When I was a little kid, nothing was more exciting than the prospect of a long flight. I got to choose a new book and I would have seemingly endless hours in which to read, colour and build ill advised Playmobil scenes on the wobbly tray tables. When I got a bit older, seatback TVs were introduced, and the long flights to and from Australia to visit my family took on an almost mythic quality. I had twenty-fours hours – a whole day! – when I could watch as many movies as I wanted, and my parents wouldn’t say a thing. It was almost as exciting as the trip itself.
As I got older, the activities themselves changed, but I still remember long flights being a peaceful time to get stuff done. I did practice exam papers, wrote essays and cycled through flashcards as we crossed the oceans at forty thousand feet. And of course, I still watched a lot of movies. In fact, before July 2017, I have no memory of ever being on a turbulent flight. I’m sure I had been on plenty of bumpy rides, but I was such a cool, calm and collected flyer that I genuinely didn’t notice. That all changed in July 2017, when I flew back from Vietnam by myself to start an internship and spent most of the flight stressed and rigid from the near-constant jostling around. At one point, there was such a sharp drop that I could only sit bolt upright in my seat, heart racing, pretending I was somewhere else and wishing for the plane to land back in London. That turbulence anxiety has stuck with me ever since.
In stark opposition to my burgeoning creds as a climate change activist, I have always flown a lot. I still do. So it was an unwelcome to surprise to find that even the gentlest of turbulence suddenly had my heart racing and my palms sweaty after years of stress-free flying. While I tried half-heartedly to address my fears, it all came to a head the following April, as the combination of a bumpy takeoff from Sydney Airport and my extreme sadness at saying goodbye to my Australian family resulted in me crying as the plane headed up to altitude, wailing to Jake that I wanted to get off, literally four minutes into twenty-two hours of flying. I decided that that had to be the lowest point of almost a year of flight anxiety and sat down to figure out my coping mechanisms.
Eighteen months later, things are much better. While severe turbulence still makes my stomach drop and my heart race, for the most part I can weather the bumps without any rise in my blood pressure, thanks in part to all the little habits and behaviours I now use to help me cope in moments of fear. Here are the things that have helped me in my quest to overcome my fear of turbulence:
- I notice turbulence in other places. I try to pay attention to the inherent turbulence of any kind of non-plane travel, to remind myself that turbulence is a perfectly normal part of moving around by any method. I notice all the bumps you feel in a car and the small potholes I swerve around on my bike. The train between King’s Cross and Cambridge is extremely turbulent, something I had never noticed or felt stressed by until I went looking for it. Turbulence is part of travel!
- I arrive at the airport on time, but not ridiculously early. I know that some people try to make their check in experience as relaxed as possible to stave off any kind of anxiety, but I prefer to take the other route. I don’t want to spend lots of time at the airport contemplating the many hours I’m about to spend hurtling through the air in a metal canister. I try to arrive without too much time to spare, so that I’m not stuck with hours to kill fixating on my imminent departure.
- I read up on the real facts around airplane safety. It remains true that plane travel is the safest mode of transport, so even if I don’t feel like it, I am safer sitting on that plane that almost anywhere else. I especially try to remember this each time I put my headphones in before cycling across London – I take a huge safety risk each time I do this, and yet I don’t feel even a smidge of anxiety. Although the exact stats vary depending on route, airline and specific plane model, flying only sees 0.07 deaths per billion passenger miles. The corresponding figure for car travel is 7.28 deaths and for motorbikes it’s a whopping 212.57 deaths per billion passenger miles travelled. Getting on a plane is 100x safer than getting in a car. The odds of a plane crashing are pegged to be anywhere from 1 in 5 million to 1 in 20 million – and even if your plane is involved in an accident, there’s a 95% chance that you’ll be just fine. Even if you don’t feel safe, you are.
In the air
- I have a drink. Okay, I’ll level with you guys. For short flights, the most effective method I’ve found for chilling myself the fuck out is alcohol. Seriously, a glass of red wine before takeoff, and I’m laughing. Take the plane down, I don’t care. It makes me feel a lot more relaxed and a little sleepy, which helps me ride out the bumps with ease. I’ll often have a glass of something before boarding a short flight, especially if it’s in the evening, or get a drink on the plane if it’s a longer flight and I need something to take the edge off.
- I distract myself. In the absence of liquid relaxation, the next best method I’ve found for curbing any in-air anxiety is the dual combination of an animated film and playing Candy Crush at the same time. Yes, you read that right. I put on a soothing movie, often one that I’ve seen before, and work my way through a few more levels of a game I used to be a keen player of in 2013 and now only bring out in high-stress moments where I just need a distraction. I essentially want to overwhelm my nervous system with bright yet soothing familiar activities, and hope that it’s too overwhelmed by trying to reach level 1232 and pay attention to Moana to notice any bumps.
- I watch the inflight stats. If you’re on a long flight with inflight entertainment, the seatback screen will probably have an option to watch the flight path and see various figures about your flight, like the time left until landing and the outside temperature. One of the stats typically provided is the altitude. If I’m really stressed, I like to put on this screen so I can see that, despite any jostling, the plane is still firmly stuck at 40,000 feet, or whatever altitude you’re flying at. This works because I’m not actually afraid of turbulence, I’m (irrationally) afraid that turbulence is a sign that the plane is going to crash. If the plane is still sitting pretty at 40,000 feet then clearly, we’re not going down.
- I take my cues from other people. Even thought I am there freaking out because I feel like the plane is about to fall out of the sky (it’s not), I can quite clearly see that most people around me are totally relaxed. In the same vein, I try to talk to whoever I’m with, if I’m flying with someone, and soak up their confident approach to whatever bumps we’re experiencing. I do everything I can to remind myself that no matter how nervous I feel, it is irrational, and that I am as safe as everyone around me clearly seems to feel.
- I repeat reassuring phrases to myself. My favourite is probably “comfort not safety,” as it reminds me that smooth flights are a matter of convenience and have nothing to do with the safety of the flight. I think about how the flight crew have probably flown this route twice today already, and that the pilot wants to get home safely just as much as we do.
- I sit with my nervousness. Sometimes you just have to feel your feelings. If the plane is jostling around in the sky and I’m feeling scared – I let myself feel that way. I try to let that anxiety pass through me without judgement and without making into a bigger issue than what it is: a moment of fear in response to a clearly defined but ultimately non-threatening trigger. Sometimes unpleasant emotions can’t be fixed or rationalised away; you just have to let yourself feel them until the moment passes.
- I pay attention to my environment. I know that, for example, flying through thick clouds causes momentary turbulence. Therefore, if the plane starts shaking and I look out the window to see fluffy clouds coursing over the wings, I know that a little turbulence is exactly what should be happening right now. There’s no reason for me to be scared by a few bumps as we cut through the clouds, because clouds cause turbulence. This allows me to assign the correct reason for the turbulence to any bumps, i.e. that it’s to do with clouds or the temperature or where I’m sitting on the plane (turbulence is felt least over the wings), and not because the plane is going to crash.
By employing these various anti-anxiety tactics while I’m in the air, I can usually sit tight through even the bumpiest patches. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel that fear, but I am able to cope with those feelings even if I can’t distract them away by swapping cartoon candies and downing another G&T (though that often works). Feeling some fear about flying is incredibly common – no one should feel ashamed for feeling a little nervous as the plane climbs higher or bumbles its way through a thick cloud. We are hurtling through the sky at 40,000 feet in a metal tube. It is a weird situation. But for me, these tips make it so that being on bumpy flight no longer seems so scary – and that allows me to see the world!
Do you ever get nervous on flights? What tips help you stay calm in the air?