I developed a fear of flying at age eleven. This was likely the result of Cast Away and some sensationalized National Geographic documentaries on plane accidents. Unfortunately, because most of my family lives an ocean away, seventeen-hour transpacific flights were a necessity throughout my youth.
This means I’ve done my fair share of research on aviation, air travel statistics, and types of turbulence. In terms of knowledge, the most helpful resource for me has been Captain Stacey Chance’s Fear of Flying Help. It’s a free online course designed to address concerns relevant to people with flying anxiety such as turbulence and the dynamics of flight. If you’re an anxious flyer interested in gathering more information, I recommend it as a starting point. Knowledge is power to some degree, and it’s important to learn about the things you’re afraid of.
With that said, I’m not an aviation professional. I’m just an anxious flyer who’s had twelve years of coping experience. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to flying anxiety, here are some things that help me.
1. Avoid caffeine before and during your flight.
You probably already know that caffeine and anxiety don’t mesh well. But I also know how tempting a cup of coffee can be. When you skip breakfast to make a morning flight and your gate is right by a Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s easy. I’m here to remind you that it’s a bad idea. Especially if you’re like me and one cup of coffee is enough to give you the jitters. Go with water instead—but of course make sure you’re well-fed before boarding, too.
2. Seating matters, depending on what your needs and priorities are.
If your priority is getting some sleep: Take the window seat. You get your own private corner and a wall to lean on. And the view doesn’t hurt either.
If you drink a lot of water and will need bathroom access: Take the aisle seat. It’s annoying having to wake up the person next to you to let you out.
If you have somewhere you need to be right after you land: Get a seat in the front of the plane so you can deplane right away. Save yourself the stress of waiting for everyone else to get off first.
If you’re on a bigger plane and want to reduce the tilts and twirls: Try a seat in the middle section. I’ve heard it can reduce the sensations of turbulence due to the center of gravity. I don’t remember that it helped me much, but you may find that it works for you.
3. Bring your version of comfort entertainment to distract yourself.
For the readers: Bring an easy read. With my flying anxiety, I find it impossible to read the academic books I usually love—especially during turbulence. When I was younger, I had my best friend’s draft novel from middle school saved to my phone, and I read it whenever I got afraid. Now? I download Harry Potter fanfiction onto my iPad and it’s been my go-to for the past four years. The key is to find something that’s a) simple and easy to pay attention to and b) interesting enough to keep you distracted from your current predicament of being on a plane.
For the writers: Bring a journal to scribble in when the flight gets rough. Sometimes on a really rocky flight I’ll have written ten pages nonstop. You can write about anything; for me, secrets and unprocessed feelings like to come out during these stressful flights. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself.
For the TV/movie folks: If you have Netflix, take advantage of the download feature on your iPad or smartphone. For me, the movies I like to watch on planes are The Sweetest Thing and The Princess Diaries. I like a feel-good romantic comedy to reduce my anxiety. I can never pay attention to the new releases on in-flight entertainment—but maybe you can!
It might take time to figure out what works for you, but it’s worth it for a more relaxing journey.
4. Take advantage of in-flight texting or Wi-Fi where possible.
I think my biggest hangup about flying is feeling like I’ve lost contact with the world. In the air, I usually can’t communicate with anyone outside of that plane. And if anything were to happen to me, no one would know. Luckily, technology has progressed to make in-flight communication more widely available.
JetBlue has free Wi-Fi on their flights. And if you’re a T-Mobile user, you get unlimited texting on American Airlines flights plus one hour of free Wi-Fi. There’s something oddly soothing about texting my friends in the middle of turbulence to let them know how scared I am. It’s like despite being 30,000 feet in the air, I still have a link to world on the ground. I’m sure that in-flight texting and Wi-Fi will only become more affordable as time passes, and I’m looking forward to it.
5. Embrace your superstitions.
I’m generally not a superstitious person, but my deepest fears have a way of getting to me. Flying brings out the strangest side of me:
- I used to wear my golden snitch necklace on every flight. Somehow the wings and the connection to the magical world of Harry Potter made me feel safer.
- I’ve been saying the same prayer under my breath on every single flight since I was eleven. It’s a prayer for safe transport that I found in my grandparents’ Buddhist prayer books when I was a child.
- I don’t listen to songs that contain lyrics about “falling” or “crashing down.” I do, however, listen to “Breaking Free” from High School Musical on repeat because it refers to “soaring” and “flying.”
- When I fly to LAX, I listen to “Party In the USA” as if lyrics about “hopping off the plane at LAX” will make it more likely that my flight will safely arrive at its destination.
And I’m not the only one. Apparently, Megan Fox listens to Britney Spears on planes because she knows it’s not her “destiny” to die while listening to a Britney Spears song. So if you have a quirky little ritual to calm you down during flights, I say go for it. Who’s it going to hurt?
And if all else fails, try a glass of wine.
For most of my life, falling asleep on planes was impossible due to my anxiety. Then I got old enough to drink and realized that sleep is possible, after all. If you’re okay with alcohol and open to the occasional drink to make flying more comfortable, then by all means go for it.
If you have a fear of flying or get antsy on planes, I hope this post was helpful—or at least relatable!—to you. I’ll leave you with these questions.
For my fellow anxious flyers: What are some of the ways you cope with that fear?
For those who don’t have a fear of flying: How do you keep yourself comfortable or entertained during flights??