Over the years a lot of people are shocked to learn that I have flying anxiety, and ask me why I keep doing it if it scares me so much. I thought I would share my story about my fascination with flying and travel as a young child and how my anxieties developed in my 20’s, and now in my 30’s how I deal with it. It is perfectly normal to have anxiety about flying and you don’t need to be ashamed or let it keep you from seeing the world. There are many options to overcome your fears this is just my personal journey.
Throughout this story I wanted to share some photos I took from my first flight in a small propeller plane over the most iconic sights in Slovenia and how I refused to let my flying anxiety keep me from this experience. Also below I made a special video to maybe help some of you face your fears.
When my flying fearlessness ran out…
I remember as a child when I would see movies or tv shows and a character would fly somewhere and there was something so magical about it. I always wondered when I would get to ride in an airplane and dreamed about all of the places I could go. My first flight I was so young I don’t even remember a moment of it, but my mother recalls me messily eating cookies and maybe causing some anxiety for the businessman sitting next to us. We only flew across Pennsylvania so really I didn’t go anywhere new.
When I was 19 I took my first flight, all alone, from Pennsylvania to California. Thinking back to it I barely remember the details but I definitely do not remember being afraid or anxious. I have no idea how I navigated an airport by myself, but I do remember getting off the plane and being in a new world. This is what I was dreaming about my whole life. Stepping into the unknown and experiencing life again for the first time. That was it. I was hooked.
My next flight wouldn’t be until a few years later when I attended an academic conference in Wisconsin. This is when my fear of flying began. Maybe the magic of flying wore off and now the realities of being locked inside a metal bird several miles above the ground going hundreds of miles an hour hit me.
For the next three or four years I began flying more frequently due to studying for my Master’s in New Mexico. Each flight feeling worse than the last. It got to the point of never sleeping before a flight, having some undesirable physical symptoms (I’m so sorry to so many airport restrooms), and having extreme panic attacks on flights. Thank you to all of the flight attendants and passengers that helped me when I didn’t think I would make it through.
Writing these experiences out for the first time makes me laugh. How can a girl with such an aversion to flying keep getting into planes? Easy. I am addicted to new experiences and I am so stubborn that I couldn’t possibly accept never flying again.
Over the next years I kept flying, more and more frequently. I moved abroad, I moved even further abroad (across an ocean!), I continued to move and to travel from country to country for years. I wish I could tell you the third or fourth flight is when things got better but it’s simply just not true.
While living in the US I was prescribed anxiety medicine so I would take it right before take off. This helped me manage my panic attacks on a handful of flights but one day that bottle ran out and I was determined to get over my fear. I just kept on flying, and I still continue to push through even when I have bad days. I try to pinpoint what exactly causes my anxiety to set off and take care of it. Because every time I step out of the airport in a new place all of the terrible thoughts and feelings I had an hour before were gone. It was worth it every single time.
Slowly the extreme feelings of impending death began to be consoled with each safe landing. Slowly I learned how to sleep better (I’m not perfect hah) before a flight and I haven’t been physically ill before flying for a couple years now. I still have rough flights sometimes, especially in cases of turbulence. After countless hours in the sky I still have the occasional panic attack but it doesn’t ruin my entire day or my trip and it definitely doesn’t keep me from flying.
So how did I do it? Here are some tips that helped alleviate the negative side symptoms of flying anxiety.
Overcoming Flight Anxiety Tip #1: Arrive even earlier to the airport
My best advice to those attempting to conquer their fear of flying is to figure out what causes those anxieties and try to reduce it as much as possible. For me I recognized that I am more anxious when I felt rushed, there is nothing more panic attack inducing than seeing a mile long line at security or being on the verge of missing a flight. This will cause me to immediately lose control. Now I arrive at the airport with more than enough time so even if one thing goes wrong I still have a buffer and don’t start to spiral before even boarding the plane.
