Sudden fear of flying: In this post I share 10 methods that helped me to cope with flight anxiety after experiencing bad turbulences on a short-haul flight over the Alps.
Sudden fear of flying
I used to love flying – until I experienced very bad turbulences during a short-haul flight over the Alps. What was supposed to be an easy and relaxed way to return home from a holiday, turned into a real nightmare. Heavy thunderstorms shook our plane back and forth, and from my window seat I had to watch the wings moving up and down in an alarming angle.
Apart from occasional loud bumps coming from the overhead compartment, it was completely silent inside the cabin. Everybody was tense, and at a certain point I was convinced, that I wouldn’t leave that plane alive.
When we finally landed at Stuttgart Airport, my hands were shaking and I was a complete wreck. As soon as my husband greeted me outside of the baggage claim, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop sobbing until we reached our car.
For the next two years, flying was hell. I suffered from severe flight anxiety – and the prospective of having to board a plane had the potential to ruin my holidays.
These 10 methods helped me to cope with my fear of flying:
#1 Choosing a seat with extra space close to an exit door
Fear of flying put my body on high alert. As soon as the aircraft doors closed, my heart started racing and I had to fight hard not to panic. Being jammed into a seat with next to zero legroom, additionally added a note of claustrophobia, and thus doubled my anxiety.
Booking a seat with extra legroom close to an exit door proved to be very helpful for two reasons:
With sufficient free space around me, the sensation of being trapped eased a bit. Plus, sitting next to an emergency exit implicated that I would get out of the plane in time if something happened during take-off or landing.
If you’re afraid of flying, I recommend the following seats:
1. Full-flat business class seats
International business class seats that transform into a full-flat bed are definitely the best seats for anybody who suffers from flight anxiety. Being able to stretch out and bury your head in the pillow may be very helpful if panic threatens to overwhelm you.
2. First row seats
On flights without an international business class configuration, I prefer sitting in the first row, instead of in the back of the plane.
There’s usually more space than on the other seats, and, by not seeing all the people who are jammed in behind me, the plane stops feeling so claustrophobic.
Additionally, first row seats are close to the main entrance door that is going to be opened by a trained crew member in case of an emergency.
3. Exit-row seats with aisle access
If business class is not available, or too expensive, and first row seats are blocked, places in the exit-row are also a good choice. These seats might not offer as much legroom as number 1 and 2, but they are still more spacious than regular airplane seats.
#2 Sitting as far away from the engines as possible
The engines are undoubtedly one of the most important parts in a plane. For me, they are also really scary. Engines are loud as hell, and if they don’t function correctly, there is a possibility that they might catch fire. Just the thought of seeing an engine blow up outside the window while sitting in that plane makes my blood run cold. Under no circumstances could I stay seated next to a burning engine.
I’d probably freak out and end up as an unruly passenger. That’s why, under no circumstance, do I choose a window seat next to one of the engines.
#3 Researching aircraft types before booking a flight
I also realized that I’m more comfortable travelling in larger planes. This might be due to the fact that sitting in a huge aircraft with several different seating compartments feel less like flying at all. The illusion of having a larger buffer around me in case of an incident is reassuring as well. Of course this is quite illogical – but so is the whole fear of flying thing, isn’t it?
Although I consider myself cured from fear of flying, I still choose larger aircraft types if possible. Of course this depends a bit on the destination. Sometimes there’s no choice at all. Other times, there might be a choice between an Airbus A319, or a Boeing 737 – and a Dash 400. Knowing that a Dash 400 is a relatively small propeller plane, I alwas go for Airbus or Boeing aircrafts. In order to prevent any negative surprises, it’s definitely good to know what kind of planes hide behind the different labels.
#4 Counting the seconds after take-off
Take-off is probably the worst situation for anyone who is afraid of flying. The moment the pilot puts the plane into full throttle marks the point of no return. Until then it would still be theoretically possible to get out of the plane. But the moment it starts accelerating on the runway, all you can do is pray that the aircraft is well maintained and the captain knows his job.
