I have a confession to make. I get nervous on planes. I know, I know, how do I travel so much if I hate flying? Over the years, I’ve developed a number of ways to calm myself down. They aren’t cures, but they usually at least help. Take a look below and let me know what you think.
1) Get enough sleep
So you waited until midnight to start packing. You’re busy, I get it. But do yourself a favor and book an afternoon flight. The mind does crazy things when it’s sleep-deprived. You’re more irritable, more anxious, more forgetful, and generally more easily convinced that the plane is going down.
2) Pack ahead of time.
This goes along with #1. Pack ahead of time so you don’t have to scramble around the day of looking for last-minute items. That way, once you make it to the airport, you will have one less thing to worry about.
3) Give yourself enough time at the airport
That may mean paying extra in order to avoid booking early morning flights. I know that $25 flight to Paris is tempting, but isn’t it worth an extra 15 or 20 bucks to leave after the crack of dawn? It may seem like a “good value”, but that depends on what you place the most worth on. If you book a 6am flight, chances are you won’t get enough sleep, which means you’ll probably be anxious on the plane, which means you’ll be exhausted when you arrive at your destination and therefore may go straight to the hostel/hotel/bnb and go to sleep, missing out on plenty of sites! So, before you book, ask yourself this question: What’s most valuable to me?
4) Make a playlist
I have a playlist on my iPod called “Be Happy”. It’s full of cheerful, upbeat tunes that put me in a good mood. I like to listen to it on the plane to keep my mind off of potential disasters. It’s mostly filled with Shakira and funny French songs involving accordions. We are now allowed to use small electronics during the entire flight, and happy tunes make take-off so much more enjoyable. For bonus points, make your list as long as the flight to help gauge how long you have left.
5) Find something to keep your hands busy
Personally, I’m not able to concentrate on something that requires a lot of brain power if I’m feeling anxious. For instance, I can’t read during take-off. For that reason, I make macramé bracelets. It requires my attention, keeps my hands busy, but it’s harder for my mind to wander. Some other potential activities: coloring/drawing, Sudoku, origami, etc.
6) Have a routine (pre-flight and during flight)
It usually goes like this: I take my seat, put away my carry-on, settle into my seat, pull out iPod and macramé and get to work. Once we’re cruising and the flight attendants bring around the food cart, I wait for them to get to the end of the plane (depending on plane size, can take 30 mins-1 hour) and then I get up to go to the toilet. When I get back, I work more on my macramé or do some reading until the end of the flight. I push myself to finish sections of the bracelet before looking at my watch.
Make a plan for your on-flight activities, and don’t give yourself options. The more options you have, the harder it will be to decide what to do and the more likely you’ll be stuck doing nothing (backwards, I know, but true). Bring one or two things to do and stick with them. An idle mind worries, a busy one concentrates.
Have a routine leading up to the flight – in my family we have a text message chain whenever somebody’s flying, just to check in and say “I love you” to the people that matter most and to know that someone’s thinking about you during your travels. I also like sending postcards from the airport, posting to facebook or twitter, or just calling people I care about. It can really help to calm your anxiety just by knowing your friends and family have you on their mind during your flight.
7) Understand how airplanes work
I don’t mean the physics of flight (although I imagine that probably wouldn’t hurt to know), but just general things. For instance, if the plane is descending, it makes sense for the pilot to slow down (since the plane will naturally speed up when coming down). To slow down, the plane will need less power, and therefore you’ll hear the engines powering down. It’s normal for a plane to descend and ascend periodically (by small increments) throughout the flight. For instance, if the pilot is trying to avoid rough air, he may descend or ascend to get around it.
During takeoff, you may notice that the plane levels out early only to resume ascending a few minutes later. From what I understand, pilots are required to check in with flight towers and request permission to continue their ascent due to traffic. Even airplanes have to wait their turn.
Other things to think about: the “dings” you hear throughout are generally passengers pressing the call buttons. You will often hear loud thumps, especially during takeoff. This, I would assume, is luggage settling in the hold. The flight attendants also fling around the large metal boxes containing food items, etc quite roughly, and each has to be locked into place during takeoff/landing.
