Road warrior, not a good flyer. How to manage/cope?
November 5, 2017 11:14 AM   Subscribe

Recent career changes the past few months (not entirely by choice) have left me in a new position that requires semi-frequent international travel (30%-40%) for 1-2 weeks at a time, often on extremely short notice. I've handled it okay - fortunately I'm an over-planner and tend to be prepared for anything (delays, jetlag, etc) - except for one small problem: I'm a terrible flyer. I have a lot of flying coming up very soon so I need to figure out something.

Most of long-distance flying doesn't bug me too much (I find it more boring than anything), but I simply cannot find a good way to handle turbulence. Despite knowing that even the worst chop isn't a danger and well within the design specs of the plane, I still instinctively white-knuckle anytime the flight gets even a little bumpy, and anything but the smoothest approaches/landings can push me into borderline-freakout stage.

I'm generally not an anxious person, so I'm not sure what exactly sets me off (being a bit motion sickness-sensitive in general probably doesn't help - roller coasters and the like are like my absolute worst nightmare). I also had a particularly bad flight into DC last winter, during a major East Coast winter storm. The final approach and landing was downright terrifying (multiple drops, constant tossing about, you name it). I know conditions that day were unusually bad (WUnderground showed ~35 mph winds at the airport gusting to 50 mph that day plus snow), but the experience still scared me off of flying for a couple of months afterwards.

I've tried some in-flight coping strategies with on-and-off success: Dramamine, a glass or two of wine, and sitting in the middle of the plane (when possible) are the best I've come up with. Still, anything past the most minor turbulence and I'm white-knuckling again. I've briefly considered trying to get Xanax, but am a bit hesitant to drug myself up, not to mention that I haven't had any time to see a doctor - my schedule has been insane at work for a while now.

Unfortunately, I have a lot of travel coming up in the immediate future which convinced me to post this question: I'm flying to Europe (from the US) this upcoming Friday for a week, then three days later I have to fly cross-county for Thanksgiving, then I might have to fly back to Europe again a week or two later. I'm already starting to worry about how I'll cope if I have another bad flight, it's not like I can just refuse to go anywhere.

Any thoughts or suggestions (besides finding a new line of work, which is definitely being considered)?
posted by photo guy to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ditch the wine and get the drugs, seriously. That's my best advice.

I don't know if you have a relationship with a doctor, but in the past mine has been willing to prescribe me a few Xanax for flights just by making a phone call to the office.
posted by lalex at 11:20 AM on November 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think you have to schedule a half day off and get to a doctor. This is exactly what the drugs are for.
posted by bleep at 11:24 AM on November 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Was the Dramamine the non drowsy kind or the normal? The normal stuff sends me to sleep, as in think horse tranquilizer. So if you’re happy to sleep that’s one way to go. But yes, fit in a visit to your doctor and get the good drugs.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:29 AM on November 5, 2017

koahiatamadl - I usually take the normal Dramamine especially if it's a red-eye. Doesn't help with anxiety but does definitely help me sleep. Thanks all, guess I'll try to get a trial prescription of Xanax, hopefully I can get one without a doctor appt.
posted by photo guy at 12:13 PM on November 5, 2017

Try to get window seats whenever possible, and fly during the daytime. Like any seasickness issue, being able to see the horizon does wonders. If you are doing transcons, and if your job schedule allows it, fly back on early AM flights. If you live on the US east coast, there are some early AM flights to London that allow you to fly during the day and avoid the redeye.

But speaking of seasickness, one of the best tips I ever had came from my father in law, who was in the coast guard, was a lifetime sailor, and flew tons for business. Most turbulence is the equivalent to sailing through whitecaps - a bit of a bumpy ride, but nothing that will affect the boat one iota. We have a mental image of the pilots with their hands on the yokes, struggling to keep control of the plane. Not so - they're just up there talking to each other about last night's game. It is an accident of design that they are actually in the best position in the plane to NOT be affected by turbulence. I find thinking of the plane as a sailboat to be a real game changer.
posted by scolbath at 2:05 PM on November 5, 2017

Fellow motion-sickness sufferer here. Sitting in the middle of the plane will make your motion sickness much worse. Sit beside a window, keep it open, and actively look out the window & focus on the horizon (or at least on the clouds) whenever there's turbulence. The goal is for your eyes to SEE the movement that your ears are already feeling, and try to synch up the visual with the sensations, so your brain stops thinking you've been poisoned and tries to make you yakk up the toxic mushrooms it thinks you ate. Also: drink cool water, and turn on the little fan.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:13 PM on November 5, 2017

I can definitely relate to how you must be feeling. I also had a really bad flight a few years back and had a very difficult time recovering anxiety-wise. Mentally, I had no problem flying and knew everything was safe and fine, but my body would just override whatever I was thinking/feeling as soon as turbulence hit.

