Taming Fears: Tips for Anxious Flyers
1. Plan ahead: Don’t put off thinking about a flight if flying makes you anxious. Allow yourself to think and talk about the flight and to notice your anxiety, then choose a relaxation strategy that manages the anxiety, rather than avoiding it. Practice coping skills like deep breathing or listen to a guided meditation – the more you practice this on a day-to-day basis, the more effective it is at times when you need it. If you have a child that is anxious about flying, talk about the trip ahead of time and ask how they’re feeling, and decide on which of the following coping skills might be helpful before and during the flight.
2. Visualize positive experiences: This is a great practice to try out in advance of any anxiety-producing experience. Our fears can take hold of our thoughts and cause us to focus on worst-case scenarios and how they might play out; the evolutionary reason for this horror movie playing out in our minds is to get us to avoid potentially dangerous situations. When we envision positive outcomes, it reduces our anxiety and helps us prepare for things to go well. We create positive expectations, and our feelings and behaviors tend to follow suit, which can produce the positive experience that we envisioned. Imagine being at the airport, waiting to board, boarding the plane, taking off, etc. in detail and imagine feeling calm during the experience, while taking slow deep breaths. Visualize the flight and landing going smoothly, and imagine feeling calm and relieved once you arrive at your destination. If the visualization heightens your anxiety, follow up with a guided meditation that returns you to feeling calm.
3. Distract: Distractions can be really helpful at the airport and on the plane. This keeps anxiety low by keeping thoughts focused on something other than fears. Be sure to bring reading, music, tv shows/movies to watch, sudoku or a coloring book and pencils – whatever is your best distraction. Conversation can be a distraction too, and diverting the focus of conversation away from fears can be helpful with kids. If your child is anxious at the airport or on the flight, validate their feelings (“It’s normal to feel nervous about flying” or “You’re feeling nervous right now and that’s ok, we’re going to do what we planned on to help you get through it”), and then shift the conversation to something light and positive – what are they looking forward to on the trip? What is something fun they did in the past week? and so on.
4. Soothe: Coping skills that provide physical relaxation and soothing are useful to practice in advance to improve their effectiveness, and useful in-the-moment to reduce anxiety by stopping our body’s fight-or-flight response. I teach my clients to practice 4-7-8 breathing; breathe in deeply through your nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of7, and breathe out slowly through your mouth for a count of 8. Progressive muscle relaxation and stretching can also help to relax our muscles, which automatically tense up when we are anxious.
So as you prepare for your next trip, practice these strategies ahead of time to tame those flying fears!