How I Got Over My Fear Of Flying

This is a little bit outside of what I usually write about, but it’s a question I get asked a lot and so I thought I’d share some of my experience with you on how I got over my fear of flying.

I’m completely over my fear of flying. I mean, I don’t even get a tiny pang of worry in my stomach now. So, I hope this helps you, too. All of the pictures you see throughout are awesome things I’ve been able to see with my own eyes because I didn’t let my fear of flying win.

My fear of flying

I wasn’t just scared of flying in that quiet, pensive way that many people are. I didn’t just get a little spurt of butterflies as we gained speed on the runway. This kind of fear would have been manageable.

Instead, my fear started as soon as I booked my holiday and would torment me everyday. It never stopped me from going anywhere because I was, at least, sensible enough to know how stupid that would be for somebody who loves to travel. My fear built and built as the holiday approached and left me exhausted; I didn’t sleep, I contemplated not going at every given opportunity and I couldn’t enjoy the build up to the holiday at all.

On the day of flying and at the airport I would be sick and have panic attacks before I got onto the plane. I would have a panic attack when we took off and every time there was the tiniest movement. I found myself sitting with the air stewards on more than one occasion as they tried to calm me down. By the time I got to wherever I was going I felt exhaustion followed almost instantly by fear; in a week or two, I was going to have to do it again.

Things had to change

After my flight back from Iceland in 2012, I was at my limit. Going to Iceland was the closest I’ve ever been to not getting on a flight and I felt mentally exhausted. As I was coming in to land at Gatwick something just hit me – ‘This is ridiculous.’ I thought. I’m not an irrational person. Ultimately, my fear of flying had come from generations of nervous flyers – but I’d somehow taken all of their manageable fear on my own shoulders and created this one, big bubble of unacceptable worry.

If you’ve never been worried about flying, these thoughts will seem quite alien to you, but this was a very serious and life-halting issue for me – as it is for many fearful flyers.

Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy was my first step. I had done a lot of research into the ways people had previously overcome their fear and this seemed one of the more popular options. Contrary to popular belief, hypnotherapy doesn’t block out your fear and after a session you’re not just cured.

Hypnotherapy is more about learning relaxation techniques that help build a mental block against any problematic thoughts that come into your mind. My session uncovered what I feared the most about flying. For me, it was the lack of control and that I didn’t like the illusion of falling, that sometimes happened during turbulence. You know, when your stomach turns over? Yeah, that feeling.

It teaches you a new pattern of behaviour. From the moment you step onto the plane to the moment you step off, each thought is carefully considered so that you don’t let your brain’s fear kick in. My Mum, who is a counsellor, actually created a fear of flying relaxation session based on my fears, click here for more information.

Knowing The Plane

Hypnotherapy worked to a certain extent. It got me past my fear of flying leading up to the flight, but it didn’t conquer the anxiety I felt when I was flying. It was a start, but it wasn’t the end of this journey.

The main triggers that pushed my brain into an anxious state were the sounds I heard on-board. Any sound that my brain deemed as unusual would spike my adrenalin level and within seconds my brain would be telling me that we were falling to our death. Noticing  this, I started to research some of the sounds to put my mind at ease. Here’s some noises I now understand to be normal parts of air travel. I hope these help to put things in perspective for you, too.

When you first get on the plane

It’s likely you’ll hear a slight hum in the background, this is just the air-con and electricity. You might even get on the plane before they’ve turned these on, in which case, the sound of these whirring up might cause you to jump, but this is perfectly normal.

Starting to move

This sound is quite loud and mixed with the air-con sound decreasing, it can have quite a sudden impact on a nervous flyer. This happens when the plane switches from its airport set-up to its aircraft set-up. It’s just the engine turning on and is comparative to when we get that ‘brrrr’ sound when we turn the car on.

As you taxi towards the runway, you may also feel and hear bumps as the wheels go over them. This may seem self-explanatory, but if you barely fly, this may cause you a bit of confusion.

A high-pitched bark

This was always the one that caused me the most stress before take off. It’s a high-pitched bark sound. It doesn’t happen on every flight I’ve been on, so I think that’s why it scared me the first time I heard it.

This is mostly used on Airbus planes and is just a fuel saving device called the Power Transfer Unit. This ensures that the hydraulic pressure is balanced when they’re only using one engine. It’s common for them to only use one engine whilst on the ground and this just balances it out.

During take off

Just as you come off the ground, you’ll hear a loud spinning noise. This is the wheels spinning after going quickly down the runway and then stopping. It’s just the same as if you picked your bike up and started spinning the wheels – they wouldn’t just immediately stop when you stop putting pressure on them. Once they’ve stopped, you’ll hear a clunk which is just the wheels popping back into their holding place. You’ll also hear the little electric doors closing them in.

