1. Latch on to triggers that set you off.
Figure out what frightens you and examine how your anxiety reaction is triggered. Your goal is to identify your particular triggers, so you can manage your fear when anxiety levels are low. Learning what sets you off makes it easier to turn it off.
2. Step onto the airplane with knowledge.
Anxiety thrives on ignorance, and feeds off “what if?” catastrophic thoughts. But once you become knowledgeable, your “what if?” thoughts are limited by the facts. Become familiar with the facts. They will not eliminate your anxiety, but they will help you manage it.
3. Anticipate your anxiety.
Anticipatory anxiety is what we experience in anticipation of a fear. It is often the most intense anxiety you will experience during your flight, but it is not an accurate predictor of how you will feel on the flight. It is frequently far greater than what you actually experience.
4. Separate fear from danger.
It is often difficult to separate anxiety from danger because your body reacts in exactly the same way to both. Be sure to label your fear as anxiety. Tell yourself that anxiety makes your frightening thoughts feel more likely to occur, and remind yourself that feeling anxious doesn’t mean you are in danger. You are safe even when feeling intense anxiety.
5. Recognize that common sense makes no sense.
- Part A: Anxiety tricks common sense.
Anxiety will trick you into thinking you are in danger when you are perfectly safe. Your gut feelings in these instances will always tell you to avoid, but if you follow these feelings, you will always be reinforcing your anxiety.
- Part B: You can outsmart anxiety.
As a rule, do the opposite of what anxious feelings are telling you to do. Fight what the anxiety is telling you to do, but embrace the discomfort that anxiety brings.
6. Smooth over things that go bump in the flight.
To manage anxiety when turbulence hits, learn about airplanes and how they are designed to handle turbulence. Focus on managing your anxiety, rather than when the turbulence will end or how severe it might get. Remind yourself that you are safe.
7. Educate fellow fliers how to help you.
Other fliers need to know what frightens you, along with what helps you most to cope with anxiety during a flight. Your task is to be clear about your triggers and ask specifically for what you find most useful.
8. Value each flight.
Exposure is the active ingredient in overcoming your phobia. Every flight provides you with the opportunity to make the next one easier. Your goal is to retrain your brain to become less sensitized to the triggers that set you off.
Martin Seif, PhD, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist. He is the Associate Director, Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center, White Plains Hospital Medical Center; Board Certified in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (American Board of Professional Psychology); on the faculty of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and a former fearful flier who runs Freedom to Fly workshops.