OMG flying really?
August 21, 2011 8:28 PM   Subscribe

Fear of flying 2.0.

So this is me Scary Flyer. It turns out there's finally a training in Dallas I'm not going to be able to miss. This means either I'm going to be driving 12 hours from Denver or flying. Rationally I know that I'm safer flying than driving but I'm freaked to all holy hell and have even been considering driving instead of flying.

What I really want is some reassurance of people telling me how afraid they were to fly that overcame that fear. Barring that I'd just love some people to tell me some ways to overcome phobias in general. I plan to pull up this thread whenever I start having a panic attack since the last thread did so much to help me. I've already got some anti-anxiety meds (benzos) for the immediate issue but it's a month away and I'm occasionally overcome by anxiety freaking out over the actual details of the flight. Help me Metafilter!

Ultimately, how did you get over your fear of flying?
posted by Octoparrot to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I overcame my fear of flying by (1) reading lots about airplanes and spaceflight, (2) actually flying a lot, and (3) looking at the emotions of flight attendants as I flew. The book knowledge gave me a sense of control over the situation and, once I got on the plane, flying became a sort of exposure therapy (the gold standard for curing any phobia other than blood/needle phobia). Panic is hard to sustain over the long haul and, whenever I freaked out in the moment, the absence of any worry on the flight attendants' faces reminded me that everything was okay.

The only downside is that I get really bored on planes these days :)
posted by eisenkr at 8:52 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Second the learning about planes. Used to basically spend entire flight praying - and I am a cafeteria catholic at best. Now listen to pilot podcasts, read airline websites ( and as well as columns on salon and documentaries on new jets and/or books - airbus v. Boeing, etc. I have a new interest and lost 95% of the fear. Memail me for any specific recommendations you would like for content.
posted by IzzeYum at 9:01 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I once missed a family Christmas due to fear of flying. That was absolutely terrible. I knew that it was a problem.

When discussing it with someone I knew, they said sort of dismissively, "Oh, you just haven't done it enough." It stopped me in tracks because I knew it was true. I just hadn't done it enough. I had only been on a plane a handful of times in life, for a few vacations as a kid and then for a couple of funerals.

Like eisenkr, I got a lot of intellectual help from "book knowledge," reiterating to myself via whatever means I needed that tens of thousands of planes take of and land tens of thousands and times every day without event. I think about all those takeoffs and landings. All those pilots and planes. How even if something goes a little bit wrong, pilots are pretty amazing and they are incredibly good at handling their aircraft. I recognize that my fear of flying is not rational and tag it as that. I understand that one thing that makes me feel more afraid is that I don't have the illusion of control - and use that as a chance to practice not being in control. It's OK to not be the one in control. Especially when such good and highly trained people are.

And so I've flown a lot more. I actually enjoy it now, especially taking off and landing. WHen something seems iffy, I also look at flight crews. I've never seen them look upset or scared. They do this for a living. They are smart people, they want to live their lives.

IT's definitely a situation which is somewhat out of the ordinary, and here we are all in this little vehicle with not so much personal space, trying to get from one place to another for a purpose. It's natural for this to feel a bit out of the run of daily experience. But really and truly forcing myself to recognize the ridiculously high degree of safety in this situation - as opposed to everything I do daily that is far riskier - has been the key for me. Also, I fly a lot more. The more you fly, the more every little thing, interaction, funny sound, strange feeling, worn-out-looking whatever starts to get completely normalized. You realize that before, you were over-interpreting threat in everything, when it's really not there.

Good luck!
posted by Miko at 9:01 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't say that I'm completely over my fear of flying, only that I'm less anxious now when on a plane. I found that having a routine helps me -- I take Hyland's Calms homeopathic pills, listen to "This American Life" or "Radiolab" and do sodoku puzzles. I also look forward to the free glass of beer/wine Alaska serves. I'm not sure it has cured the fear of flying, but it certainly allows me to be more at ease. I also found that I mention to the person I'm sitting next to that I don't like flying. Somehow that calms me. Sometimes the people will chat with me the whole flight, other times they won't (it's those times they won't that I fall back on the podcast/sodoku). Do something to keep your mind occupied and know that if the flight attendants aren't freaking out, then you're a-ok. good luck.
posted by gertrude at 9:31 PM on August 21, 2011

I never got over it, I just learned to live with it. Ativan and beer. Ask the flight attendant to wake you when you get there. The real thing to learn is when to dose so that you do not peak too early and not too late. That only comes from experience including knowing when the last time you ate was.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:14 PM on August 21, 2011

Full disclosure: IANAD; I am an adrenaline junkie. I am just a beginner skydiver and only landed in a plane once, for travel.