During landing, you’ll hear an electronic sound. This would be the flaps (the technical term) on the wings coming up to aid descent and then braking. You’ll also hear the landing gear come down.
8) Think about your destination, not your flight
One way I find particularly helpful to distract myself from impending doom, especially in the days leading up to the flight, is to think about the destination. I think about the people I’m going to see there, the things I’m going to do, the fun I’m going to have, and all the amazing memories I will form. Because I tend to worry days in advance of my travel, I’ve found that the best way to redirect that worry is to think about something positive: the trip itself, not the flight.
9) Enjoy your flight
So now you’re on the plane, you’ve got a decent view over your seat-mate’s lap out the window. Take a look at the clouds. There are some weird formations out there. Remember that scene from Aladdin? You know, with the magic carpet and the cloud that looked like cotton candy? Yeah, think about that. I also like to pretend I’m playing Sim City. I find it very interesting to see the unique way humans shape a landscape. Look for patterns in the landscapes, see if you can count sheep or cars or swimming pools. Imagine what the landscape must have looked like before people moved in.
10) Pay attention to other vehicles
This goes along with understanding how airplanes work. When you’re in a car or on a bus or a train, chances are you don’t get anxious. At least, not to the extent you do on planes. Why is that? Is it because we are more used to these methods of travel? Is it because we understand better how these vehicles work? I know there are a few significant differences, but vehicles –planes included – all have the same basic make-up. They need engines to power them, gas to power the engine, brakes to slow them down, some kind of steering system, seats with seatbelts for the passengers. If you think about it, planes aren’t so different from buses.
Next time you are on a bus, pay attention to the sounds and smells it makes: the squeak of the shocks as the tires hit a pothole, the smell of gas as it idles at a stoplight, the sounds of the engine shifting in and out of gears. Sometimes there’s a high-pitched whine coming from the engine, sometimes it’s a lower growl. What I’m getting at here is that not every bus is going to sound the same, just like not every plane sounds the same, and most noises and smells are totally normal, even if they’re something you’ve never experienced on another flight.
11) Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine
I know some people think alcohol will help calm them down on planes. I don’t think this is actually the case. Personally, alcohol tends to agitate me more on flights – it makes my stomach turn and heartburn kick in, and I just get doubly stressed. Caffeine is similar. Though it could be just me (I’m very sensitive to substances), caffeine gives me the jitters – especially when I’m already nervous. So trade in the coffee for a good night’s sleep and call it a day.
12) Be friendly
I know, you’re probably thinking, “All this is well and good, but what about people who might be looking to headline a newspaper by purposely bringing down the plane?” Stop. Just stop. You will never get anywhere by suspecting your fellow passengers. So maybe you saw somebody who looks agitated. Chances are he’s tired, grumpy, and nervous about flying, just like you. If someone from your flight saw your face right now, what would they think? Why not put a pleasant look on your face, smile at people, and maybe strike up a conversation while you’re waiting in the terminal? Happy people put others at ease. Maybe Mr. Grumpy over there who you thought looked sketchy will also lighten up.
13) Recognize your patterns
After a while, you’ll begin to recognize your reactions. Take a minute to stop and think, “Am I really in danger? Or is this fear a product of no sleep, too much caffeine, and nothing to do?” Chances are, it’s the latter. Once you get in the habit of asking this question, don’t give in to the urge to be afraid. Fight that sucker to the bitter end. To delve deeper into this particular hurdle, you might consider practicing meditation. Learning to concentrate every part of your being on something can be incredibly helpful in overcoming mental hurdles like irrational fears. I would highly, highly recommend those with chronic anxieties to try it.
14) Enjoy your life
Here’s the big question to ask yourself: what’s underlying your fear of death? Is there something you haven’t yet done or achieved in your life that you’re intent on? Are you pursuing it? If not, do it. There is no better time than now. One of the things I tell myself every time I feel anxious on a plane is that I am on this plane in pursuit of a personal goal – be it work, vacation, visiting loved ones, etc. By getting on this plane, I am taking a step towards something I really want to achieve. By staying at home, I’m not even giving myself the chance.