Fear of Flying? Here are 12 Tips for Managing It (From Someone Who is Terrified)

I have a confession to make. My dearest friends and many unfortunate acquaintances know, but as much travel writing as I’ve done I’ve never mentioned it in an article or blog post.

I’m terrified to fly.

Ahh, flying. Or is it, AAAARRRRCHKKKKK FLYING?!? On a return flight from Iceland, taken over the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

I remember the first flight I took, courtesy of a high school boyfriend with a pilot friend who took me up in a tiny, bouncy plane on my birthday. Flying over the Brainerd Lakes Area in Minnesota was quite something; if only it hadn’t been so windy. I didn’t have the heart to tell my boyfriend how terribly motion sick I was from his gift.

In college I won a seat on my first commercial flight when I was selected as a fellow to the Poynter Institute in Florida. Mid-flight I was too awestruck to be afraid. After that journey I flew in several small planes – a pilot friend in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin would take me up in his plane and we’d buzz the houses of people we knew. He even stalled the engine on purpose, mid-air, to show how he could restart the plane while we were flying. (He mentioned that this was part of flight training, this stall the engine quackery. To this day I wonder if it’s true.)

Train travel is preferable for this RBG. Even on a bare-bones train through Romania. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

My father-in-law, who volunteered to work on old war planes in Minnesota, once paid for me to fly in an open-cockpit biplane. The pilot did some trick flying, including flying upside down over Valleyfair in the Twin Cities. It was exhilarating, and when done, my knees were knocking.

I don’t know for certain when it changed for me. But I know whenever I’ve been able to sit next to the pilot and talk with them on those tiny planes, my fear was subdued. On commercial flights, the claustrophobic feeling of coach class, the constant dinging or beeping, the changing sounds of the engines–all conspire to create a nightmare for those of us with anxiety.

On a return trip from Belize, over snowy Minnesota, thinking, “I can die now, because I had vacation.” Photo by Charish Badzinski.

In the wake of 9/11 my fear of flying spiked considerably. In my mind’s eye I could see those planes running into the World Trade Center, over and over (incidentally, elevators spook me since 9/11 too). It became such an issue, I would dread flying from the instant I booked a ticket, through vacation and the return home. My fear of flying essentially ruined my vacation while I was on it because I was afraid of the flight home! Over time, I began to dread the flight home less because I reasoned, “If I die, at least I had vacation.”

Now that, my friends, is some seriously messed up thinking.

In time I realized this probably needed to be addressed. I tried acupressure during the flights–at that spot between my thumb and forefinger; I left a bruise. I did deep breathing and positive visualization. I imagined the hand of God holding the plane in the palm of his hand. I repeated positive mantras. I leaned on superstition: if it took the whole flight for me to eat my pretzels, I’d be okay; if I wore the earrings a religious sister made for me, I’d be safe. I took the middle seat always, to feel enclosed by those around me. I didn’t even want to look out the window. I read up on plane safety (did you know the wings are so flexible they could bend completely around and touch one another if need be? I read that once on the internet, so it must be true.).

Oh, beautiful, quirky buses of Southeast Asia, how I love you. Flying, why can’t you be more like a Southeast Asian bus? Photo by Charish Badzinski.

None of it worked. You cannot manage fear with logic, I’ve learned, because it’s not based on logic, it’s based on belief.

I can’t say my fear is tied to terrorism; seriously, the TSA knows me better than my gyno. My assumption is they know the rest of you that well, too. I’m more worried about mechanical malfunction, drunken pilots, mid-air collisions or birds flying into the propellers. When the plane starts to take off, every shake, every bang, every bump makes me want to crawl out of my skin.

And turbulence? Let’s not even talk about it. BackpackMr has tried to reason with me for years that it’s no different than a car hitting bumps in the road. Yeah, it’s different. ‘Cuz the road is 30,000 feet down, Mister.

July 13 046
This is me, whitewater rafting in Alaska (my arm is in the yellow jacket in the back, and yes, it looks like I’m going in, but I’m hanging on!). I would rather whitewater raft than fly. Most days.

I’ve read that as much as 27% of us have a fear of flying. I know people who won’t fly. I know a business executive who hates it so much he bowed out of a return trip and rented a car to drive home cross-country.

But here’s the thing: I refuse to let fear determine the breadth of my life. Because when you let fear control your life, your life shrinks to fit your fear.

Flying over the clouds on a recent trip to Europe. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

I have been to 29 countries. I have flown to most of them, and have had countless flights within them, on big planes and small planes. I have flown more than most people I know in spite of being afraid of flying.

All of us have a Rollerbag Goddess within, no matter whether you’re in good company with the 27%, or if you’re totally fearless. It’s not okay to keep that Goddess down. Living an expansive life is the best thing you can do to be worthy of this incredible opportunity we’ve been given, Goddesses! Life is too short to live small.

So, for those of us who still struggle on our roll toward the runway, here are 12 tips for managing a fear of flying. 

