that allow them to manage their anxieties with some success, and have been able to summarise them in a top-ten list. However, before relying on tips, consider your level of flight anxiety. Tips are adequate only for a person whose in-flight stress does not interfere with clear thinking. Tips provide little or no relief if stress makes clear thinking difficulty. Tips will not prevent panic or claustrophobia.

A certain amount of stress can cause a person to “rise to the occasion.” But when stress builds too high, our ability to function descends to the level of what has been drilled into us. If stress is too high to be dealt with by tips, relief can be obtained by training the mind to automatically control stress hormones when flying.

With those caveats in mind,  tips away!

1. For Anticipatory Anxiety, Try the “5-4-3-2-1 Exercise”

Sit or recline comfortably. Focus on some object in front of you. Keep your focus on that throughout the exercise. (If your eyes drift off, just bring them back.) Do it out loud first. Then try it silently. See if one works better for you than the other.

·    Say “I see” and name something in your peripheral vision.
·    Say “I see” and name something else in your peripheral vision.
·    Continue until you have made five statements.

For example: I see the lamp, I see the table, I see a spot on the lamp shade, I see a book on the table, I see a picture on the table.

·    Say “I hear” and name something you hear.
·    Say “I hear” and name something else you hear.
·    Continue until you have made five statements.

NOTE: you will have to repeat something if there are not five different things you can hear.

·    Say “I feel” and name something you feel (not internal, like heart pounding or tension, but external).
·    Say “I feel” and name something else you feel.
·    Continue until you have made five statements.

For example: I feel the chair under me, I feel my arm against my leg, etc.

That completes one cycle. It takes intense concentration. That is exactly what you want. As you concentrate on non-threatening things, the “fight or flight” hormones that were in your body when you started the exercise get burned off. As they get used up, you get more relaxed. See, you don’t have to make yourself relax; as the old ones get used up, you just get more relaxed.

What about the next cycle? If you always made five statements, you soon could do the exercise without intense concentration, and your mind could drift back to “bad” thoughts. We keep concentration intense by making one change each cycle. Instead of doing five statements again, do four statements. Then, in the next cycle, do three statements. Then in the next cycle, do two statements. Then in the next cycle, do one statement. Then in the next cycle, go back to five, etc.

Stop when you are as relaxed as you want to be. If you want to be more relaxed – or to fall asleep – continue. If you lose count, that is a good sign, because it means you are getting so relaxed that you are losing count.

Start by doing the 5-4-3-2-1 every five minutes. Then every 15 minutes. Then every hour. It is nothing more than a focusing exercise, something to occupy your mind and prevent disturbing thoughts from taking hold. A video of this exercise can be viewed here

2. Avoid Imagination

People often suffer more from not from what is actually happening,  but from what they imagine to be happening. When we’re imagining something, we usually know it is imagination. But when flying, what you imagine can release stress hormones, and stress hormones cause feelings that make it difficult to distinguish imagination from reality.

If you begin to think, “what if”, don’t wait. Talk it over with someone. Examine the evidence together. The fact that something has – at some time – happened, is no proof that it is happening at this time.

If flying alone, write down your feelings and thoughts. Dumping them out onto paper helps prevent build-up.

Remind yourself: during the flight, focus on “what is” rather than “what if.”

3. Handling First-Time Anxiety and Non-routine Anxiety

When you fly for the first time, anxiety is to be expected. The same is true if you don’t fly routinely. A part of the brain called the amygdala releases stress hormones whenever you do something non-routine, or even imagine doing something non-routine.

These feelings do not mean danger. When facing something non-routine, the amygdala makes sure you are paying attention. Once stress hormones bring a non-routine situation to your attention, you have a job to do.

Your job is to do your ABCs:

A = assessment. What’s going on? Is this an opportunity, a risk, or is it irrelevant? If irrelevant, drop it. If an opportunity or a risk, go to step B.

B = build a plan. What are you going to do about this? Once you decide what to do, the next step is to carry out your plan.

C = commitment. When you reach this third step, there is no further need for notification. The commitment-making part of the brain signals the amygdala to stop releasing stress hormones.

4. Distract Yourself

Keep the “visual channel” of your mind fully occupied with something concrete to keep imagination from gaining a foothold.

