Sudden Onset Fear of Flying
March 29, 2012 4:20 PM   Subscribe

Why am I suddenly afraid of flying, and how can I make it stop?

I have a weird history with flying: I flew infrequently as a very small child, and then not at all until I was in college. I started flying fairly frequently in my early twenties (now mid-twenties) without issue. This past year has been the heaviest—I’ve probably racked up 50,000 miles or so.

I've run into big fear and anxiety issues during my last two trips. I’m not overly anxious before the flight, but when I board. I’m just hit with this incredible sense of dread and physical anxiety after I see the door of the plane. My palms get sweaty, my heart rate increases, and I feel physically fairly wobbly. This gets increasingly worse until the plane reaches cruising altitude, and then waxes and wanes throughout the flight. Landing doesn’t really bother me that much. I haven’t had any traumatic flying experiences. I completely understand that driving is statistically riskier, I have a pretty solid understanding of how airplanes work, and I know the source of the sounds and tones at liftoff and landing.

I’d like to understand why this is suddenly happening, and try to fix it without drugs*. I want to nip this in the bud before it becomes an even bigger issue that threatens to prevent me from flying at all. I travel frequently for work (a minimum of 4-6 weeks of international travel a year), and I need to fly for personal reasons as well.

I've looked at the past questions but they don't really get at the why, which is a big part of what's bothering me. Did this happen to you? How did you deal / did you ever figure out why suddenly?

*Work reasons.
posted by charmcityblues to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Yes! This happened to me. When I was a kid, I loved everything about flying. Then, after not doing it for a few years, I guess I was in my late 20's, I boarded a flight and experienced just physical terror during takeoff and the early part of the flight. When the engines were cut back as we attained altitude, I was sure we were going to die.

I basically just refused to let it affect my choices. I'd fly when I needed too. I practiced deep breathing and relaxation, and I'd distract myself with a crossword puzzle during takeoff and landing. Once I found myself writing "BERNOULLI" like a mantra on the newspaper, reminding myself that the air is a fluid and that getting bumped around a little in it is normal. Sometimes I'd have a couple of drinks before boarding, which helped a little. The worst flight I was on, a small jet descending into very choppy air after a storm had passed through, the woman next to me was absolutely terrified, and talking to her to calm her down helped me. After a couple of years of this, it just....went away, gradually. Now, I don't enjoy the sensations of flight, like I once did, but they do not bother me either.

Why did it happen? I have no idea.
posted by thelonius at 4:28 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

A similar thing happened to me years back, except it was a sudden fear of driving over big, high bridges (like the BFB in Philadelphia, which I was suddenly going over all the time). It came out of nowhere - no bridge-related incidents, nothing to precipitate it as far as I could ever tell. Just a sudden fear that Something Was Going To Happen. Sweaty palms, sinking stomach, heart racing, the full monty. And at the wheel, no less.

I sort of gritted my teeth and gutted through it, and it just sort of faded away on its own. Based on my destinations, there were no real good alternatives. One day I realized that I hadn't had the fear in awhile, I couldn't actually pinpoint when it vanished. It hasn't come back since.
posted by jquinby at 4:30 PM on March 29, 2012

I also experienced a sudden unexplained onset of anxiety related to flying, and I read somewhere that the cause could be displacement - that some unacknowledged source of anxiety in your life could be expressing itself through the very common fear of flying. I haven't conquered my fear completely, but it helps me to consider other aspects of my life that could be creating stress, and to recognize that my fear could be totally unrelated to the experience of flying itself.
posted by smilingtiger at 4:34 PM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yep, out of the blue I started becoming terrified of take off and turbulence flying in large fixed wing aircraft. Strangely, this happened just around the time I was flying a lot in choppers which I loved.

I tried the 'fake it till you make it approach'. I sat in my seat, fastened my belt, and told myself "I love takeoff!" I made sure I wasn't gripping anything in fear, I made sure I had a calm, serene expression on my face, I made sure to breathe deeply and close my eyes and experience the 'lift', telling myself that I loved the feeling. And now I do. All that concentration on faking it worked.
posted by Kerasia at 4:44 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

This happened to me, too! When I was a kid, I flew quite frequently and never had an issue, then started developing some serious flying anxiety when I started college (which was 1200 miles from home). Someone pointed out that these flights were some of the first times I flew alone, which is a different experience from flying with someone else and gives you a lot of time to focus on what could go wrong.

How did I get over it? One big thing that helped was reading a book for people with a fear of flying. I wish I could remember the name, but basically, the book went over, in very simple language, all the technical aspects of flying planes AND explained what's really happening when, for instance, you hit turbulence or the engine sounds like it's struggling when you're taking off (it's not really) or it feels like the plane is falling during takeoff (that's actually just a pressure adjustment).

Knowing what was happening when was a HUGE help. I think a lot of flying anxiety comes from your powerlessness when you're in the air. So having more knowledge helps with that.

