By Charyn Pfeuffer
Small confession: Until a few years ago, I used to be terrified of flying. Like Valium-required, grab my seatmate, shriek and break out in sweats scared of flying. People tend to be amused when I disclose this former phobia, wondering how and why I ever decided to become a travel writer, much less one who until recently, typically logged 100+ flights per year. I'm still uncertain of the root of the fear, but got over it on a harrowing flight into Tegucigalpa, Honduras a few years back.
For the flying phobic, author Kate L. Fellows serves up some sage advice in her book, "The Nervous Flyer's Handbook: Your Portable Flight Coach."
Fellows was prompted to pen the book when she decided not to let her nervousness stop her from traveling for business and pleasure. She took an online class and skimmed a few books, only to find advice like "listen to relaxing music" and "breathe deeply." She wanted more concrete ideas.
"I began to write notes to myself on each flight, with perspectives on flight and coping strategies," says Fellows. "My collection of notes grew, and I believed my perspective as an 'expert passenger' could complement the advice predominantly from pilots and psychologists." Rather than another book from a pilot or therapist, it's written from the "expert passenger" perspective - someone who will validate and relate to the nervous flyer's experience. "I wrote the book as what I would say to someone as if I were sitting next to them in flight, coaching them through it," says Fellows.
Here are Kate L. Fellows' top five tips to help nervous flyers:
1. Know that your feelings are normal
Getting into a giant tin can to be hurled across the sky at 35,000 feet is not a natural thing to do. Your nervousness about flying is simply your instinct kicking in, telling you that what you're about to do is strange. You're also not alone in how you feel; in a survey I conducted, 52 percent of respondents stated that they feel slightly nervous or more when flying. Even some frequent-flying celebrities admit feeling this way.
Along with the normal feelings of nervousness, also try to see the upside of flying. Tap into your sense of wonder and adventure. Think about the amazing feats of engineering, and how it's opened up the world to you. Several times during a flight, even if I feel a bit nervous, I will look out the window and think, "this is amazing!" It will reduce your anxiety if you give yourself permission to embrace this dichotomy - this love/hate relationship with flying.
2. Do your best thinking ahead of time
When you're anxious on a flight, your brain simply won't function and recall things as well as it normally does. Yet that is exactly when you need to help yourself the most. A few days before you go, take a few minutes to write some things down, and have it ready to read in flight. I suggest writing a purpose statement for your trip - why you're going, who you're going to see, what you'll be doing, and why you're willing to fly even though you're nervous. Highlight tips from this book, and bring it along. It is full of things I would say to you if I were sitting in the next seat over.
3. Plan your distractions and avoidances
Nervousness can reduce your ability to concentrate for long periods, so bring at least 2 - 3 activities per hour of flight. Writing thank-you notes is a great way to get out of your head and think of others. Sometimes I even write a thank you note to the flight crew and hand it to them as I leave. For entertainment, upbeat movies or books are best, as happy thoughts and laughter help relieve anxiety (hence the term, "feel-good" movies). Avoid intense content, because your adrenaline can increase and add to your anxiety. Puzzle books like crosswords, word finds or Sudoku are also great distractions. Bring photos of loved ones. Avoid relying solely on your electronics, just in case a battery dies or you're required to turn them off.
4. Know what to expect
There's a chapter in my book on the phases of flight, so that you'll be prepared for the normal sounds and sensations of flying. It's helpful to know in advance what those dings mean, or why it sometimes feels like the plane is slowing down, or why turns often feel steep. If you know what to generally expect, you can plan distractions better. For example, plan your best eyes-down distractions during take-off and landing, because although it's normal for the overhead cabins and wings to shake, seeing it happen doesn't help the nervous flyer. Some people also benefit from understanding the basic principles of how flight works, which can easily be found on the internet (I recommend the Smithsonian "How Things Fly" site).
5. Apply the logic
Aviation experts use statistics and logic to demonstrate how safe it is to fly. Really think about what those stats mean, and identify at least one to help create a catchphrase that resonates best with you. One of my favorites is, "Every single day, millions of people fly and successfully arrive at their destination." I think about what a gathering of millions of people would actually look like... it's big, and that's just one day! Another is, "Flying is by far the safest form of transportation." Another trick I use is when flying is to "Be Spock." If you were Vulcan, you would find it "highly illogical" and absurd to have any fear about flight, since the risk from flying is entirely insignificant compared to other modes of transport. It may sound silly, but thinking like Spock has often helped me calm down!