Fear of Flying
July 12, 2004 11:51 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone here conquered a fear of flying (or knows someone who has)? How'd you do it? (more inside)

A friend of mine is terrified everytime she flies. Especially shortly after takeoff when the plane starts to throttle back and level off sharply (she's sure something's wrong). I recognize the fear is rational/common/okay, but it would be easier for her to travel without the fear.

A google search turned up a collection of classes, therapy, books, etc., but I hope some personal experiences and anecdotes can give us some direction and ideas. Thanks.
posted by msacheson to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One of my friends has. He's still not keen, but apparently a couple of hypnotherapy sessions helped a lot.
posted by ed\26h at 12:48 AM on July 13, 2004

This is perfect timing. My friend is a nervous flyer, and I'm looking for ways (beyond our supply of Xanax or Ativan) to calm his nerves and make the trip bearable. Have any classes helped? Online workshops? Sitting in a small Cessna on the runway to get a feel for it? Handling a small plane with an instructor?

Also, any tips on what can I do to help -- whether on the ground in pre-flight mode, or during the flight itself -- would be much appreciated. He's flying out to see me on Thursday, so both short- and long-term solutions are helpful.

There were some solutions offered in this thread, but many centered on pills and alcohol. I understand that both may be very useful, but I'd like to hear about other experiences out there too. Thanks for asking the question, msacheson!
posted by fionab at 12:50 AM on July 13, 2004

I was on a 747 that lost an engine shortly after takeoff, and ever since I've been prone to panic attacks during that phase of the flight.

I've tried meditative breathing and other relaxation techniques, but the only thing that seems to work for me (besides copious amounts of alcohol) is an anti-anxiety drug called Omeprazole; the standard dose is very small (1mg) and it doesn't make me feel stupid or knock me out. I have to take it about 1 hour before flying.
posted by MrBaliHai at 5:25 AM on July 13, 2004


I'm no psychologist, but if your friend is nervous in big planes, I can't imagine that he'd be very comfortable in a small one. Even benign thermals from a nice warm day can kick the plane around a little bit, and while these bumps are harmless they can be unnerving at first.

Additionally, you have a whole new vantage: straight ahead of you, which is delightful to me but might also be terrifying to others, since things come at you, like the ground when you land. If the instructor decides to crab or slip during the landing, then things come at you a bit sideways, which can look wrong if you're not used to it.

Finally, many small training planes (especially older Cessnas) look really cheap inside: door paneling made of Tupperware plastic, ancient carpeting, etc. Generally safe, but not reassuring.
posted by tss at 5:31 AM on July 13, 2004

Flying is the best way to get over the fear. Mine is less today than 5 years ago, due to uneventful flights. My fear results from a nightmare I had nearly 30 years ago in which I was killed in a plane crash. I refuse to sit in a window seat on the left side of a plane because of this.

Also it helps me to sit in a window seat (right side, thank you). Clearly my vigilance helps keep the plane in the air.

I recognize my fear is not as strong as some who are terrified. I was not at all afraid of flying before that dream, but have been ever since. I'm not in the slightest afraid of heights (so long as I don't look up--And yes, that's UP).

posted by Goofyy at 6:30 AM on July 13, 2004

my fear of flying has gotten greater over time. i fly about once a month to the east coast and every flight is worse.

essentially, for me, it's a mind over matter thing. i *used* to use ativan (which is used to treat anxiety disorders) which was swell, but i wanted to do it on my own. ativan detaches you from the panic. you're sitting there, calmly observing the crisis, even aware of the panicked things your brain is saying, but you just don't care. so i practiced feeling that way when i wasn't on the ativan. these are my tricks to detach:

--book on the domestic leg of the international flight because you have more room and it's easier to relax when you're not crammed against strangers. (alternately, there are upgrades and first class, but for the budget, the domestic leg of the international flight works pretty well)

--sit at the window so i can close the damn shade and not have to look out

--imagine my dad flying the plane. he's never crashed (not that he's flown in thirty years) but he'd also never let anything happen to me.

--make myself as calm as possible in the airport beforehand. get there early enough so i'm not rushed or overly agitated by slow screening, clueless passengers or rude airline staff. don't bother with carry on luggage (less to deal with = more calm). don't drink coffee.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:00 AM on July 13, 2004

I used to be terrified flying in a big jet. I overcame it by taking flying lessons and learning everything about how the plane worked. A 747 is certainly more complex than a Cessna 152 but it still works the same way, by dealing with thrust, drag, lift, and gravity. Once I flew enough I understood that the wing wasn't simply going to fall off. Even if the engine fails the plane wont fly out of the sky. If the wing stalls the plane can recover quickly enough. On a jet there are backups for the backups.

I originally thought I'd be ok in the Cessna because I always assumed it was the lack of control that scared me in a jet. I was wrong, I was just as scared in the pilot's seat. It took a lot of hours, and a patient instructor, but I eventually overcame my fear. The first time I flew on a jet after starting lessons was a blast. I knew WHY the plane was doing what it did. I could look out at the wing, watch the ailerons move, and know that's what caused the plane to bank. I understood everything that was going on on the ground, in the air, on final approach, etc.