You don't give a timeframe of when you will have to fly, but I would strongly recommend consulting a therapist who can work with you on phobias, or looking into cognitive behavioral therapy.

While convincing yourself onto a plane under medication to successfully endure an immeasurable amount of stress may address the immediate situation, you would only be masking the symptom of deeper issues.

You may want to explore the exact elements behind your fear of flying. Whatever they may be, name them, write them down- the loss of control, the air pressure, noise, heights. Then find ways to address those fears- for example, read about airline safety, what turbulence is, where to exit in case of emergency. See if you can just get *on* a non-flying plane. Get accustomed to jet engine whine with youtube, the thrust of take-off and the way a plane jerks when deploying landing gear (like unexpected speed-bumps). Mark your progress with dealing with those stressors and congratulate yourself! It may take time, but confronting and controlling your fears can make you feel empowered and just a little bit more fearless than before.
posted by Giggilituffin at 11:54 PM on August 21, 2011

eisenkr: "... and, whenever I freaked out in the moment, the absence of any worry on the flight attendants' faces reminded me that everything was okay."

So true!

As you fly over the Rockies into Denver International Airport, the bumps can seem pretty jarring if you're not used to it. I was landing one day in particularly bumpy weather when a woman immediately in front of me flagged down a flight attendant and asked, with a tinge of panic in her voice, whether the landing would be safe or not (obviously not a regular into DIA!).

The flight attendant smiled at her and said (without a trace of condescension in her voice) "Oh, we'll be fine! Denver's just bumpy. And, honey, look: if you ever start to get scared just look at one of us flight attendants. You ain't going to see us looking worried, because there's nothing to worry about! ... and, well, if you do see us looking worried, well, just listen to what we say, because it is getting serious!"

The woman thanked the flight attendant as we left the plane and I still think of that conversation today and relay it to friends and family who are nervous fliers (and think of it myself when the weather gets really bad).

Every bump, every noise, every shake of the airframe that makes you nervous? They've felt it, they've heard it, and they've gone with it hundreds or thousands of times before. They're your rock of sanity if you're starting to get nervous. Look at them: they won't be nervous, because there's nothing to be nervous about. And neither should you.

Good luck!!
posted by barnacles at 12:36 AM on August 22, 2011

It may be too late for you, too expensive, or even too long in duration, but Amelia Earhart's old women pilot's club, The Ninety Nines, sponsors "Flight Without Fear" in Denver, for 8 weeks, starting September 13, 2011. It's so Amelia to start such a class on the 13th, too; I love that! I'd bet it would be a great way to overcome fear of flying.
posted by paulsc at 2:42 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Echoing the comments of IzzeYum and Miko. I struggled with the same fears, and missed travel opportunities, for several years until becoming proactive about taming the fear. I too found immense help in online forums learning everything from the technical specifics about aviation to watching takeoff and landing videos as mental "practice".

One key belief that fed my irrational fear was the notion that flying was somehow "fragile" -- should any little thing go wrong, doom was sure to follow. Because I didn't really understand how flying worked -- and only saw the counterintuitive reality of "how does that huge thing stay up in the air?" -- it seems like an endeavor bound to fail. Of course, I was completely wrong about all this.

With all the learning, reading discussions with pilots and other aviation experts, I came to understand that flying is really not very fragile at all. Lots of things can wrong, from small things to big things, without any bad consequences. This is because there are many, many layers of safety that start with fundamentals of engineering airplanes and extend all the way through training and regulations.

While I was thinking that a single problem would lead to doom, I now know that in fact the worst outcomes are the result of numerous problems all coming together in an incredibly unlikely sequence.

