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Fear of Flying

Fear of flying/Nervous flyer

It is estimated that up to 40% of the population experience some level of anxiety about flying and up to 6.5% experience very high levels of anxiety.

If you experience a phobia of flying you share the experience with many celebrities including Jennifer Anniston, Sandra Bullock, Miley Cyrus and Ben Affleck.

There are many different aspects to a fear of flying. Some people are afraid that the plane will crash and that they’re going to die while others experience claustrophobia or are afraid that they’ll have a panic attack or they’ll be completely overwhelmed by anxiety and lose control.

In this article I’ll explain what can happen to cause a fear of flying and offer you some tips to help you deal with it.

Getting to the airport on time, navigating through airport procedures and then sitting on an aeroplane crammed together with strangers, unable to move around freely is stressful. Humans weren’t designed to cope in these scenarios so the whole experience causes our central nervous system to release a surge of stress hormones and most of us will experience higher than normal levels of stress.

If we’re resilient enough, if we have enough historical experience of pleasant/uneventful flights and can imagine that we’re going to reach our destination and have a good time we can settle and watch a movie, read a book, play a game etc or even just relax and enjoy the opportunity to sit and mindfully do nothing.

If we’re not so resilient and/or have past experience of frightening flight events like turbulence, go-arounds or being unwell or someone else being difficult or taken ill then we might start imagining that something catastrophic could happen and so the stress keeps building and the fight/flight and freeze response is activated.

It’s not always triggered specifically by an event on a flight. It’s sometimes caused by already elevated stress levels from our normal day to day life combined with the stress of getting to the airport and going through the airport systems etc that becomes overwhelming.

When we don’t feel safe our mind stores the memory to remind us not to get into unsafe situations again so next time you even consider getting on a plane, you’re reminded of these frightening feelings which will generate catastrophic thinking before you travel.

This means you’re unlikely to get enough sleep in the days before your trip so you’re tired and emotional before you tackle the stress of getting to the airport on time and going through the airport procedures and sitting on a plane full of strangers unable to move around.

The stress hormones that are released by our central nervous system make our heart beat faster, make our breathing irregular and can make us feel hot, sweaty, shaky and uncomfortable. When we’re full of nervous energy we feel compelled to move around and because our movements are restricted on planes we experience conflict which causes more stress.

How to stay calm when travelling.

If you’re a nervous flyer you need to prepare yourself well in advance of your trip so that your emotional and physical needs are being met before the day of travel.

Knowledge about your own mind/body reactions and the safety of the plane you’re traveling in will help to change any unhelpful narratives that make you anxious. Read on for more details of both.

When you’re nervous, the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) carries signals around your body to put you on alert so that you can take action to avoid perceived danger.

Your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) has the opposite role, it releases endorphins and hormones to calm and relax you.

To avoid the fight/flight system being activated you need to learn how to invoke the rest and digest effect to remain calm and relaxed.

Here are some suggestions to help you:

Ensure you get plenty of sleep before you travel to be at your emotional best. See breathing techniques below.

Eat a healthy diet before you travel. Vitamin deficiencies have a detrimental effect on our emotions.

Avoid alcohol because it is a depressant and can have a toxic effect on your nervous system.

Learn meditation. Take a class or listen to an app.

Learn how to slow down your heat rate by learning to control your breathing.

The key to learning how to use your breathing to stay calm is that it’s like learning any new skill - learning to swim, drive a car or ride a bike, the more you practice, the better you’ll be. So practice for a long time before your travel.

I’ve listed 3 different techniques below, see which one feels most comfortable for you. There are several ways to do this:

Box Breathing:

Breathe in slowly, counting to 4,

Hold your breath while slowly counting to 4,

Breathe out slowly for 4.


7/11 Breathing

Breathe in deeply for the count of 7,

Breathe out for the count of 11.


4-7-8 Breathing

Breathe in for the count of 4,

Hold for the count of 7,

Breathe out forcefully for the count of 8.


Practice doing up to 4 repetitions each time but don’t overdo it or you may get dizzy.

Practice 2/3 times per day. If you do it at bedtime, it can help you to sleep.

If your unconscious mind is producing a narrative of worst case scenarios using a series of images, thoughts or stories, you can respond by correcting them.

Imagine going through it all visualising it all going well and you arriving safely and having a good time.

Remind yourself of the safety of the plane:

Approximately 100,000 flights take off and land every day.

Pilots have to retrain every 6 months to keep their license.

Research by Harvard University shows that flying is significantly safer than driving a car.

The extensive safety testing of planes means that you’re safer in a plane than being at home.

The chances of being in a fatal accident are 1 in 11 million.

96% of people survive plane accidents.

Turbulence can’t bring down a plane.

I’m attaching a link to a youtube video below of a pilot describing all of the sounds while taking off, flying and landing so you can familiarise yourself with the noises so they’re not scary when you’re flying.

I hope you find all of this information helpful, but if you’d like some professional help to overcome your fears please contact me for information of how I can help you overcome your fear of flying.

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