Tips for Managing Fear of Flying

Accepting the anxiety is an important first step in overcoming it when you fly.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Meg Lee

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The thing about anxiety is that it doesn’t always listen to reason. If you’re vaccinated and still worried about getting on a plane, it might not be a matter of waiting for the right reassurance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other experts. You might look for help dealing with the anxiety itself.

“Anxiety is a physical, somatic thing that's taking place — not a reasonable reaction to epidemiological data,” says Jay Michaelson, an editor at mindfulness meditation app Ten Percent Happier. “There's no point in trying to argue the fears away.”

Air travel anxiety isn’t a new phenomenon caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the past year has undoubtedly exacerbated it for many. And even once-cavalier flyers may be experiencing it for the first time. Whether you’re made slightly uncomfortable by the idea of crowding back into a flying tube, or completely paralyzed with fear, here are some simple steps you can take to manage your in-flight anxiety.

How to help travel anxiety

Don’t fight your fight-or-flight

Anxiety is an uncomfortable experience, so it can seem natural to want to make it go away. Some travelers take refuge in medication for air travel anxiety or a few glasses of wine to cope with the stress of flying. But this approach carries plenty of downsides, and is unlikely to address the core problem.

Instead, some experts recommend the opposite: leaning into the anxiety itself.

“The most helpful strategy for managing anxiety is, paradoxically, to accept it,” Michaelson says. “Fighting or denying anxiety only makes it stronger, and beating yourself up for having it doesn't work either. So the first step is to just notice that anxiety is present, and accept it — not in the sense of, ‘This is great, I love anxiety!’ But just in the sense of, ‘OK, this is happening.’"

You don’t have to wait until you’re on the plane to start noticing and accepting your anxiety. If you already have travel planned and are starting to feel anxious about it, you can begin working with it in advance. If you wait until you’re overcome with worry at 30,000 feet, the anxiety might be too intense to accept.

Take a (better) deep breath

You might find that simply acknowledging your anxiety reduces it to a manageable level and lets you return to your book or in-flight movie. But if not, what else can you do?

It’s not rocket science: Take a deep breath.

“We all know to ‘take a deep breath’ — and that works,” Michaelson says. “But you can take a better breath. Try lengthening the exhale, relaxing the body as you let go. Try making the four parts of the breath — empty, inhale, full, exhale — equal in length. Say, four seconds each. That's not how we usually breathe, but it can be remarkably effective.”

It might seem counterintuitive to focus on breathing deeply during a pandemic brought on by an airborne virus. But the opposite (taking short, small breaths) is a recipe for anxiety. You don’t have to be a meditator to focus on your breath from time to time in-flight.

Learn the anxiety basics

If you know you’re prone to travel stress, you can take steps beforehand to ensure your body and mind are in better shape to deal with the anxiety in a healthy way. Some ways to proactively manage your anxiety include:

  • Exercise and stretch. Moving your body can help reduce anxiety, according to a 2019 meta-analysis in the journal Depression & Anxiety. Even some quick yoga the morning before your flight can make a difference.

  • Get plenty of sleep. This might fall in the so-obvious-it’s-annoying category, but getting a lousy night’s sleep before your flight is unlikely to help you feel more comfortable.

  • Don’t fuel the worry. You could spend hours worrying about the safety of travel, but it’s unlikely to help. This behavior, called "rumination," will likely only make your anxiety worse, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Find the minimum information you need to make a decision, and move on.

The bottom line

On the one hand, it makes sense to be nervous about flying: We’ve lived through a global pandemic caused by a virus that spread through close contact. On the other hand, the CDC and other experts have suggested that most activities, including travel, are safe for vaccinated individuals.

Most of the tips above are about getting out of this circular, paradoxical cycle of anxiety that the mind can spin on indefinitely and focusing on the body and breath.

“Don't fight anxiety,” Michaelson suggests. “And definitely don't fight it on the level of the mind.”

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