Overcoming Flight Anxiety Tip #2: Pack 24 hours before leaving
I pack at least 24 hours before I fly. This gives me enough time to consider what I packed and what I might have forgot. I can’t tell you how much this eases my flying anxiety. I would stay up all night before flying panicking about what I might have forgot. All of that wasted energy keeping me up when I should be resting well.
Also a bonus tip is to prepare a nice carry on bag. Be sure to prepare a few things to occupy your mind. It might be an audio book, some games (I play 1010! every flight), a book, maybe a notebook and pen (my personal favorite), magazines (travel ones are my go to) or anything to keep your mind busy. I bring several things just to prepare for whatever mood I might be in.
Overcoming Flight Anxiety Tip #3: Sleep and Hydrate!
Yeah I know it I sound like a parent. It’s true. Sleeping the night before will help you immensely (says the girl who definitely had anxiety insomnia before flights a few years ago). I’m already packed the morning before so I spend the rest of the day as usual. I also might go to the gym to try to exhaust myself, but I never introduce anything new to my schedule. I try to trick myself that it’s just a normal day and so is tomorrow.
Before boarding I buy at least 1 liter of water for the flight. Planes can be very dehydrating. Did you know that dehydration can cause your heart to race, for you to become lightheaded, and your blood pressure drop? Sounds a lot like anxiety. I try to drink a bit of water every so often to make sure my body isn’t occurring any sudden changes. Even the slightest disruption can cause my mind to go through 1001 movie-like scenarios. On this note don’t skip meals! It can have a similar affect to dehydration.
Overcoming Flight Anxiety Tip #4: Prepare in advance.
Those with anxiety know the fear of the unknown busy airport or navigating a foreign city transportation system. Prepare everything well in advance. I make sure to save the address of my hostel or Airbnb not only on my phone but in a small notebook. I also keep specific directions how to navigate from the airport to my accommodation. I prepare a travel itinerary that makes me feel at ease so that I don’t feel like I am lost.
Overcoming Flight Anxiety Tip #5: Remind yourself that travel is not about perfection
There is a lot of pressure for a trip to be perfect. I’m not sure where this comes from but expecting perfection will certainly result in anxiety when things don’t go the way you planned. Yes I know my previous tip said to plan. This plan is specifically practical advice like take this train to this stop and walk 3 blocks to your hostel or how to say hello and thank you in the local language. Enjoy yourself and your surroundings and try to be in the moment rather than in 100 different possible futures (probably none of which will come true) I know it’s easier said than done but be nice to yourself and I promise you day will get better instantly.
Overcoming my ultimate flying fear!
Recently, I did something I swore I would never do: fly in a small propeller plane. I said I knew my limits and this was one of them, but I remind you, I am stubborn. I never wanted my fear to keep me from experiencing beautiful things. With a rare opportunity to fly in a small plane above the most iconic sights in Slovenia I forced myself to go through with it. And I can’t tell you how happy I am that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and got into that plane.
The take off was terrifying and when we hit some turbulence I thought I might puke all over the dashboard (thank goodness I didn’t) but the experience of flying in such a small plane and seeing the world from above was so special that I’ve actually already booked another flight.
I wanted to share this experience because it was so special and important to me so I filmed a video in hopes that it might help others. I filmed the entire take off and landing which I included specifically for those who struggle with this part like I do. Or maybe a flight like this is just not possible for you for a range of reasons (accessibility, finances, etc) but I still want you to experience the absolute beauty of flying in a small plane.
I’d love to hear your stories about overcoming your flying anxiety or tips to minimize your fears around flying in the comments below. If you jump over to this tweet you can read how other travelers and travel bloggers discuss their anxieties and fears around flying. We might make it look super easy and glamorous but don’t worry no one is perfect.
Any other travelers have a fear of flying??? 🙋🏻♀️
I’m putting the final touches on an article about my story of overcoming my fears and anxieties but I’d love to hear yours below ⬇️
— Helene (@wanderinghelene) January 21, 2019
Owner of wanderinghelene.com. Anthropologist, content creator, castle explorer, coffee drinker, and lover of markets and very old places!