Being afraid to fly sucks.
You miss out on so many great opportunities—both personal and professional—when you’re afraid to get on an airplane.
I know this because I was once one of the estimated 50 million Americans that suffer from some form of aviophobia, the fear of flight.
My fear was so bad that I refused to even get on an airplane for over a year. I took trains, buses, and even boats to get from one place to another, while my friends and co-workers jetted around with ease.
Oh, and did I mention that I was living and working in Europe then? So not only did this cost me money and time, but it also prevented me from doing and seeing a bunch of interesting things.
I turned down paid trips to Morocco, Greece, and Dubai within a three-month span because I was too afraid to board a plane. Not good!
At that point, I decided that I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to let my fears control my life anymore.
So I started meeting with a therapist who specialized in the fear of flying. The ideas she gave me weren’t always easy, but they worked. Within a few weeks, I’d begun flying again.
Since then, I’ve flown thousands of miles, to destinations all over the world, all the while further refining my anti-fear techniques and strategies. I’ve even tried other forms of air transport, such as hot air balloons and helicopters—something I once would have deemed unthinkable.
Overcoming my fear of flying has been the most influential thing I’ve done in my life. It’s taught me to embrace uncertainty, to combat my fears, and to take proactive measures to achieve what I want in life.
And as a result, I’ve been able to visit exotic locales, meet incredible people, and learn a ton about myself and the world.
These days, I’m often asked by reluctant travelers for advice on how to make flying less stressful. Imagine their surprise when I tell them my backstory!
Seeing my tips and tricks help others to travel more comfortably and confidently has inspired me to share them with you. By following the 9-step process I’ve outlined below, I’m confident that you can overcome your fear of flying—and change your life in the process.
Step 1: Identify Your Enemy
The first step to overcoming your fear of flight is to identify what exactly you are afraid of. After all, if you can’t pinpoint your enemy, how will you defeat them?
What I’ve been calling a fear of flight is actually an umbrella term that covers a lot of different worries. Some people are afraid to fly because they are claustrophobic. Some people are anxious about the lack of control they have over the plane. Some people are worried about crashing.
When you figure out what’s behind your fear, write it down. This is your target, and it will shape your work moving forward.
Step 2: Have the Right Mindset
Overcoming your fear of flying can be a long and difficult process filled with many ups and downs. To succeed, you have to have commitment and resiliency. But how do you get this?
The key is to find the right mindset. If you don’t have the right attitude, you’ve already failed.
This is what prevented me from tackling my fear of flying for so long. I didn’t act because I convinced myself I was being forced to try something that was too hard and too scary.
When I eventually did overcome my fear of flight, it was because I had radically transformed my outlook. I considered the whole process an exciting game that I’d decided to play because I enjoyed taking control of my life. Notice the difference?
To bring about this change, I started enthusiastically telling people about the choice I’d made to overcome my fear of flight. Not only did this reinforce the idea that it was my decision to make, it provided me with some much-needed encouragement, and got me to think about this challenge as something to look forward to rather than something to fear.
Soon, I began to approach the process like I were learning a new instrument, language, or sport—full of eagerness and energy. I actually looked forward to taking the next step.
Once you begin to view things in this way—almost as game—your motivation levels will skyrocket, and you will be much better prepared to handle any setbacks.
Step 3: Reduce Your Overall Anxiety Level
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who have a fear of flying tend to be more anxious in general. They often jump when the doorbell rings or worry that they will contract things like the brain-eating lake bacteria (yes, this is real).
Unfortunately, this constant state of high alert means that it’s more difficult for them to handle the extra influx of anxiety that occurs when they fly. Their system is simply worn out.
Think of this background anxiety like a nagging cold, and the stress you get from flying like the flu. As anyone who’s had the misfortune of getting both knows, the former dramatically reduces your body’s ability to fight the latter.
To help your mind and body to handle the anxiety of flying, you need to reduce your overall anxiety level.
Even if you’re not chronically anxious, any decrease in concern will help. The more relaxed and prepared your mind and body are when you step on that plane, the better.
One way you can decrease anxiety is to exercise more. Along with the immediate ‘high’ one gets from working out, research shows that working out 3 to 5 times per week remodels your brain, making it less susceptible to stress.
Another way to decrease your overall anxiety level is to regularly engage in mindfulness meditation. At it’s core, mindfulness is about being fully present and aware at any given moment. By practicing not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going around you, your brain learns to focus on the here-and-now rather than on what might happen in the future.