Oh, and I always make sure I have something good to read - that's a good distraction.
posted by lunasol at 4:45 PM on March 29, 2012

nth-ing this -- I self-diagnosed this as basically meaning: "I'm older and more aware of my mortality now." Flying never bothered me as a kid but nowadays I just hate it... not to the point where I'm white-knuckled and freaking out, but now if I hit one patch of turbulence, I'll inevitably think about The End.

What has worked for me, but may not work for you: 1) you said no drugs, but I've found that even just one drink in the airport before my flight generally takes a little bit of the edge off. 2) when I do hit that turbulence, I kind of take a fatalistic approach. (if it's my time, it's my time. at least this will be relatively quick and painless!) Again, YMMV on this one--I imagine most people don't think like this/don't WANT to think like this. 3) there's a lot of comfort for me in just knowing that other people are like this as well, but I also find that when we hit that turbulence, I'll look around for people who are visibly unafraid and I'll bully myself into joining them--"look at that kid/grandma/person who looks just like me! they're not scared, why are you?"

best of luck!
posted by ElCuadrangular at 4:58 PM on March 29, 2012

I went through a period of being freaked out by flying. Then I had an epiphany that, once they close the door at the front of the plane, I have made the last choice I can make before we land. Now, I don't worry all that much about choices I cannot effect, so this works pretty well for me. These days, I sleep most of the way to wherever I am flying.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:00 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

To add to the list, something which has helped me with this is not having caffeine within 8 hours of the flight (and that applies to uppers of any kind too). Goes with taking downers like alcohol instead.
posted by MillMan at 5:11 PM on March 29, 2012

Nthing the same experience with flying experiences changing over time. The single most effective thing I ever did to relieve my fear of flying was flying on a long haul United flight and listening to radio channel 9. Not all United flights do this (it's at the pilot's discretion), but a lot of them make the cockpit communications available via radio channel 9 (the armrest entertainment).

The entire trip, from LA to NYC, I listened to what the pilots were saying. As it turns out, they spend a whole lot of time just checking in with air traffic controllers and chatting with other pilots about which altitudes have the most or least turbulence. When we hit some moderate turbulence, while I was feeling white knuckled, I heard the pilots chatting with their friends and asking permission to switch altitude to get a smoother ride. No "oh shit, we're in trouble", just "Hmm, you guys think we'd do better at 35 instead of 37? Yeah? Ok air traffic control can we do that?" (in jargon... also fun and distracting to figure out).

Nowadays whenever a flight experiences turbulence, I just imagine what the pilots are probably saying in the cockpit, and it makes the whole experience a lot more comfortable.
posted by telegraph at 5:15 PM on March 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

On the bad flight I mentioned, where my seatmate was literally clutching at me and weeping, I pointed out to her an off-duty pilot riding with us - he was sleeping like a baby the whole time.
posted by thelonius at 5:41 PM on March 29, 2012

...when I board. I’m just hit with this incredible sense of dread and physical anxiety after I see the door of the plane. My palms get sweaty, my heart rate increases, and I feel physically fairly wobbly. This gets increasingly worse until the plane reaches cruising altitude, and then waxes and wanes throughout the flight. Landing doesn’t really bother me that much.

I think this is a physiological response to the very rapid drop in cabin pressure you experience as the plane ascends to cruising altitude-- and to the anticipation of that pressure drop-- which is essentially equivalent to rapidly climbing an up to 8,000 ft. mountain.

High altitudes are known to cause anxiety and panic:
People exposed to high altitudes often experience somatic symptoms triggered by hypoxia, such as breathlessness, palpitations, dizziness, headache, and insomnia. Most of the symptoms are identical to those reported in panic attacks or severe anxiety.

In other words, I think you are experiencing incipient altitude sickness:
Although the cabin altitude in modern passenger aircraft is kept to 8,000 feet (2,400 m) or lower, some passengers on long-haul flights may experience some symptoms of altitude sickness.[8]
If you can find a sympathetic doctor, try preventative measures:
The drug acetazolamide may help some people making a rapid ascent to sleeping altitude above 2,700 metres (9,000 ft), and it may also be effective if started early in the course of AMS.[18] The Everest Base Camp Medical Centre cautions against its routine use as a substitute for a reasonable ascent schedule, except where rapid ascent is forced by flying into high altitude locations or due to terrain considerations.[19] [my emphasis]
posted by jamjam at 5:59 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

This has never happened to me, and I've flown a lot, and far (telegraph - LA to NYC isn't anywhere near long haul, so you know). I think it's because I think of flying as a means to a destination, and nothing more - it's certainly less dangerous than a road trip, they give you food, drink and excellent entertainment, and I can get across the world in 24 hours.

I think it's resignation more than anything - I need to get somewhere, they have decent food, unlimited drinks, a ton of movies I haven't yet seen, I get to play games - and I get to where I need to be, in the quickest time possible, in a marvel of technology.
posted by goo at 6:08 PM on March 29, 2012

. 2) when I do hit that turbulence, I kind of take a fatalistic approach. (if it's my time, it's my time. at least this will be relatively quick and painless!)