Creaks whilst in the air

This is another one that used to cause me a level of discomfort. When you’re in a house all on your own, you hear the floorboards creek, the tap drip etc. Hearing these noises does not mean the house is falling down, they’re just noises. A flight is exactly the same. Your luggage in the hold above your head isn’t vacuum packed. A coat might slide off a bag, a bag might shift, someone might drop a bottle of water. Just as in life, you can’t expect to sit in complete silence.

Changes in the sound of the engine

During takeoff, the plane is louder than when you’re at cruising altitude. This is because it’s using more power to get up in the air than it needs when it’s just chilling out at 36,000 feet. You’ll hear the engines gradually slow down and it’ll feel quieter in the cabin. This is nothing to worry about, it just means the plane is relaxing.

Descent

It’s coming to an end, hooray! When I was scared of flying, I never cared about landing because I knew that my ordeal was coming to an end. Nowadays, I’ve listened to these sounds so that I can research them for the purpose of this blog post.

You’ll almost certainly hear a windy sound during your descent. It sounds like wind is rushing past the plane and it is comparable to the rushing sound the windows make at home on a really windy day. This is just the plane slowing down. If you’ve got a window seat, you’ll notice the little flaps on the wings come up during the ‘windy’ section of the descent – this is simply to slow the plane down ready for landing.

The landing gear is another stress for nervous flyers. It’s pretty much a bang. It’s just the door re-opening and the wheels coming back out after their rest! This will be shortly followed by a grinding noise as the pilot presses on and then releases the brakes. This will probably keep happening on and off as you come in to land. You may even find that you gently jolt forward as the pilot does this. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just another method the pilot uses to slow the plane down.

What is turbulence?

For me, turbulence was the hardest thing to get over. Last year, as I came into Edinburgh during a storm, I experienced the worst turbulence of my life. After that, I’ve never felt fearful of it. I did feel scared at the time, but ultimately, it taught me just how much a plane can withstand and how normal turbulence is.

Turbulence happens when a plane enters into a different stream of air. Usually, the air is flowing is straight lines, but sometimes it flows in wavy lines. It’s exactly the same principle as being in a speed boat and speeding over the waves. The higher the waves, the more the movement. Wavy air can occur when warm air rises into the cooler air, when a mountain alters the flow or when a pilot decides to move into a different jet stream to take advantage of some tail wind.

Only 58 out of 8 million people were injured during turbulence in the last year. I’m not talking serious injury, either, but more likely they hit their head or spilt their hot tea. Even the most irrational brain can realise that that’s not a lot of people. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s completely safe.

Most pilots avoid it

Most turbulence doesn’t come as a surprise to pilots. They chat to ground control, who chat to other pilots, so they have a pretty accurate picture of what’s coming up. If they can avoid it, they will, if they can’t, they’ll put on the seatbelt sign. The seatbelt sign is not a signal that we’re in for a crash landing, it’s more just to cover themselves if you fall over whilst chasing your toddler down the gangway.

Don’t stop flying

I hope the information so far has helped, but this is the most important part of this blog post. Giving in to your fear and letting it win is not the answer. As with any fear, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

If you just decide you’re too scared to ever fly, you’ll miss out on all of the amazing places this world has to offer and that’s something you’ll live to regret as you get older.

I truly believe the reason I got over my fear of flying was because I just kept doing it. Last year, I went on over 50 flights – a few years ago I would’ve struggled to get on one. Normalise the experience and you will get to see the most amazing places.

If I’ve missed anything or you have any questions, please feel free to throw them my way!

Caroline

A writer and author with two published books and a third one on the way. I write mostly about women's interest topics; travel, careers and cooking. I'm available for freelance work, so please contact me if that's of interest.

2 Comments
  1. This is really good and very helpful. But, for me, I’m not so much afraid of the actual flying, I am terribly afraid of hights and also afraid of crashing. I am perfectly aware that statistically I am WAY more likely to be hurt or die by getting into my car every day than being involved in an air crash or terrorist air incident. But nonetheless flying is terrifying for me because fear is not necessarily rational. It would be helpful to have included some statistics about how relatively safe air travel is (I believe it is actually the safest form of travel?). My fear has never so far stopped me from flying and I have seen some incredible parts of the world through facing my fears. However now I have two little children my fears are compounded. I would face my fear travelling alone. I’m not sure how I would cope with my fear if I were to travel on a plane with my children.

    1. Hi Helen – that’s really interesting. I heard that you’re more likely to get killed by a bee sting – I don’t know how true that is but it used to give me some level of comfort. It is also the safest form of travel – statically you’re much more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than on the plane on the way to your destination. I completely understand about the compounded fear – I know people who suffer even more since having children. If you do travel with them, please let me know how you get on. As the product of a nervous flyer Mum, she tells me she regrets making a fuss of flying in front of me, because ultimately that’s what led to my own fear. The more enjoyable the experience, the less likely it is that they’ll develop that same, irrational fear. xx

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