Travel

How I Beat My Fear Of Flying

Are you filled with dread by the thought of stepping foot on a plane? If so, I know how you feel. Because that used to be me.

picture from Shutterstock

How did I smash my fear of flying? By adopting a series of simple mind hacks that took me from HATING air travel to LOVING it.

You can, too.

But before I show you how, let me share my story.

I used to be so nervous that whenever I boarded a flight, I was CONVINCED I was going to die. And that was before we’d even taken off.

What did I find so scary?

It wasn’t a fear of flying per se. Rather, it was a fear of FALLING.

A brain obsessed

Whenever I thought of air travel, I’d imagine how I’d feel dropping from the sky like one of those people who jumped from the World Trade Center on September 11.

That’s why my brain obsessed about anything that could make that happen. Like the wings snapping off. Or a bomb.

Over a period of years, these worries intensified. And eventually, mid-flight panic attacks became a standard part of my flying experience.

That’s when I developed a new — and very powerful — fear: the fear of panic itself.

Needless to say, this fear became self-fulfilling. And that’s when I quit flying altogether: the panic attacks were too much to handle.

For the next two-and-a-half years, I chose to do ALL my travel by surface. Which was a bummer. Especially as I lived in Sydney but my hometown was Perth.

But inconvenience was only a part of the problem. More serious was the way this phobia made me feel. The short answer?

Like a loser.

Time to act

Two-and-a-half years later, my ego couldn’t bear it any longer. I knew I had to start flying again.

So I enrolled in a Qantas-sponsored fear of flying course. And finally — after a tough mental process — hauled my butt back onto a plane.

That was 1996.

Since then, I’ve literally flown hundreds of times. And all over the world.

In fact, I now live in London. And I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve jetted between the UK and Australia. I’d guess it’s somewhere between 20 and 30 round trips.

During that time, I’ve tried and tested a lot of mind hacks designed to make flying easier.

So, if you hate flying, here’s what I suggest you do.

Step 1: Build the right mindset

Beating your fear of flying is tough. And frustratingly slow.

To succeed, you need balls. And the ability to handle a roller-coaster ride of success and failure.

That’s why a determination to win is a must.

But how do you get that determination?

The trick is to view the process as an exciting game. Not a terrifying chore.

Which means you need to apply the same energy and enthusiasm as you would if learning a new sport, instrument or language.

Once you see the process this way, your motivation levels will rocket. As will your ability to handle the inevitable setbacks.

Step 2: Become less anxious

One of the best ways to ease your fear of flying is to reduce your ‘background’ anxiety levels. What do I mean by ‘background’ anxiety?

I mean the non-specific anxiety you’re carrying around 24/7. Why?

Because in my experience, people who have a fear of flying tend to have higher background anxiety levels than others. That means they react more fearfully to ALL of life’s stressful events.

For example, imagine that a door at home slams shut unexpectedly. The person with the highest background anxiety will freak out more than anyone else in the room.

By reducing your background anxiety levels, EVERYTHING about flying will seem less scary.

As an example, consider turbulence. If your background anxiety was lower, you’d feel less anxious when your plane was bumping around. You’d also feel less nervous when simply THINKING about turbulence.

What’s the trick to slashing your background anxiety?

It’s practicing a relaxation technique. Daily.

I do mindful meditation. But I started with progressive muscle relaxation.

It doesn’t matter which one you use — as long as it helps you relax. What DOES matter is doing it every day. 20 minutes is ideal. But 5 minutes is WAY better than nothing.

Step 3: Learn how flying works

To beat your fear effectively, you need to bone up on how planes are built. And how they work.

In particular, you need to fill your head with FACTS about the stuff that worries you most. Why?

Because your fears are triggered when negative thoughts pop into your head. Especially so-called ‘what if’ thoughts. These are thoughts like ‘What if the engines fail when we take off?’.

You CAN’T stop these negative thoughts creeping into your head. But you CAN stop them making you panicky. How?

By challenging them with facts. For example, once you understand why turbulence ISN’T an issue for planes, you can question your negative thoughts about turbulence as they pop into your head.

Step 4: Start with baby steps

I’m a big believer in what psychologists call the ‘gradual exposure’ technique.

The idea is that you expose yourself to the thing you fear — but in increments. For example, if you had a fear of heights, you wouldn’t head to the top of a skyscraper on Day 1 of your treatment.

Instead, you might just hang out on the ground floor until you felt comfortable with the idea of even being in a tall building. Then on Day 2, you might push the envelope a bit by going to the first floor.

You’d rinse and repeat until you finally made it to the top.

Likewise with flying, you should start by tackling the thing that worries you least. For example, let’s say your jitters normally start when you turn up at the terminal to catch a flight.

In that case, you should kick off your treatment by visiting the airport simply to hang out in a terminal. You’re not flying anywhere — your objective is simply to spend SO much time there that it no longer stresses you out.

For many people, this would demand more than one visit. If that sounds dull, that’s what it’s SUPPOSED to be.

After all, the objective of each stage of therapy is to achieve a state of utter boredom.

Once a feared situation becomes a yawn-fest, you need to level up to the next thing in your hierarchy of fear. For example, now that you’re happy with being in a terminal, you might want to tackle boarding an aircraft.

Step 5: Use visualisation techniques

One problem with the gradual exposure technique is that you can’t gradually expose yourself to flying. After all, once you step on an actual plane, you’re obviously committed to the whole flight.

Luckily, visualisation provides a work-around.

The idea is to plonk yourself down somewhere safe (such as at home). Next, you imagine yourself in a situation you find scary. Like walking through an airbridge towards the plane door.

Then, as negative thoughts pop into your head, you challenge them with those facts you picked up earlier.

The idea is to do this over and over until the situation you’re visualising no longer feels threatening.

This may sound lame. But it really works. And it’s a great way to practice the art of challenging negative thoughts.

Step 6: Focused flying

Once you’ve got the above skills sorted, you need to expose yourself to actual flights.

However, you don’t want to just get on planes and pray things turn out better than they used to.

Instead, you need to do what I call ‘focused flying’. What does this mean?

It means experiencing your flights in a very deliberate way. For example, let’s say you hate take-offs.

Before you take a focused flight, you spend time learning what ACTUALLY happens during the take-off. In other words, you get your head around the sounds, sights and sensations. And WHY they happen.

Armed with that knowledge, you board your flight and DELIBERATLY observe those sounds, sights and sensations as they occur.

By doing this, you take the mystery out of the process. Suddenly, stuff that once seemed foreign and scary now becomes logical and reassuring.

How should you start your focused flying program?

I suggest you start with the kind of flights that worry you least. For example, short daytime ones.

Once you’ve gotten comfy with these, you need to move on to longer flights. Or flights that feature stuff that makes you nervous (such as flying over water).

The idea is to progressively expose yourself to all your old fears until none of them worry you.

And boredom sets in.

Step 7: Keep flying (lots)

To stop your fear returning, you’ve got to keep flying regularly. Forever.

If you don’t, the skills you’ve learnt can start getting rusty. And old fears can start creeping back.

How often is regularly? There’s no hard and fast rule. But I’d say you should aim for a minimum of one round-trip every 4 months. More is better.

Oh — and keep up the relaxation. It will help keep you flying and bring a stack of other benefits, too.

Tim Benjamin is the chap behind Fear of Flying School. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.


Have you subscribed to Lifehacker Australia's email newsletter? You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.