Buy several magazines with splashy colour pictures. Just flip through the pictures to keep the “visual” part of your mind busy. This is a great time to focus on needlepoint or puzzles, if you like those activities.

Or bring a DVD player, or a video game. Still bring magazines; you are not allowed to use the DVD player or video game during takeoff or landing.

5. Filter Out Plane Noises With Music

Keep the “auditory channel” of your mind occupied, as well by bringing along an audio player with plenty of music.

(Shameless plug: if you have an iPod or other MP3 audio or MP4 video player, “Take Me Along”, is special tracks I have recorded to play during your trip. You play one when you arrive at the airport, another when you are waiting to board. Then after boarding, I tell you everything to expect on takeoff (the noises the plane makes are included). During cruise, I tell you why turbulence is not a problem. And before landing, you hear about everything to expect during landing. It’s like having your own pilot with you.)

6. Make It Your Choice

Take back control. Be very aware that – even if pressured to fly – you still have a choice whether you fly or not. Make a conscious and deliberate choice. You can find further step-by-step instructions here.

Then take still more control. Before you board, go to the window. Memorise visually what’s outside the jetway and outside the airplane, making an effort to record in detail what you see. Then, when walking through the jetway, visualising what’s outside helps reassure you that there is an outside and the walls are not able to pressure you.

7. Meet the Captain

This is so important it is equal to all the other tips combined. If you don’t do this one, you only have yourself to blame for an awful flight, because it really works.

Tell the gate agent you need to board early because you are an anxious flier and need to speak to the captain. Some gate agents will help you do this and some won’t. If the agent agrees, stay nearby so the he or she doesn’t forget you. If the gate agent will not board you early, ask the agent to point out to you where you will be getting on the plane. Then position yourself right by the entrance. When boarding (for first-class passengers, elderly passengers, passengers with kids, or people who need extra time – that’s you) is announced, immediately step forward and board.

Don’t go to your seat. Instead, find a flight attendant who is not tied up directing people to their seats. Tell the flight attendant that you are an anxious flier and are working on it with someone who says it is very important that you meet the captain.

Explain that you understand about security, so you want him/her to ask the captain for you, while you wait right there.

  • Do not approach the cockpit on your own; wait for a flight attendant.
  • Even if the captain or flight attendant signal you to come in, a sky marshall seated to the side might not see that. Wait to be accompanied. 

Meeting the captain keeps you from feeling alone. It also puts you in personal contact with control. You will sense their competence and confidence. It helps to know they – also – want to get back home to their family, and they have been doing so for years. They will make extra announcements for you.

Embarrassing? Blame it on me; tell them I made you promise to do it.

8. Maximise Your Space

Take some more control. Stretch out your arms and legs, to sense the physical space that is yours.

What about visual space? That can be provided by an aisle seat. Many find visual space even more important than physical space.

If you find yourself having breathing difficulty, hold your breath for one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three at the end of each exhalation and at the end of each inhalation. This may help you return your breathing to normal. Some fear-of-flying courses claim that breathing exercises can control fear. This is not true. Do not depend on breathing exercises (or relaxation exercises) to control anxiety or to prevent in-flight panic.

9. Know About Noise Abatement

On some takeoffs, we reduce power after reaching about one thousand feet (roughly twenty-five seconds after liftoff), which can be frightening if you don’t know what it’s all about. Ask the captain when you meet him or her if the power will be changed significantly after take off, and ask how it will feel.

10. Lightheadedness Doesn’t Mean Falling

Expect and understand the physical sensations that are a natural and routine part of flight. Imagine this: you get in an elevator on the ground floor, and press the button for the tenth floor. The door closes, and as the elevator starts to rise, you feel heavy. As the elevator approaches the tenth floor, it has to slow down and stop. As it does, you feel “light- headed”. In an elevator you know what the feeling is about. You are just slowing down your ascent. Though this feels like falling, you aren’t falling at all.

The same thing happens in an airplane when we level off after a climb, or when we reduce power after takeoff. You can reassure yourself that the plane is fine by scientifically measuring the G-forces as the plane maneuvers and when it is in turbulence with a free app available for downloading here.