Maintaining a healthy diet also reduces anxiety levels. Regularly consuming fruits and vegetables provides your body with a steady stream of fiber and antioxidants, both of which have been shown to promote the production of calming chemicals within the brain. Evidence also supports reducing or eliminating the consumption of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine.
Some people’s anxiety problems are so severe that they may need the assistance of medication—herbal or man-made—while learning to implement these practices. If you think you or someone you know may benefit from medication, do not hesitate to contact a trained medical professional.
Of course, none of these techniques will entirely eliminate stress from your life—not that we would want that anyhow. Stress, as long as it is focused on the right thing, is a necessarily survival mechanism.
But too often our bodies react the same way to a bad day at work as they would to confronting a hungry lion on the African savanna. Start introducing these practices into your daily routine and you should see a major decrease in your overall stress levels.
Step 4: Develop Emergency Techniques for Combating Anxiety Attacks
You might be asking yourself right now ‘But what about when I have a sudden wave of anxiety? How do I handle that?’
This is a great question. Knowing how to combat sudden attacks of anxiety is often crucial to overcoming a fear of flying.
Many people are more afraid of their response to a panic attack than they are to the anxiety-causing thing itself. They fear they will lose control and do something embarrassing or potentially harmful to themselves or others.
Thankfully, reducing your overall anxiety levels through things like diet, exercise, and meditation greatly decreases the likelihood that you will experience an anxiety attack. But, in the off chance that you do have one, there are a number of proven techniques you can employ to calm yourself down.
Perhaps the easiest method to combat an anxiety attack is to focus on your breathing. Under normal circumstances, you take slow and deep breaths from your lower lungs. When we become anxious, we tend to take quick and shallow breaths from our upper lungs. The resulting decrease in oxygen leads to dizziness, nausea, and confusion—symptoms that inevitably make us even more anxious.
Fortunately, returning your breathing pattern and rate to normal often is all you need to do to relieve your anxiety. To do this, start by taking a long, slow breath in through your nose, filling your lower and then upper lungs. Hold this breath for three seconds, then exhales slowly through your mouth, being sure to relax all your muscles in the process. Repeat this until you feel better.
Another technique for fighting anxiety attacks—and perhaps my favorite—is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). As the name suggests, PMR is based on the systematic tensing and relaxing of muscles throughout your body—from your feet to your head—which leads to a decrease in tension and stress.
To begin, sit up straight and close your eyes. Take five slow, deep breaths and allow gravity to settle your body into the ground. Then, take another breath and hold while you curl your toes inward, being sure to avoid tensing up any of the surrounding muscles. It’s important to really feel the tension here. Hold this for 5 seconds, and then release, exhaling in the process. Notice how your toe muscles feel as they relax. Remain like this for about 15 seconds, and then move on to the next muscle group until you have gone through your entire body. At the end you should feel dramatically more relaxed.
If you prefer to take a more passive approach to dealing with an anxiety attack, then the AWARE card technique may be for you. Simply print off this THIS CARD, and whenever you begin to feel anxious, follow the written instructions:
-A: Accept the anxiety. Don’t fight the feelings.
-W: Watch the anxiety. Try to observe the feelings as though they are outside your body.
-A: Act normal. Carry on as though nothing unusual is happening.
-R: Repeat. Keep doing the above steps until you feel better.
-E: Expect results. The more you use this technique, the faster your anxiety will go away.
Certainly these are not the only techniques out there to combat anxiety attacks; rather these are the ones that worked best for me. I strongly encourage you to read as much as you can about anxiety and fear in general, so you too can find the best strategies for ourself.
Regardless of what techniques you end up using, to maximize their effectiveness during a flight or other stressful situations, you should first practice them in a calm and comfortable setting until you feel as though you’ve reached mastery.
Step 5: Learn How Flying Works
My head used to be filled with questions while flying. What if the airplane’s engines stop working? What if we have bad turbulence? What if we hit a bird?
As you might expect, my imagination always provided a worst-case answer: the plane was going to crash.
These thoughts were not based on facts, but rather emotions. I knew very little about how flight worked and even less about what caused a crash.
So I read as much as I could about the mechanics of airplanes and the physics of flight. I learned how engineers had anticipated nearly every possible error that could happen on a plane and had designed essentially fail-safe solutions.
For example, did you know that Airbus planes have a wind turbine to generate electricity if both the engines and the batteries fail, or that a 747 can glide for over 130 miles without power?*
*No, intact airplanes don’t simply fall from the sky.
