A psychologist shares the six tools she used to manage her fear of flying

“Ships are safe in the harbor, but that’s not what they’re made for” I repeat to myself in my mind. I’m about to board an airplane for the first time in almost 20 years. My heart is pounding, my stomach is a wreck, I’m sweating, my face is flushed. Almost every part of me rages against my decision to finally fly again. But I’m prepared; I put in a lot of work leading up to this moment. I take a deep breath, swear a few times, and walk down the ramp to board the plane.

As a psychologist and a person with an anxiety disorder, I have spent the past several years of my life learning about anxiety through education and experience. Recently, I had an opportunity to face a fear that has held me back for years and I’d like to share some of the strategies that helped me face it. While some of my examples are specific to flying, many of these strategies can be applied to whatever fear it is you choose to face.

  1. Identify your “why.” Anxiety is an uncomfortable experience. In general, humans prefer to avoid discomfort. Identifying the reasons that we’re willing to put up with discomfort can help make a situation more bearable hep anchor us during stressful experiences. I was able to identify several reasons why I wanted to fly but chose my top two to focus on for the sake of simplicity.
  2. Find a mantra that links up with your “why.” Choose a simple phrase that’s easy to remember can be helpful to focus the mind, settle the body and offer an alternative thought to turn to if anxious thoughts start to take over. I chose “ships are safe in the harbor but that’s not what they’re made for” because it reminded me of my “why.”
  3. Use your support system. Several weeks before my flight, I sat down with a close friend who helped me talk through my specific fears. It helped to be able to say out loud exactly what I was afraid of. It also was helpful that she had a lot of travel experience and could answer questions I had and tell me some of what to expect. I shared with other friends about my fears and benefited from their support and encouragement throughout the process. Facing our fears feels more manageable when we don’t feel alone and know that whatever the outcome, we have people who are on our side.
  4. Engage in Exposure Therapy. One of the most effective treatments for anxiety is gradually facing your fears, as terrible as that might sound. The basic premise is to start with something that frightens you, but not so much that you can’t face it and build up intensity gradually. You can think of it as strength training your brain- you don’t want to lift too heavy out of the gate, or you risk injury. Lifting too light doesn’t produce gains. Find a spot in the middle that feels challenging but not overwhelming. Since I didn’t have access to a plane or simulated flight experience, I used YouTube videos. I identified what aspects of flying caused me the most distress and searched for videos that included those aspects. I started small; initially videos of airports and people boarding planes. I monitored my anxiety during the process. It tended to start high (6-7 on a scale of 10) and then drop as I continued to watch the video. Once that happened consistently, I knew I was ready for the next level. I learned that there are YouTube videos of entire flights! Every evening I put on a video of a flight that I played as I did other activities so I could desensitize myself to the noises of the flight (a specific trigger for me). Generally, I would make sure to focus on the take off and landing portions of the flight because those things scared me the most. I also watched informational videos on turbulence and mechanics of airplanes to help challenge some of the false beliefs I had about dangers of flying.
  5. Practice relaxation and grounding strategies. When we experience anxiety, our body’s alarm system gets activated, preparing us to respond to the perceived threat. When we face a fear, that alarm system gets triggered. Grounding strategies help send a message back to our brain that everything is “ok” and it’s time to turn the alarm system off. Strategies like putting your feet firmly on the ground, breathing deeply and distracting by playing “I spy” with yourself can be useful. For instance, find 5 things you can see, 4 you can hear, 3 you can touch, 2 you can smell, 1 you can taste. Other options might include holding a small stone in your hand that you can squeeze- take time to notice it’s texture, temperature, and shape. For my return flight, I chose a small shell from the beach that I held in my hand.
  6. Use distraction as a strategy. When our brain misperceives a situation as dangerous, it can lead to hyperfocus on what we’re afraid of. By intentionally not focusing on it, we send a message to our brain that the threat is not real. When I was on the plane, I found that my anxiety remained heightened. I felt too activated to read, so chatting with the person next to me was a great option. I also tried to find something I enjoyed about the experience; the clouds outside my window were cool to look at and helped my mind settle.

When my plane finally landed in Cincinnati, the relief and pride I felt was incredible. While my fear never completely disappeared, with each flight I noticed a growing tolerance for my discomfort and increased trust in my ability to get through it. Sometimes we think about facing a fear from a black and white stance of “I’m either afraid or I’m not” when the reality is more nuanced.

Many people with anxiety disorders hang out in the gray space of “I’m afraid and I’m doing it anyway.” My hope is that some of these strategies help make your time in the gray space feel more comfortable.

Dr. Apseloff is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders, relationship conflict, chronic stress, grief and loss, body image and self-esteem issues, and depressive disorders in both adolescent and adults.

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