How to Keep Calm if You're a Nervous Flyer

man with closed eyes in airline seat

For some vacationers, air travel can be a major source of pre-trip anxiety. And while airplanes are widely touted as the safest way to travel, it can be hard to focus on the positives when you're experiencing heightened levels of stress. According to estimates from ABC Health & Wellbeing, close to 40% of people around the world have at least some fear of flying, with only a minor segment of the population having an intense phobia.

No matter how you feel about air travel, it can be useful to learn some of the common techniques nervous flyers use to calm their nerves before and during a long flight. This insight can help you manage your own anxiety on a particularly turbulent journey or support family and friends who may not be as excited about flying as you are. Of course, every traveler has their own tolerance for flight anxiety, so if you're in full-blown panic mode it may be a good idea to speak with a mental health professional before you leave.

What does flight anxiety feel like?

While every nervous flyer has their own physiological response to air travel, many report feeling sick or experiencing a panic attack shortly before departing or while they're airborne, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Interestingly, some people with an acute fear of flying also have other phobias that compound their unease, such as claustrophobia or agoraphobia. In many cases, nervous flyers understand that airplanes are a relatively safe means of transportation, but find it difficult to silence their active imagination. One of the best ways to manage your pre-flight jitters is to preoccupy your mind and avoid ruminating on worst case scenarios, as this will only magnify your anxiety. But what other coping methods can help you ward off your fear of flying?

5 useful tips for keeping calm during long flights

First, it's important to note that flight anxiety is usually triggered by specific stimuli, whether it be a catastrophic thought, bodily sensation or a bad memory. These sensations, in turn, can amplify their anxiety and increase their risk of panic attacks, leading to a rather unhealthy feedback loop. If you're stressed about an upcoming flight, consider using one or more of the following calming techniques:

1. Fight fear with knowledge:

When it comes to a fear of flying, your anxiety is essentially tricking your body into thinking it's in immediate danger. Learning more about how airplanes work can help calm your nerves during take-off or when turbulence hits. The more you know about air travel, the less mid-flight uncertainty you'll have to contend with. It may also be useful to browse the National Transportation Safety Board's website to get a better understanding of how uncommon aviation accidents actually are.

2. Practice breathing exercises:

Many people with flight anxiety experience breathing difficulties during their travels, which often results from unintentionally panting or holding their breath. These respiratory irregularities send signals to your brain that may trigger your fight-or-flight response, amplifying feelings of panic and fear. Luckily, the National Health Service published a comprehensive guide on deep breathing techniques that can help you manage your stress.

3. Refocus your attention:

Keeping your mind preoccupied during a long flight can be difficult, but focusing on a specific task can do wonders for your state of mind. Nervous flyers should take full advantage of in-flight entertainment, read a book or listen to music with noise-cancelling headphones to help drown out the ambient noise. Even a minor distraction can help you calm your nerves for at least a small portion of your flight.

4. Strike up a conversation:

Whether you're traveling with friends, family or flying solo, a great way to reduce your stress levels is to talk with the people seated around you. If you're particularly nervous about airplane safety, it may be helpful to introduce yourself to the flight attendants and share your concerns. Most airline professionals are happy to talk through your worries and have plenty of experience reassuring passengers that they are in safe hands.

5. Drink lots of water:

When managing your flight anxiety, you may be tempted to take the edge off with a cocktail or a cup of coffee. These beverage selections, however, can exacerbate your nerves and lead to dehydration if you're not careful. Keep in mind, airplane cabins typically have very low humidity, which can quickly dry out your throat, nose and skin, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Nervous flyers should drink lots of water before and during their travels to help them stay hydrated and relaxed until their plane finally touches down.

To learn more tips and tricks, read through some of our other informative travel blogs.