8 mistakes made by nervous fliers

Fear of Flying School

If flying freaks you out, it’s almost certain you’re making one or more classic mistakes.

Do you recognise any of these?

1. Being an anxious person

If flying makes you nervous, there’s a good chance your ‘background’ anxiety levels are too high. In other words, you’re more uptight or highly-strung in your day-to-day life than you should be.

Why does this matter?

Because if you’re always feeling a bit anxious, it doesn’t take much extra stress to tip you over into feeling really anxious about something. Including flying.

In contrast, more relaxed people have less negative responses when exposed to stressful situations.

How do you reduce background anxiety?

By doing relaxation exercises.

Now, you’re probably thinking these sound like a time suck.

But take it from me, spending a few minutes a day relaxing will deliver a great return on your investment. Why?

Because, as you’ll discover, even a smallish reduction in your background anxiety will make flying much less scary.

And it’ll improve your quality of life.

2. Being a shallow breather

When you start feeling nervous, your breathing typically gets shallower. By ‘shallower’, I mean breaths that are shorter, quicker and faster.

These only make it as far as your chest, rather than down into your belly where they should be.

Why is that a problem?

Because it upsets the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. In turn, that imbalance gives rise to a host of unpleasant symptoms that can make you feel more jittery.

For example, you can feel dizzy, ‘unreal’ and as though you’re existing outside of your body. It can also cause your body to tingle.

Interestingly, many people who suffer anxiety disorders take shallow breaths 24/7. Yet they don’t realise it.

The result?

They only have to crank up the shallow breathing a bit and they start feeling panicky.

Luckily, if you’re a shallow breather, you can easily become a deep breather. The trick is to practice simple breathing techniques.

3. Fearing panic attacks

Do you fear having a panic attack? If so, you’re not alone. It turns out that for many nervous fliers, this is their biggest worry.

Unfortunately, the more you fear a panic attack, the more likely you are to have one. So what’s the solution?

Weirdly, the answer lies in you getting comfortable with the symptoms of panic attack. Why?

Because although panic attacks don’t feel great, they’re not actually dangerous. Nor do they mean something dreadful is about to happen.

With this in mind, settling into a safe place and then deliberately making yourself panic is a great idea. How so?

Because if you regularly experience controlled panic attacks, you’ll soon get used to the symptoms. And while they may not feel great, you’ll know via direct experience that they don’t represent a threat.

At that point, their ability to freak you out will be diminished. And once they seem less scary, your chances of having one on a plane will shrink.

4. Being ignorant about how planes work

Another big worry many people have is that something will go wrong with their plane. Sound familiar?

If so, it’s a safe bet that your worry is an unreasonable one.

After all, every element of flying is planned and executed in obsessive detail. And if a problem does occur, you can be sure there’s a contingency.

So if you’re worried about a particular thing going wrong, you need to find out how that thing actually works. And what happens when a problem does arise.

The more detail you have, the better.

After all, information is power. Especially when it comes to challenging irrational negative thoughts as they (inevitably) creep into your head.

5. Allowing negative thoughts to go unchallenged

As you chip away at your fear of flying, it’s inevitable that the negative thoughts that have plagued you in the past will keep popping into your head.

Annoyingly, there is no technique that will block them.

Which means they’ll keep scaring you witless – unless you find a way of taking away their power. But how?

By challenging them with facts.

In other words, you can neutralize your irrational negative thoughts by judging them against the information you’ve gathered about the object of your fear.

For example, let’s say you’re worried about turbulence. To overcome this fear, you must build a solid understanding of what turbulence is. And how planes and pilots cope with it.

That way, the next time you start worrying, you simply need to recall the facts. And instantly, you’ll feel calmer.

6. Avoidance

I became so nervous of flying that I avoided flying altogether for several years. But it turns out that’s the worst thing you can do.

Why?

Because avoidance allows your phobia to fester.

After all, by avoiding the thing you fear, your mind is free to associate that thing with all sorts of terrifying stuff.

In contrast, if you force yourself to spend time with the thing you hate, you’ll see that it’s not as bad as you’d imagined.

Not nearly as bad.

When it comes to flying, the more exposure you get, the quicker your fear levels will drop (assuming you don’t make the other mistakes I’ve mentioned in this post).

