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How nervous fliers work through their flight anxiety

Flying is an occupational necessity for travel writer Lola Méndez, but, as someone with claustrophobia, that doesn’t make it any easier. Méndez’s first experience with mid-flight anxiety was a shock. She’d already been traveling full time for years before she started hyperventilating and crying in the sky over Papua New Guinea in 2018. At first, Méndez attributed her physical reaction to the stress of being in a small single-engine Cessna, but it quickly became a miserable pattern on both small-seater planes and large commercial jets.

“But as a travel journalist, I fly all the time, so it’s something I’ve had to learn to cope with,” Méndez tells Yahoo Life. She says it helps with her claustrophobia to board last because it shortens her time on the plane, to book an aisle seat as close to the front of the plane as possible, to take CBD before flying (if it’s legal where she’s traveling), to download content on her device to keep her distracted in the air and to bring lavender oil and Xanax in her bag as a backup. She also likes to practice Pranayama — breathing exercises often used in yoga — to remain calm.

Unlike Méndez, Emmie Newitt has always been afraid of flying, fearful that the plane might crash or be taken hostageor that she might have some sort of health scare on board. She’s tried to conquer her fear of flying with exposure, but it’s still scary, especially because the landing of her most recent flight, in December, was tumultuous. “The plane was swaying so much that [it] hit the runway, then took off again to try the second time,” Newitt tells Yahoo Life via email.

Judy Lamb isn’t worried about the flight itself. Her dad was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and she loves being in the air and the physical acts of taking off, cruising and landing. For her, the anxiety comes from the “extra stuff”: navigating airports, waiting at gates and accepting the omnipresent risk of being delayed, rerouted, canceled or stuck on the tarmac. “There’s nothing more anxiety-producing than sitting on the tarmac,” Lamb tells Yahoo Life.

Lamb can’t remember the last time she flew, but believes it was around seven years ago. Thankfully, both of her grandkids live within driving distance, so she doesn’t have to fly; however, she would if she wanted to go on a vacation somewhere far away. In that situation, especially if it involved a long flight like when she went to Italy, she’d probably take a Xanax, she says.

Whether it’s claustrophobia, safety fears or the potential for logistical nightmares, most people’s flight anxiety stems from feeling out of control. But why — and what can be done about it?

Everyone experiences small trauma, and often these negative experiences can leave people feeling like they aren’t in control or can’t escape. “These non-flying situations that turned out to be not so great make the flying experiences seem strangely big, but they are borrowing power — negative power, negative energy — from non-flying traumas,” Tom Bunn, an airline captain, licensed therapist and president and founder of SOAR, Inc., a program designed to help people overcome their fear of flying, tells Yahoo Life. As the plane moves farther away from the ground, people lose more and more of the control they have over their environment, which can make anxiety and claustrophobia worse.

“You’ll find that most people who have trouble with flying have a trouble with some other similar no-control situation ([such as being in] elevators, bridges, tunnels, high places and MRIs),” Bunn explains. “It’s usually not just about flying, which tells us it not only is about the question of safety on the plane, it’s about emotional safety.”

Most anxious fliers develop personal strategies for feeling more in control or mitigating the anxiety they feel. Those personal tools can be lavender oil and breathing techniques or repeat exposure or prescription medication. Dunn also offers three tips of his own that he believes can help all fliers feel more in control and decrease their anxiety in the air:

Try to meet the pilot: “No one would go to a hospital for an operation without meeting the doctor,” Bunn says. “If you do meet that person, you’re going to feel a lot better on the flight.” To do this, Bunn encourages passengers to get to the boarding area earlier, tell the flight attendant (or gate agent) they are an anxious flier and ask if it’s possible to say hello to the pilot before taking off. This can also give those passengers who get nervous about weather conditions a chance to ask the pilot if they think the flight will be smooth or rough and how much turbulence to expect.

Try the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise: This exercise can help reduce stress, according to Bunn. “If something happens that alarms you, that feeling of alarm is caused by stress hormones being released,” he explains. “What we want to do is … stop paying attention to everything around you for 90 seconds, so you can burn those stress hormones off and get back to calm again.”

For the exercise, people should look straight ahead. Then make five statements about what you see in your peripheral vision (a window, someone wearing headphones, etc.), five statements about what you hear (two people talking, a child laughing) and five statements about what you physically touch (the wrinkles on the leather seat, the rough edge of the seat belt strap, the smooth armrest). Then repeat the process with four things you see, hear and touch, and continue to repeat until you get to naming one thing for each sense.

Don’t rush: Bunn acknowledges that some people like to rush to the airport and keep busy before the flight, but he encourages people to prepare enough in advance so that the trip to the airport, getting through security and finding their gate isn’t stressful. This decreases the worries and anxiety that people carry with them before they board, so they feel more in control when they’re on the plane.

Bunn also has a message for all the fliers who feel more anxious after the recent shocking story of the Alaska Airlines flight that had to make an emergency landing after a doorplug fell off the fuselage mid-air: That is a “once-in-the-history-of-aviation event,” he claims. According to Bunn, that type of incident is extremely rare, and the Federal Aviation Administration is going to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Flying is still much safer than driving, he points out.

“People may not have control [in the air] but you can bet that captain has total control [of the plane], and your captain wants to get back home at the end of the day to be with his or her family, just like you do,” Bunn adds. “And they know how to do it.”

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