After researching different scenarios that could happen, I made a habit of counting up to 60 from the moment we were airborne. If nothing happened until then, I considered myself safe for the moment.
After 60 seconds, the plane will probably have reached an altitude of 1,500 – 2,000 feet, which should be high enough to perform an emergency landing, even if a malfunction occurred. Furthermore, the higher the plane climbs, bird strikes become less likely.
Counting the numbers also had another possible side effect: Your brain concentrates on figures instead of picturing worst-case scenarios.
#5 Think statistics
Statistics are a great thing when it comes to flying – because flying actually is very, very safe. Even if there are frightening situations up in the air, that doesn’t usually imply that there’s an actual threat to your life. It might be terrifying to you in that moment, such as my nightmare experience over the Alps. But it most probably isn’t anything a trained pilot couldn’t handle.
Thinking of statistics usually helped me to ease my discomfort. Thousands of flights arrive safely at their destination every single day. Thanks to international standards, all airlines have to fulfil minimum requirements regarding aircraft maintenance and training of their crews. Every plane crash is investigated thoroughly in order to prevent similar events in the future. And there are a lot more reassuring facts about flying if you look into it more closely. By the way, did you know that commercial airliners are obliged to choose pre-defined flight routes in order to perform an emergency landing within a given timeframe?
All facts considered, flying is much safer than road traffic on any day.
#6 Playing smartphone games
The next point is quite obvious:
In order not to worry during the whole flight, you need a diversion! For that reason, I always take my tablet with me and make sure, that the battery is full.
Easy but captivating games, such as Matchington Mansion, or Witchy World are my favourites. You don’t have to concentrate too hard and the time flies by in a hurry. On longer flights, escape games are a great alternative, too.
#7 Imagine to sit in a train instead of a plane
Being several thousand kilometres up in the air, with just a metal frame separating you from certain death sounds very frightening, doesn’t it? Therefore, I often pretend I wasn’t actually sitting in a plane, but in a train instead. Trains produce similar sounds and have similar seats. The only difference is that, taking a train isn’t half as frightening as stepping onto a plane.
This works especially fine when it’s dark outside.
#8 Watching the cabin crew
Cabin crews laugh, talk, gossip, or look bored in between services. If stepping on a plane was as dangerous as it feels when you’re afraid of flying, they wouldn’t act that way. Therefore, watching the cabin crew sometimes helps calming your nerves.
#9 Breathing techniques
If turbulences occur during a flight and panic starts to rise, my standard reaction is to breathe in and out nervously. By doing so, my heart rate accelerates, increasing my anxiety even more.
Obviously that’s not what I need in such a situation. In order to slow down my pulse, it helps to consciously regulate my breathing. As soon as anxiety kicks in, I concentrate on breathing out very slowly. It’s a natural body function that, during the phase of breathing out air, your heart rate slows down – and so does the feeling of panic.
#10 Flying as often as possible
Finally, the most effective way to overcome my fear of flying was confronting it.
The first flights after that horrible experience over the Alps were really bad. At some point I even considered not flying at all but choosing closer holiday destinations that I could reach by car or by train.
I still brought myself to continue flying – and it was so worth it.
After two years of dreading every holiday that included boarding a plane, something amazing happened: My flight anxiety simply vanished. Just like that.
I didn’t even realize it at first.
It happened during a weekend trip to Barcelona. My husband and I were sitting in the front row of a Germanwings flight, when the pilot pushed the aircraft into full throttle for take-off. Suddenly, my husband started squeezing my hand really hard. I pulled away and snapped at him:
“Ouch – what are you doing?”
He looked perplexed.
“I thought you needed my support.”
And that’s when it dawned on me: I wasn’t afraid anymore. Not a single bit.
While our plane climbed up into the air, I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt so amazing not being scared of flying anymore. And I was incredibly proud of myself, that I confronted my fear and managed to overcome it.