It wasn't cheap, and the first several hours were terrifying, but it was worth it. I haven't flown in a couple of years (I never finished my lessons for a number of reasons) but I know next time I sit in the back of a 727 I'll be fine.
posted by bondcliff at 7:29 AM on July 13, 2004

tss - I may be the only one, but I actually feel safer in smaller planes than larger ones. I expect to get knocked around in a two seater and can take quite a bit of bouncing around without anxiety, but turbulence in a jumbo jet still scares me.

I agree that learning about aviation can be helpful in dispersing some of the fear. Knowing when (and why) the flaps are used; being able to recognize the sound of landing gear retracting; understanding course changes as the plane departs or lines up for approach - all these things can eliminate some of the mystery and subsequent fear. And all these things can be learned at home on a flight sim without ever leaving the ground.

Still, when flying through a particularly nasty bit of turbulence in a 737, there's nothing like a little Xanex in the bloodstream.
posted by malocchio at 8:26 AM on July 13, 2004

In the last 2-3 years I have overcome what I would consider a moderate-severe fear of flying. Unfortunately, I can't really tell you exactly what did it. I would guess a combination of more frequent flying, better knowledge of plane mechanics/design/physics, and simply appreciating the odds.

On the last point, I find it comforting that, depending on the plane, the incident rate for airliners is about one per several (3-4) million. Michigan Stadium, The largest college football stadium in the U.S., holds over 100,000 people. Thus, the odds of having a fatal airline flight are about the same as picking a single person out of 40 packed Michigan stadiums. Alternatively, the population of Connecticut is about 3.5 million people. So your odds of having a fatal airline flight are approximately the same as randomly identifying one particular Connecticut resident.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:07 AM on July 13, 2004

I had a bad anxiety attack ten years ago on an overseas flight and have been an uneasy flyer since. I prefer to sit in the aisle seat, so I can get up when I want, and I always read the safety card and count the number of rows to reach the exit doors, front and back. Mind over matter, with a bit of practical ritual thrown in.

I also have on occasion asked to go to the cockpit and speak to the pilot. Seeing the person who is flying the plane reassures me.
posted by initapplette at 10:40 AM on July 13, 2004

Or you could try this ...
posted by stuartmm at 11:05 AM on July 13, 2004

I pretend, on takeoff, like I'm in a Maserati being chased by the police.
posted by mecran01 at 2:52 PM on July 13, 2004

I used to be moderately afraid of flying and I've just recently got over panic attacks, in both cases using a method similar to pardonyou's: I just thought my way out of it. Every time I got on a plane and freaked out I explained to myself why I was being silly. I reminded myself of the odds, compared them to the odds of dying in a car wreck, etc. I also reminded myself that a) I'm going to die sometime and I cannot control that, and b) when I'm dead, I'm not going to know it anyway because I will be freaking dead.

(Interestingly, this method made me one of the few New Yorkers I know who didn't freak out about September 11 or the subsequent possibility of terrorist attacks: I can't control whether or not a terrorist is going to blow me up (at least not on a moment-to-moment basis), so I'm not going to worry about it.)

To sum up: train yourself to accept your own mortality while reminding yourself you are unlikely to die right now.
posted by dame at 7:42 PM on July 13, 2004

The big thrill rides used to make me really panicky. I routinely shied away from the anxiety of the steep climbs and the terror of the drops. Until one year in my early twenties when I was working at a theme park in Orlando, they revamped one of those "take you straight-up, drop you straight down" rides, and they offered "cast preview" nights where you could go on it over and over again while they were testing the new ride program.

So, invited/incited by a female neighbor who was very into the coasters, I went on the damn thing about twenty times over the course of a week and a half. Sure, it was scary at the beginning, but by the end I was way into it. It felt like... well... flying.

Nowadays, I get dizzy and a little sick if I overdo it on the big coasters, but I'm not afraid of them at all. So I guess the best advice I have is something along the lines of "ain't nothin' to it but to do it."
posted by britain at 1:47 PM on July 14, 2004

There was a time where the thought of flying would send me into a panic weeks before I travelled. It got to the point where I wasn't able to go places and live my life in the way I wanted to.

For me, it was all part of a Generalized Anxiety Disorder - which was improved greatly by going on Paxil (of which I've written about both in the blue, and here on AskMeFi). When I got the GAD under control, the fear of flying pretty much disappeared. Finally, I was able to see something of the world, and have been on a few international trips since then.

I've turned into the guy who calmly reads the paper while the plane bounces around uncontrollably. Being able to approach it all rationally helps make it tolerable. To a jet going over 500 mph, air is heavy, supportive stuff. Like an enormous bowl of oatmeal. Sometimes oatmeal is lumpy, but it's nothing to worry about.

Of course, if you're dealing with irrational fears (as I was) such analogies aren't of much help.
posted by aladfar at 8:45 PM on July 14, 2004 [1 favorite]

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