Fear of flying? Here are some tools to help cope with emotional turbulence

Erin E Williams

THE WASHINGTON POST – The number of vaccinated Americans is creeping skyward, and so is traveller optimism: Airline CEOs recently announced an uptick in advance ticket sales. Yet even thinking about flying and its covid-heightened uncertainties can trigger anything from mild anxiety to a panic attack for infrequent and formerly frequent fliers alike.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that Americans delay travel and stay at home to protect themselves and others. But post-pandemic, fliers will face both added stress and new processes.

Flying-related anxiety is widespread, with experts estimating that up to 40 per cent of people have issues of varying severity. Only a small percentage of people actually suffer from clinical aviophobia. The rest of that 40 per cent have different reasons for white-knuckling the armrests or avoiding flying altogether.

Other phobias – fears of enclosed spaces, heights, germs, crashing and more – or underlying mental health issues such as generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder can fuel the fear.

There’s no universal path to navigating the emotional turbulence; different tools can help travellers handle the bumps, from planning the trip to nailing the landing. But anxiety can start early, so use your downtime to get ready for that trip you’ve been dreaming of – or dreading.

“Many people who have fear of flying are already anxious even if they’re planning a flight six months or a year away,” Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland (ASDI) licensed clinical professional counsellor Stephnie Thomas said.

Connect with your motivation for taking that trip, Thomas suggested. Are you visiting family you haven’t seen in more than a year? Taking that covid-postponed honeymoon? The positive association can give you the determination to confront your fear.

Fliers who have learned to manage their fear share a few common traits, Center for Travel Anxiety psychotherapist Cornelia Tietke said. They accept their fear, no matter how irrational it is. They comfort themselves physically and mentally. They distinguish between whether something is frightening or truly dangerous. And they accept whatever needs arise from facing their fears – even little accommodations such as upgrading to a larger seat can provide a greater sense
of control.

Here are some tools to help get you down that runway once we’re cleared  for departure:

Therapy: Individual or group therapy can help clients desensitise their brains to triggers and regulate their physical sensations. Most therapists will be informed by cognitive, behavioural and psychodynamic theories and may incorporate techniques such as hypnosis or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR).

Mindfulness: Relaxation, breathing exercises and meditation can ground you at 36,000 feet; if you can calm the body, the mind follows, and vice versa. Long, deep breaths can clear unwanted thoughts and calm your body, Wilson said.

Apps and websites: Bring Captain Bunn along for the ride with the SOAR app, which offers videos, turbulence forecasts and a G-force metre (iOS) that can reassure you that the plane isn’t as bouncy as it seems. Meditation apps, including Headspace and Calm, can guide breathing exercises.