I do this too. I had a moment where I thought, "well, if this plane's going down, there is literally nothing I can do about it. At least it'll be over fast." And that weirdly calmed me down.

Something else I do during turbulence is look at the flight attendants. 90% of the time, I am freaking out a little and they're, like, chatting to each other about lunch and utterly chill.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 6:15 PM on March 29, 2012

Wow, this happened to me, too, and I'm sort of gratified to see that it happened to other people, too. I avoided a flight home for christmas by taking Amtrak from DC to Minnesota -- a trip I recommend, actually -- because I was so anxious. For me, too, it was much more about taking off than landing, and it was never about being in enclosed spaces, or even really being in the air, because once the plane was aloft, I was pretty much fine.

Do you know what it is that's making you anxious?

Two things that helped me: I know you're familiar with the mechanics of how planes work, but:
1) reading Ask the Pilot (he has a book which I can't find at the moment) helped explain what was going on, and why it was boring;
2) flying United and listening to channel 9 on the audio and hearing what was going to happen before it happened: "change heading to (whatever)" "roger, changing heading" = [plane tilts].

And, like other people have said: the "it's out of your hands! it's too late for you! the decision has been made!" attitude did help me relax.

I never did figure out why, but I did get over/through it eventually -- I like train travel, but not that much -- and I'm none the worse for wear now.
posted by mgar at 7:38 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yep, I've gotten more afraid of flying in the past couple years. (I was terrified of crashes as a little kid, then got better, now I have some anxiety.) My reasons have already been mentioned: I have general anxiety issues that tend to ramp up under stress, plus I'm way more aware of my mortality than I was a few years ago. And travel in general is pretty stressful, even without flying. Flying happens to be a convenient thing for my anxieties to latch onto; I think my lizard brain recognizes that it's a weird situation and stubbornly insists that humans aren't supposed to fly.

Distraction is key, especially during takeoff. I love JetBlue because they have the little TVs, which I usually turn to the most amusingly inane show I can find. It's hard to worry about the plane when that Yu-Gi-Oh kid is in the middle of playing his Power Tool Dragon card.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:48 PM on March 29, 2012

When I stopped flying 50k+ miles/year for a few years, all of a sudden I became scared when flying less. Sweaty palms, gripping the armrests, getting more anxious with every bump.

When I get on the plane now I just say to myself "hey, I'm gonna die on this plane. It might hurt a lot and be scary but most likely it will be over quickly and there's nothing I can do about it."

It helps me. It might help you.
posted by MonsieurBon at 7:52 PM on March 29, 2012

I've had this happen too. For me though, it's not the airplane itself (I love takeoff just as much as when I was a kid), it's being stuck so close to so many other people. I'm not normally claustrophobic, but the tight quarters on airplanes really bring it out in me. Two things helped. First, having a seat with just a little more legroom (and thus ability to move and get out easily). Second, having anxiety medication. Note, just having it with me is enough on 95% of the flights. I think the last time I used it was when a flight two hours out had to go back, sit on the runway for two more hours (without allowing anyone off) and then six hours later, we went back to doing our original flight. Other than that I haven't needed it. But knowing it's there and using everything else first helps immensely.

But yes, do analyze what's bothering you (if anything) and see if there's a way to make that specifically better. (And if nothing, look into the altitude sickness.) Good luck!
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:14 PM on March 29, 2012

nthing all of the above, especially smilingtiger's response. I'm also really into watching Air Crash Investigations.

I fly about 100,000km a year. Every so often, I have a flight where I'm really anxious through the take off phase, though usually it doesn't bother me at all. This happens if I have been stressed before boarding the flight, if it's a busy time generally, or if I feel like I'm behind or not on top of things in other areas of my life.

I have a mantra for these flights. I actually do pay attention to the safety briefings on these ones, and as we are going through the takeoff roll I close my eyes and repeat "I'm not in control, and that's ok". It helps.
posted by wingless_angel at 3:00 AM on March 30, 2012

It's actually great that you're not able to take drugs. Drugs aren't a treatment. They mask the anxiety and panic, so that helps you get the plane ride done. But they don't treat your lovely burgeoning phobia.

There are a number of fear of flying programs. The one I'm familiar with, and that worked for me, is called SOAR. (It's run by a former pilot and therapist, who's friends with Patrick Smith of Ask a Pilot.)

The program is EXCEEDINGLY simple, so don't be put off by their lame website. Heh. Basically it consists of three exercises and some other tools. It seems dumb and simple, but it actually works. He really gets panic and phobia, both of which are very treatable things. The good thing about it is that the proprietor is always available for phone time.

Best of all is that 1. you can find most of the program for free on their website, in video form or text and 2. you can purchase the "get better fast" videos online and get started ASAP.

I am not a shill for this company and have no involvement with them! I am just a satisfied customer--one that didn't fly for 20 years and now flies really regularly. I'm not 100% cured, but that's because I'm not really doing the work. I was basically content enough being 80% cured.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:42 AM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

« Older I want a life without all of this medication   |   What on earth should I do with my hair? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.