  1. Talk to the doc. Is your anxiety severe? There are some wonderful medicines that can help ease the distress. If fear is keeping you from flying, if anxiety is making your world small, it’s worth exploring the options available to you. I take a medication so that I don’t rip the skin off my husband’s arm during landing. We are both much happier that way.
  2. Explore alternative therapies. Maybe acupressure, visualization, prayer/meditation, deep breathing, herbal supplements or acupuncture can help you. Talk therapy may even be of some help. What works or doesn’t work for one person has no bearing on what will work for you! We are all as unique as our rollerbags. Oh, wait, yours is black, too?!
  3. Book a seat over the wing, if possible. These are supposed to be the most stable seats on the plane, according to the internet (so it must be true). That means a smoother ride for those of us who are jangled even before leaving the ground.
  4. Consider magnesium-rich food the night before, or a supplement. Americans are reportedly chronically deficient in magnesium. I find the calcium-magnesium supplement in powder form, taken the night before, or whenever anxious, is helpful. Cashews are high in magnesium, so you could just go to town and crunch your way to relaxation. Nom nom nom.
  5. Avoid stress before the flight. Plan ahead. Pack the night before and print out all of your necessary documents. When you head to the airport, leave lots of time for traffic, for unforeseen delays, and for security lines.
  6. Don’t let other people scare you more. Almost without exception I’ve found that the second I confess a fear of flying, someone immediately shares a story about their worst flight experience in their lifetime. WHAT IS THAT?! I know now that everyone seeks to connect by sharing like experiences, and to the unaware, it would seem appropriate to share a story about their scariest experience while flying to connect with you about your fear. It’s crap. One way to avoid this is to never tell anyone about your fears. The other, perhaps healthier way to avoid it is to tell someone your fear, and wait for them to take a breath before launching into their story. Then, gently touch their arm and say, “Please don’t share your scariest travel story with me. It doesn’t help. Here’s what would really help. Would you join me in a….(fill in blank here with your favorite cocktail or comfort food).”
    Unfortunately, there are some people who think it’s funny to exploit someone for their anxieties, to make fun of them, or crack jokes about it. This is not okay. Find better friends.
  7. Don’t fret too much about a good night’s rest the night before. Napping while in flight is just fine by me. The less I’m awake for it, the better overall. So, hey, don’t add to your stress by worrying about it!
  8. Pack for in-flight comfort. Bring an eye mask and ear plugs, so the engine sounds don’t freak you out and so you can catch a snooze maybe. A neck pillow can really help for comfort too; I have an inflatable one, so I’m not hauling some ridiculous-looking, moon-shaped, fluffy thing around the world with me. I also bring fuzzy socks and a warm sweater–because those planes get so cold, and that’s not comforting. And I bring a toothbrush and Altoids for that morning-after freshness. Bring things to keep your brain busy if you can’t sleep–crosswords, video games, whatever floats your boat; staying busy can be comforting as well.
  9. Establish an airport routine. I can’t tell you how much this helps me. I allow tons of time at the airport, because I know if I’m rushed, it will only increase my anxiety. I have a playlist of only uplifting songs on my iPod, which I listen to before and during the flight. I pick up a new glossy magazine that lacks in substance, so I can basically zone out and flip through pretty pictures. I get a snack and a drink at a fun restaurant while in the airport. And, no kidding, I usually call family and tell them I love them, “Just in case.” You see, both of my RollerbagSisters have a fear of flying, too. They. Get. It.
  10. Volunteer to get bumped in bad weather. The worst thing you can do if you already have heightened anxiety may be to get on a seriously bumpy flight. I realize this can be tricky, particularly for those of us who take medication to manage our anxiety. I once volunteered to get bumped from a flight only to have the flight attendant cheerily announce at the last minute that there was room for me (!). I had not taken my medication, which can take an hour to kick in. It was…bad. When we disembarked, the passenger behind me called someone from his cell and said “I just got off a 45 minute rollercoaster ride.” If you can avoid traveling in bad weather, go for it. If you can tough it out, more power to you, Goddess!
  11. If it’s turbulent, don’t order from the beverage cart. Seriously, nothing amplifies my fear more than having a visual reminder of how we’re bumping through the sky. Drinks sloshing out of those plastic cups, spilling on passengers and hitting the ceiling are not helpful.
  12. Ask to move if other passengers are increasing your anxiety. Screaming kids? Someone kicking your seat? Drunken and disorderly bros all around? It’s okay to ask to move, especially if it’s affecting your stress levels. Or just put in those ear buds, slip on that eye mask and zone to your chill out playlist.

I’m far from perfect. But I no longer count pretzels or wear specific earrings when I fly. Instead, I have a routine and I take a prescription. And guess what? I no longer fear flying days in advance of the trip (although sometimes I have serious night-before jitters). And now, I take the window seat, to truly soak in the wonder of it all. I consider that progress. (Yay!!!)

Like any perceived shortcoming, it’s easy to beat ourselves up for a fear of flying. Every time I fly, I have to forgive myself for still being fearful. I know it’s not logical. And I know loads of people just don’t understand it and can’t empathize. But I also know it’s not a character flaw, it’s just….me.

We’ve all got our baggage. So it’s up to me to carry mine…or roll with it.

So I tell myself, “Someday, I will move past my fear of flying.”

“But just not today.”

And then, I fly anyway.

Charish profile pic

Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb

Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

3 thoughts on “Fear of Flying? Here are 12 Tips for Managing It (From Someone Who is Terrified)

    1. What an awesome tip! I hadn’t thought of this, and it’s a good one. Seriously, is there anything scarier for the flight adverse than that scene in Cast Away when Tom Hanks grabs on to the door frame of the plane as it’s going down? I wish I’d never seen that, because it flashes through my mind every time I go to the bathroom while on a plane. Plus the whole suction sound/sensation is really unnerving. Great tip, Ms. Divine!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s