I also get motion sick, but not so much on planes, so what really helped me was getting an aisle seat and sitting as far back from the partitions in the cabin as possible, not looking out the window. Whenever turbulence hits I now no longer attempt to distract myself, since that somehow makes it worse. I, as weird as this may sound, close my eyes and try to "sink into" the turbulence, anticipating the next "hit" and trying to ride the turbulence like a wave.

I will say it took me dozens of flights to feel comfortable flying again, and whenever I caught a bad flight, my progress "recovering" got set back. But in the long run, I now feel much much better flying and more and more confident when turbulence strikes.

One theory of mine regarding flight-anxiety is that problems you have in your day to day life, but which you aren't dealing with, somatize when flying, since you are in such an enclosed space with no possibility of escaping/distracting yourself by going on with your day to day routine. This is what cautioned me against medicating my anxiety.
posted by 3zra at 3:21 PM on November 5, 2017

One thing to consider is understanding exactly what's going on.

When the plane bounces around, you have a mental image of the airplane bouncing around in the air.

But that terrifying drop you just felt? That was the airplane dropping like three feet.

When you feel turbulence, ask yourself if it's any worse than what you could create in your car on the freeway without leaving the lane. You can bounce things around pretty good by just jerking your car around a few feet; we have an intuition that the plane needs much larger movements to 'feel' the same, but in fact, a three foot jerk on an airplane feels the same as a three foot jerk in a car.

Even a full second of weightlessness (which I'm guessing you've never felt on an airplane) only requires a sixteen-foot drop.
posted by Hatashran at 4:34 PM on November 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Back in the late 80's, I worked with someone who survived a commercial plane crash. I started having flying anxiety after that -- knowing someone who was in a commercial plane crash took the idea out of the realm of "happens to people I don't know, therefore it can't happen to me," to something that could possibly happen to me. In 1992, I had to fly to a job interview for a job that would involve a lot of travel. I had a "premonition" that if I got on the plane, it would crash. That was a very unpleasant experience -- miss the flight, nothing happens, and I sound crazy or get on the plane. I got on the plane, nothing happened, and I got the job offer. I was in therapy at the time, and when I next saw my therapist, I told her I needed help in dealing with this anxiety. She did a form of EMDR with me. It seemed hokey but it worked for me.

I have since flown many miles and not had anxiety like that again. I'm not fond of extreme turbulence, but I'm no longer gripping the armrests on takeoff and landing.
posted by elmay at 4:56 PM on November 5, 2017

Somethings that have helped the wife and me:

1. Take a fear of flying class. There's probably one at an airport near you. This helps a lot of people.
2. Find a routine to help get you through turbulence. I sing Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" to myself.
3. Yeah, get an anti-anxiety med. There are other options besides Xanax. Talk to your doctor sooner rather than later.
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:31 PM on November 5, 2017

Things that help for me

1. Ativan (if you haven't tried them they can be sort of magic, you feel just like you only less anxious - don't drink while on them)
2. Watching the flight crew not be phased. They are more experienced than me and if they are not rattled, why should I be?
3. Incredibly engrossing movies/tv/ipad games. I find it hard to maintain an anxiety spike when I am distracted with something

Agree with other people, being able to look out a window can help. Not looking at other people having stress reactions can help. Sometimes statistics can help "I am safer here than in my bathroom" is one thing I tell myself and "I FEEL less safe because I have control issues...." is the follow-up. I also decided at some point I maybe wasn't as afraid to die as I thought (I've had a good life) and it made the fear of death have less power over me. I know that may not be useful for most kinds of people, but maybe it's helpful to you?
posted by jessamyn at 7:43 PM on November 5, 2017

Yeah, don't drink. You get dehydrated really fast and/or have to work out when/how to get to a bathroom, which adds another layer of anxiety.

Are you flying coach most of the time? If so, with your amount of travel you can probably get some upgrades. Of course, you are not objectively safer in a more expensive class or economy plus-type seating, but having a bit more room, an easier trip to the bathroom and stuff like that, makes it easier to relax. You can even mention your nerves in passing to the flight attendant ("I'm always a bit nervous at this stage") and that human contact can be comforting.

I have to say I LOVE deluxe economy seating and would pay for it out of pocket
posted by BibiRose at 7:18 AM on November 6, 2017

Thanks all! Lots of good advice here. 3zra, interesting theory (and probably has some truth - I'm definitely dealing with other job/career stressors unrelated to travel at the moment). BibiRose, I probably fly coach 80-90% of the time (the joys of being a public-sector employee) but am working on getting more into the upgrade/status game.
posted by photo guy at 4:46 PM on November 6, 2017

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