Fear of flying? Tips to overcoming anxiety & panic attacks this holiday season

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Does the thought of getting on an airplane cause your heart to race and suddenly you can’t get enough air? You are not alone. More than 25 million Americans suffer from some form of flight-related anxiety, making aerophobia (fear of flying) the second largest fear in the U.S., after public speaking. Every year as the holiday season approaches, patients in my psychotherapy practice want to address their fear of flying, since many of them have travel plans requiring a plane trip to visit family and friends. The holiday season can be especially difficult, since flights are typically full, airports are more crowded, and inclement weather can cause flight delays, in-flight turbulence, harder runway landings, and mechanical difficulties. While many people opt out of flying during the holiday season for these reasons and more, sometimes the need to fly is unavoidable.

This following travel tips can help you overcome anxiety and panic attacks so you can finally conquer your fear of flying. Based on real concerns expressed by people seeking treatment for aerophobia, this list acts as a set of effective cognitive behavioral tools to combat even the worst symptoms of anxiety and panic.

Prepare yourself physically. Give yourself a fighting chance to conquer anxiety by prepping in advance: get a good night’s rest, avoid caffeine (which can trigger physiological symptoms of anxiety), as well as alcohol and recreational drugs 24 hours before you fly, dress in comfortable layers, and consume only foods you know won’t disrupt your digestive system. Now is not the time to get the holiday party started early by drinking alcohol or splurging on rich foods before or during a flight. Any time you’re facing an anxiety-provoking situation, it’s best to prepare your body to be in it’s best, most functional state. While alcohol and marijuana can work as a fleeting quick-fix to numb the senses, they are chemical depressants that have been proven to increase physical and mental anxiety triggers as your body recovers from them.Alcohol use can also cause the body to use oxygen less efficiently. So be sure to hydrate as much as possible before and during your flight, and bring substantial snacks to keep your blood sugar levels even (low blood sugar can also cause the body to use oxygen less efficiently.) These tactics will prepare you to be in your best physiological state, decreasing your susceptibility to anxious sensations.

Practice and master a few behavioral relaxation strategies before you go. Panic and other physical symptoms of stress are caused by the body’s automatic reaction to perceived fear. “The Stress Response” occurs when chemicals flood your body that prepare you for “fight or flight.” While the stress response is helpful in true emergency situations where you must be alert and ready to act, as a passenger on a plane your aim is to remain physically and mentally calm until you reach your final destination. Relaxation strategies like diaphragmatic breathing work to elicit “The Relaxation Response”, which rebalances your body’s physiological system by: deepening your breathing, reducing stress hormones, slowing down your heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles. Train your brain to re-enter a familiar state of calm by pairing your breathing practice with relaxing music you’ve already learned to associate with a tranquil place.

Arm yourself with factual, evidence-based answers to your most worrisome thoughts. If you can successfully identify the specific triggers (thoughts, images, sensations, and memories to which you have become sensitized) that produce your anxiety, you’ve taken the first step towards dispelling them. These are some common anxious thoughts that may be (and have been) racing through your mind as you prepare for a flight. Bring along a copy of the following reality checks/factual evidence to help combat these triggers and read them as they crop up during your flight.

Worried thought:The oxygen on the plane is limited, filtered and stale, that’s why I feel like I can’t breathe. The air is fresher outside. I need to get out of this plane so I can breathe fresh air. I am trapped and I cannot get out. I feel like I might suffocate if I don’t get out.”

Many people have strong fears about diminished air quantity and quality on an airplane; it’s often at the core of claustrophobia. The perception of decreased oxygen on an airplane is typically the result of hyperventilation (when people to breath in too much air, too quickly) one of the core symptoms of a panic attack. In fact, one form of treatment for hyperventilation is to breathe in and out of a paper bag, so that you briefly “rebreathe’ your own carbon dioxide as a way to re-balance your oxygen intake. Here are key facts to keep in mind: healthy lungs do NOT know the difference or function less efficiently when breathing filtered, stale air on an airplane, versus if you were standing on a grassy hilltop with fresh, cool ocean air blowing onto your face. You may enjoy the latter scenario much more, but barring you have no medical reasons impacting your breathing, you lungs will function efficiently in either scenario. (I recommend getting regular medical check-ups to ensure your health is adequate for travel.) That said, the oxygen content on an airplane is maintained to mimic oxygen levels in the earth’s natural atmosphere. So fan yourself if that makes yourself feel better, or hold a damp cloth to your face or neck to cool your skin as it dries.