To be beholden to the fear of this would be like being scared that a car would skid off the road near my house and crash into a tree and knock that tree through my roof and that branch would hit a bowling ball and the bowling ball would bounce over the staircase and land exactly on my head while I happened to be picking up a penny I dropped in that exact spot.
posted by thebordella at 4:47 AM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Really well put, the bordella! That kind of awareness of flight systems has really helped me too.
posted by Miko at 5:51 AM on August 22, 2011

Having distractions on the flight really helps me. Namely, a screen in front of me to watch TV or listen to music. Maybe you could try to get a flight with that feature?
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 6:00 AM on August 22, 2011

Klonopin. I have a prescription for exactly this issue. I used to take it every time I flew. Now I rarely take it at all. I think exposure on a repeated basis made me not get so worked up anymore.
posted by white_devil at 6:43 AM on August 22, 2011

Maybe you could consider the number of successful, uneventful flights every single day (thousands), as opposed to how often we hear about accidents (rarely).

If you want a sense of magnitude, you can watch some video of the daily air traffic over the USA.
posted by Diag at 7:01 AM on August 22, 2011

I read Ask the Pilot by Patrick Smith, Salon's pilot blogger. It explained loads of the technical stuff behind flying (in layman's terms) which made me much less worried about every little noise and shift. Also, Smith takes real joy in flying and expresses it in the book; this helped make me more enthusiastic about flying, too.
posted by cadge at 7:56 AM on August 22, 2011

Piggybacking on Diag's suggestion, if you live in a city with a busy airport, go sit in a nearby parking lot and watch the unending succession of routine takeoffs and landings. Then consider that the same thing is happening at airports all around the world 24 hours a day every single day. This, along with some of the suggestions above, really helped me. Now I'm so relaxed I can easily fall asleep on flights, something I thought could never happen.
posted by MelissaSimon at 8:10 AM on August 22, 2011

A lot of people tell you to take Ativan or Xanax or whatever, but these drugs just dampen your body's anxiety response and do nothing to tackle the underlying issues. Indeed, sometimes the drugs magnify fears (I stopped taking them because they made turbulence more frightening, rather than less.) As for scientific evidence, this is all legit but it doesn't go after what is causing your aviophobia either. You can read all the data or arguments you want but they won't settle the crazy thoughts in your brain.

I took the SOAR Fear of Flying course at and saw a marked improvement in how I react to flying. Capt. Tom, a former airline pilot, shows how a lot of fearful fliers never developed "self-soothing" techniques early in childhood (something to do with their parents). He has you do a thing called a Strengthening Exercise over time that associates empathic experiences with what scares you. There are also a ton of videos and a biweekly email newsletter.

I used to have panic attacks and anxiety for two weeks prior to a flight. Now I have no response whatsoever. I go to sleep the night before and get out to the airport just fine. I still have occasional flickers of anxiety but nothing bad. I fly all the time now.

Basically, my advice is, decide how detrimental your fear of flying is to you. If it's serious, then invest in therapy via this SOAR course. It's a couple of hundred bucks but it WORKS. Don't bother with drugs or those silly random touch courses. Tackle your underlying emotional issues.

Good luck! =)
posted by teedee2000 at 8:11 AM on August 22, 2011

I'm not afraid to fly, but I know someone who is/was. They'd be a mess from the time they bought a ticket until they were back home. They tried a bunch of things for short flights, but nothing helped too much (alcohol helped a little, a meditation class helped a little, asking their non-fearful traveling partner if they were okay helped a little.)

But, this person really wanted to go to Japan from the east coast of the US. They got meds from their doctor, taken upon takeoff. They also got drunk right before the flight. Shortly after takeoff, it didn't seem to be working so they took some herbal crap that a friend had given them.

These things did not play well together.

They do not remember much of the flight. But I think the critical thing that happened was that they remember the effects of all that stuff wearing off, being tired and hungover and embarrassed when the flight attendant gave them dirty looks, and STILL FLYING. The body just doesn't have enough adrenaline to keep going under those circumstances, and some little thing broke. I think they still take half a pill the night before they fly, and are still doing some breathing exercises while they wait in line to board, but it's night and day.

Overall, I think that taking this route is a terrible idea, but you did ask for stories of getting over the fear. Taking the longest possible flight you can find to a place you really want to go appears to be one way.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:28 AM on August 22, 2011

An episode of the Pod F. Tompkast featured comedienne Jen Kirman's story about attending fear-of-flying courses at an airport and how she eventually overcame her fear. Download here.
posted by Gortuk at 10:28 AM on August 22, 2011

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