Even if you're itching to get to your island vacation or attend your cousin's wedding, the thought of getting on an airplane might fill you with dread.
If you're afraid to fly, you're in good company. About 40% of Americans feel some fear at the thought of flying, and between 2.5% and 6.5% of people in the U.S. actually experience a phobia of flying.
If you'll do almost anything to avoid reaching cruising altitude, these tips can help.
Talk yourself down from dread
Flying is known as the safest form of long-distance travel – and dying from a plane accident is extremely rare. So why do our brains hang on to the very extraordinary instances when something goes wrong?
It comes down to confirmation bias, which makes us look for evidence that supports our existing beliefs, says Dr. Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
If you believe planes are dangerous, "every time you see a news article that says a plane crashed, you go, 'Yep, see? Dangerous,'" says Marques. But if you look up how many planes take off and land safely every day, you'll see that plane crashes are very rare and can talk yourself down from the belief that flying is dangerous, she says.
Of course, "a phobia or a fear of flying is not rational," says Marques. It takes time and practice to break through the fear. Don't be too hard on yourself if trying to reason with your fear doesn't get you very far at first.
Face your fear, repeatedly but in small doses
Exposure therapy, "is the idea that being exposed to something you're afraid of over and over again calms down your limbic system so it doesn't fire up as fast," says Marques. That could mean less anxiety in the long run.
"You're basically moving up a ladder of fear," says Marques. Before you move to the next level of exposure, make sure your fight-or-flight response is less active.
It could look something like this:
- Watch YouTube videos of planes taking off.
- Watch videos of planes actually flying.
- Listen to audio of a flight in turbulence.
- Go to the airport and watch planes take off.
- Get on a plane.
If you want to work on your fear without having to buy a plane ticket, you can try virtual reality exposure therapy.
During the flight, distract yourself
"When we're really, really anxious, we can't think straight," says Marques.
The key is to try to connect to your rational, thinking brain. "When we really focus on thinking, like doing a math problem, our emotional brain calms down."
Try a crossword puzzle or sudoku, reading a really juicy romance novel (we've got recs!) or getting through a pile of paperwork. Board your flight with plenty of distractions.
If you hit turbulence, don't force yourself to calm down
michele Abercrombie/Michele Abercrombie/NPR
michele Abercrombie/Michele Abercrombie/NPR
During a rough flight, your instinct might be to take slow, deep breaths to calm down. But don't try to stop the experience, says Marques. "It's nearly impossible to stop your fight-or-flight response," once it's been triggered, she explains.
Instead, try labeling your feelings. "Oh, my gosh. I'm really scared," for example. Remind yourself that your body is having a normal response to a perceived threat, says Marques.
Of course, that's different from feeding your anxiety by telling yourself, "Oh, my God, the plane is going to crash. Oh, my God, something bad is going to happen," she explains.
After you've named your fear, go back to the facts you gathered about aviation safety, and remind yourself that you're still safe.
Consult with a doctor about medication, if you feel you might need it
Fast-acting medications like Xanax or Valium can be useful tools, says Marques: "I've had patients that had to take it to even do the exposure therapy." But relying on medication may not solve your problem long term.
"Those medications pretty quickly take down anxiety. And so it feels then that the only way to travel and to fly is with those medications," says Marques. "Long term, they tend to get people more stuck."
If you do need medication to get on a plane, talk with your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist. "Try to think of a medication that's not just short-term, but something that could help you bring your baseline anxiety down," she says.
Whatever you do, don't self-medicate or mix prescription pills with alcohol.
Work through your discomfort by focusing on why you're flying in the first place
The key to all of this, Marques says, is allowing yourself to be "comfortably uncomfortable."
If you're totally comfortable, you're at home never facing your fear. If you're totally uncomfortable, it feels like you're always on the verge of a panic attack.
Finding a middle ground means, "You're out of your comfort zone, but you're going toward something that matters," Marques explains. "Instead of just having anxiety, you are capitalizing on that anxiety to propel you toward something that matters."
Think about what matters to you: Maybe you love to explore new places, or you really want to accept a promotion at work that requires you to travel, or you live far from your sibling and you want to see them more often. Figure out what's worth working through your fear.
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The audio portion of this episode was produced by Mansee Khurana. We'd love to hear from you! Email us at or send a voice note to LifeKit@npr.org.