Worried thought: “What if I get overwhelmed with anxiety while I’m stuck on this plane? I could have a full blown panic attack and pass out. What will happen to me?”

You may in fact, experience an increase in anxious thoughts and feelings preceding and/or during a flight. Remind yourself: ‘I can feel uncomfortable, and experience physical and emotional symptoms of discomfort, but that does NOT mean I am going to have a panic attack.’ For a vast number of people, it’s the earliest signs of anxiety that lead them to believe that a panic attack is coming, and there is no way to stop it from happening. That is not true. By identifying and managing your thoughts and practicing relaxation strategies you CAN ward off an escalation of anxiety. But also keep in mind, even if worse case scenario, you do have a panic attack, you will survive it. Physically healthy people don’t die from panic attacks. Flight attendants are trained in how to handle medical emergencies and should you need their assistance, their experience and knowledge will suffice until your panic symptoms pass. If it will make you feel better, let your flight attendant know upon boarding you may need his/her assistance and where you’ll be seated.

Worried thought: “Every time I feel/hear/see something suspicious on this flight it’s a sign that something very bad is going to happen. I have no control of the plane or what happens on the plane. The plane could go down. A crazy, dangerous person could be on board.”

If the plane’s functionality worries you, it may help to obtain detailed information about how a plane flies, facts about turbulence, and the meaning of the various sounds and movements during flights. Virtual reality programs, during which fearful fliers are exposed to computer simulations of flight triggers, are also helpful. There are flight simulators that are ordinarily used to teach private pilots how to fly small planes and are often located near airports. If you feel a general ominous sense of doom because of where you’re seated, or whom you’re seated by, remind yourself of this: you somehow manage to live the rest of your life without controlling a wide range of potentially dangerous scenarios without being hyper-vigilant about them. You very likely aren’t constantly preoccupied with who happens to be driving on the freeway at the exact same time/location as you (for fear of a pending car crash), where you’re walking on the sidewalk (where you might be struck by a reckless driver, hit by a falling tree or meteor, or get mugged) or where you shop or work (because a bomb could go off, the building could collapse, or a fire could break out.) While all of these scenarios are possible, the likelihood of them happening is extremely rare. You already successfully put these possibilities out of your mind and function without being preoccupied with fears that keep you from living out your life. Flying is no different. The point is, if you already manage to get through daily life ignoring all the endless possible things that could threaten your safety, you can also learn to ignore the potential safety risks associated with flying.

Worried thought: “I won’t be able to manage my anxiety for the duration of the flight. As soon as I hear the cabin doors shut and we take off, I feel like I can’t cope. I won’t be able to make it through a longer flight.”

Bring as many distractions as you can and plan strategically when and how you will engage in them throughout your flight. Pack a wide range of activities that you can employ as cognitive distractions while you’re in flight. The fewer opportunities you have to experience anxious thoughts, the less opportunity your mind and body will have to react to them. Some people even write out a mini activity itinerary based on the length of their flight. {10 min. deep breathing with music, 20 minutes reading newspaper/magazine, 30 minutes watch an in-flight sitcom, 10 min. walking through cabin/bathroom break, 30 minutes play games on electronic device, etc etc}. When you feel your anxiety begin to rise, switch activities, rotating through them in intervals. If it helps, plan to get up and walk about the plane cabin, drink water, visit the bathroom when feasible. Avoid focusing on specific triggers like keeping track of how many times the ‘stay seated’ lights come on.

With practice and hard work, you can learn to achieve a sense of mastery and benefit from the freedom of flying without disabling fears that have kept you grounded in the past. Each time you fly it will get easier and easier. You may never feel totally at ease but you CAN accomplish engaging in tactics that significantly reduce and even eliminate old patterns of anxiety.

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4 thoughts on “Fear of flying? Tips to overcoming anxiety & panic attacks this holiday season

  1. Paul

    1at times can be a bit nervous in the air.The best thing is to sit and try and relax or play games or watch movies or try to think of something funny that will make you laugh.Relax as other people in the world have worse problems than you experiencing.Just do your best and take tranquilizers with you in case you need them and remember you not the only1and go and see if you can help some1who may need your help.The crew are there to help you and will give you a tranquilliser if you need1and then you will fall fast asleep and they will wake you to put your belt on before the flight lands and then you will enjoy the rest of your day and you will forget about it because you have so many other things to think about.

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