I even met a few people who worked in the airline industry, and learned what they themselves do on each flight to ensure that everyone arrives at their destination safely.
While learning about how flying works won’t eliminate troubling thoughts from entering your mind, it does allow you to combat them with positive, fact-based responses.
Step 6: Gradually Expose Yourself to Flying
By this point you’ve developed some powerful tools to assist you in dealing with your fear of flight. But instead of trying to overcome your aviophobia all at once, it is best to gradually expose yourself to the process of flying.
Think of it like training for your first marathon. Even the most physically fit athletes slowly work their way up—adding a mile every few days—in order to acclimate their minds and bodies to the increased workload.
For many people, the anxiety around flying begins on the way to the airport, so a great first step is to simply go to the airport, even if just for a few minutes. You can walk around the check-in terminal, grab a non-alcoholic drink at the airport bar (it’s best not to introduce alcohol, as it can artificially calm your nerves), or to watch planes take off and land from the observation deck.
Keep track of how long you’re at the airport, and add a few minutes each time. When you feel uncomfortable, use the techniques you’ve learned to reduce your anxiety.
After a few trips, this will probably seem absurdly easy and tedious, but that’s the point. You want the entire process to feel as routine—perhaps even boring—as possible.
Step 7: Practice Visualizing Air Travel
Unfortunately, you cannot gradually expose yourself to an actual flight. Once you get on a plane, you’re committed to the whole trip.
Thankfully, we can use visualization to get around this. The idea is to find a safe, comfortable space where you can mentally go through the entire process of flying—from going through security to arrival at your final destination.
As you work through each step, pay attention to how your mind and body react. Whenever you start to feel anxious, use the tools you’ve developed thus far to calm yourself down.
For instance, if you find your mind wandering to questions like ‘What happens if the airplane loses power?’ remember that you learned that airplanes have multiple backup generators.
Over time, these visualizations will become easier and less stressful. Eventually, they will be as tedious as the aforementioned trips to the airport lobby—and when this happens, you’ll be ready to move on to the next step!
Step 8: Start Flying
To me, this is the part where things really get exciting. You’ve put in the many hours of training and practice necessary to prepare your body and mind to fly. Now you get to use your new skills to overcome your fears and retake control of your life.
I strongly recommend making this first flight as low-anxiety as possible. That is to say, I would suggest avoiding scenarios that you find extra uncomfortable, such as flights that take place at night or travel over water.
Also, if there’s a specific part of flying that bothers you the most—like takeoff or landing—focus most of your energy on getting through it. Read as much as you can about normally happens then—including the sights, smells, sounds, and sensations—and pay attention to these things during the flight.
By doing this, you’re eliminating much of the mystery around flying. What you once considered a scary noise during takeoff is now a comforting sign that everything is working as it should.
Want to know why flight attendants always seem so calm, even when the plane is making some strange noise? Because they’ve heard that same noise before and they know it’s normal!
Step 9: Keep Flying
Congratulations! You’ve successfully survived your first flight. You’ve confronted your fears and triumphed.
But to keep your fear of air travel at bay, you need to regular practice the skills you’ve learned— which is to say you need to keep flying.
I recommend flying at least 3 times a year, but obviously the more you fly, the better. And if you’ve yet to take a long flight, do so.
With enough practice, flying can become as routine to you as driving your car to the grocery store (it’s certainly safer). Again, the key is to continue practicing!
As you’ve seen, overcoming you fear of flying isn’t an impossible task. Rather, anyone with enough willpower and time can learn to fly with minimal fear and discomfort. And in turn, a world of adventure opens up to you.
But the benefits of this process go well beyond just making travel easier. Overcoming your fear of flying reminds you of an invaluable truth: that you actually can improve your life.
Some of you will already have known this. You’ve regularly used hard work and determination to handle challenges and grow personally. Overcoming your fear of flying will be just another instance of proving this rule.
But for others, this will be a revelation. It will seem like the first time in a long time—if ever—that life improvement was an attainable goal.
The knowledge that you have control over your future is incredibly empowering. For me personally, it inspired me to take on other challenges: to become fluent in another language; to begin playing guitar in front of audiences; to start a business.
Yes, there were setbacks along the way. But the confidence and resiliency I gained from overcoming my fear of flying allowed me to handle them.
And it can do the same for you. You just have to decide that you’re no longer going to let fear prevent you from fully-experiencing life.
As Nelson Mandela once said, “courage [is] not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
I hope you make today the day you begin that conquest.