That’s why you must get your butt in the sky as often as possible.

But what if you’re one of those people who only hate certain kinds of flying? Like flying at night. Or over the sea.

The advice remains the same: you’ve got to expose yourself to the thing you fear.

7. Calming yourself with booze or drugs

As you know, getting smashed is a popular way to address a fear of flying. Sadly, it’s also ineffectual.

Yes, it can knock you out initially. But as the effect wears off, you can feel more jittery than you otherwise would.

And it can be hugely inconvenient – especially when travelling with friends, family or colleagues. Or when you have to go straight into a meeting when you land.

More seriously, it’s just another form of avoidance that allows your phobia to grow.

8. Believing media hype

Do you find yourself taking special note of media reports about plane incidents? And then becoming even more nervous about flying?

Well, as a former journalist, I advise you to take these reports with a huge grain of salt. Why?

Because they tend to exaggerate the dangers of flying.

They do this in many ways. A common one is to overstate the seriousness of a given incident. For example, a ‘near miss’ or an aborted take-off.

Why do they do this?

Because audiences are attracted to dramatic stories about flying, not mundane ones.

And bigger audiences are what every media organisation craves. After all, for a commercial media business, the larger the audience, the more advertising revenue it will generate.

Even not-for-profit media organisations need to maximise their audiences in order to justify their funding.

Meanwhile, car crashes (which kill vastly more people than flying) are regarded by most people as relatively dull. That’s why they get little news coverage.

What’s your best defence against media hype?

Discover the facts about flying. Then use them to question what you see, hear and read.

Your experiences

Has your fear been fuelled by any of these? It’d be great to hear your experiences – so share something in the comments.

Leave a comment

8 comments

  1. Chancellor Flint

    ive always lived with GAD and well it hasn’t been easy but ive never been afraid of planes until recently… on the last plane right i was on the plane shook so violently that me, my little sister, and my mother thought we would die and now for the up and coming trip im scared more than ive ever been

  2. Sarah Dixon

    I get myself into such a panic about the plane crashing, terrorist attacks, turbulence, birds hitting the engines and making them fail, and 101 other scenarios that could happen whilst I’m in the air.

    I’m an intelligent person and I know the statistics of crashing are very low compared to driving and other means of transport; I think my biggest problem with flying is: I have no control unlike a car, and the chances of survival are low if anything should happen. I also don’t like heights.

    I’ve tried alcohol, calming pills, and eventually avoided flying for 7 years.
    I recently not the bullet and flew for the first time this year; however for the 9 months from booking the holiday to flying- I suffered a number of stress related health problems including the rather bizarre losing all sensation in my feet. The feeling came back after my holiday and after I survived the plane home.

    Now my partner wants to go abroad next year and I’m getting anxious even about the thought of it. Anxiety is the worst. We literally had the best holiday ever: it’s just the flying.

    For the whole flight I kept repeating in my head ‘2 hours- just survive 2 more hours: 1 hour and 50 minutes- just 1 hour and 50 minutes’….and so forth the whole flight. I nearly drove myself mad. My heart was thumping the entire time and this was whilst on calming pulls too.

    I’m considering hypnotherapy!

    1. Tim Benjamin

      Hey Sarah – thanks for sharing your story. You might find some useful help here and here.

  3. Anonymous

    I have a fear of flying because I am scared the plane will crash and we will die. I have only ever flown with easy jet but on the holiday I am about to go on I have to take rynair so I am scared something will happen. And the week before we go away I always have dreams of planes crashing and exploding

  4. Amanda

    I am in the nervous shallow breather category. I have flown twice, and on the last return flight (Murcia to East Midlands 10 hyr ago) I went into serious meltdown during the taxi to the runway. Full on panic attack, tears, wanted to get off the plane. Another passenger helped me control my breathing by getting me to breathe into a paper (sick) bag. It worked! In all my panic and subsequent breathing we had taken off and was airborne. I will remember to breathe slowly and deeply when I fly again next year.

    1. Tim Benjamin

      You’re right Amanda – breathing slowely is vital 🙂

  5. Cathy

    My biggest fear is not around the plane crashing, but my inability to get off if/when I want or feel the need to. I have NO control. I am OK driving – but a train or plane….ugh!

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