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  • Fear of Flying: The Adventure Continues

    (originally published on January 16, 2013)


    Photo: Ho-Yeol Ryu

    About a year ago, I shared with you my extreme fear of flying. Since then, I've been on 15 planes. FIF-TEEN. Big planes and little planes. Uneventful flights and wretched landings. 50 mile an hour wind gusts on take off and one daredevil of a pilot who seemed to think our plane was a fighter jet. And each one took me closer to real progress towards fear management. I even fell asleep on three flights. Like snoring asleep.

    I read that, statistically, at least 50% of you also have the same fear I do. I've been there. Sweating, shaking, and in tears. So let me share some real, practical tips that have helped me this year.


    (Boarding one of the 15 planes ...)

    It's all about science. Knowledge is power. And it is the number one tool for fighting that panic that creeps in as you line up to board. I learned how the plane flies. I learned what each noise is, how the plane flaps work, why the engine has to be at full throttle when you taxi down the runway. I learned that every plane is built to withstand hurricane-force winds, not just weather planes.

    I learned it functions best when it is in the air, where it is in it's element. Instead of dreading that wheels up moment, I've started to feel relief when we leave the ground (HUGE change). I've even looked out the window the entire time and watched it happen. Learning the science around flight has helped me to train my brain to expect each step of the way. And as a result, my fight or flight instinct isn't triggered. 

    A little something about landings -- landing is simply a controlled glide. In steps. You descend and then you level, descend, level, descend, level. This knowledge has gotten me through most landings. (I say "most." One was super bad and only praying to the Universe and clawing my husband got me through that one. And swearing. Loudly.)

    Action: Learn everything you can about how the plane works. Download and use the Flying Without Fear and SOAR apps. The JetBlue blog also has good information. 

    Your biology is working against you.  Sight-deprived, hearing becomes your primary sense. And it becomes acutely tuned into every unidentifiable noise. Your brain is wired to quickly assess whether every noise is a threat or not. So while learning what you can about the normal noises on a plane can help you manage most of this, blocking out noise is equally as important.

    You know that feeling of falling you get right after take off? Well apparently, if you were in the cockpit and could see out the front, you would not feel that. Understanding that made a huge difference to me. Every time we'd get to that point in the flight, I'd remind myself that there was a biological explanation. And it wasn't mechanical failure.

    Action: First, learn the noises. Your brain will quickly go through it's inventory of known causes and will not set off your fight or flight response. Wear over-the-ear headphones that allow just enough noise in so that you hear basically nothing but white noise. I have some earphones from Urban Outfitters (in an ocean color of course ... at least I can be cute while I'm freaking out.) And plug into the music on takeoff if you can. Helps to disguise the scary noises.

    Don't ignore underlying psychological aspects. I'm working on some control issues and being in a plane is the ultimate vulnerability exercise there is. Making peace with the fact that I can do nothing but manage my emotions and thoughts has been tough but it has been the key. Talking through your issues with a professional is the best thing you can do. 

    Other tips:

    • Manage your stress before you get on the plane. I'm very spongy and pick up other people's emotions quickly. Remember that half the people waiting with you are freaked out. Stay away from those who are tapping their leg or talking loudly or otherwise acting anxious. And wear your headphones. The Flying Without Fear app has an exercise to help you with the pre-boarding issues.
    • Pay attention during the safety instructions. Seriously. One particularly annoying gentleman sitting next to me on our tiny plane to Palm Springs was joking about who actually listens to it. I looked him in the eye and said, I do and you should too, because I will climb over you if I need to.
    • Close your eyes. I have not quite managed turns. Something about that movement just freaks me out every time. I've learned to close my eyes and pretend we're level. In Boston, because of noise ordinances, planes take off and then immediately bank a sharp left. I've gotten used to it and I try to expect something similar when flying out of unfamiliar airports. 
    • Be selective with your inflight entertainment. I've learned that my brain cannot handle scary or adventurous movies during a flight. It doesn't seem to know the difference between that and real danger. I usually watch the kids movie or something funny. Will & GraceFrasier, or Conan works wonders. I also listen to music. The Downton Abbey soundtrack is perfect --just enough going on there to keep my brain fully occupied and not veering off into oh-my-God-can-the-plane-flip? type panics.
    • Have your safety net ready at all times. I have come to completely rely on my Flying Without Fear app and have it loaded on my iPhone and iPad. I use the 30 minute relaxation exercise a lot. The bird noises help block out plane noise -- and that hammock you are directed to imagine is a real one in the garden section of our favorite resort in Jamaica. It also helps to gauge time passage. And the fear attack button on the app comes in handy for those turns I haven't yet mastered. "This is all perfectly normal ..."
    • Eat. Sorry, emotional eating is allowed on the plane. And those JetBlue snack boxes are tasty.
    • Play this fun game. Guess whether the pilot was in the Air Force or Navy based on how they land the plane. Air Force pilots tend to take longer to put the wheels on the ground and come to a stop. Naval ones are much quicker with shorter stops. I prefer a naval pilot. Put that baby down and pull the brakes hard. Because, honestly, I would like to get off of this plane. Now.