Flying Anxiety: How to Cope With Traveling
Read Time: 9 minutes
With travel plans opening back up, many people are finding themselves to be anxious fliers. About 40% of the general population reports anxiety during or before air travel, while roughly 2.5% of people have a clinical case of flight phobia that causes them physical distress.¹ But with the spread of COVID-19 in the mix, the whole airplane experience can be a bit more stressful than usual, especially for an already nervous flyer. Whether you have a flying fear or want to avoid some stress, here's everything you need to know about coping with anxiety while traveling, from breathing exercises to CBD products.
What is Flying Anxiety?
Flying anxiety is a lot more than just the fear of flying or aviophobia— the specific phobia. Only about 2.5% of people are clinically diagnosed with aviophobia anxiety disorder.² However, the flying fear comes from a handful of different worries. Many nervous fliers are claustrophobic or ultimately feel powerless during flight. If something bad were to happen, they think they wouldn't be able to control it. Most flight phobics find flying generally safe but still frightening because of all of the what-ifs.
People with flight phobia usually have triggers, which are thoughts, sensations, or memories that bring our minds to be fearful or uncertain situations. A sensitized person triggered by bodily sensations could feel the turbulence during takeoff or landing and get anxious. Alternatively, someone triggered by their fear of heights might become scared about flying so high above the ground.
Those with a flying phobia can experience triggers during turbulence, takeoffs, and landing. However, some people might be triggered by the fear of terrorism, the chance of a plane crash, social anxiety, and homesickness. Others might be afraid of the germs in the air system, fires, using the toilets, or violence on the airplane. Many others get bad feelings before a flight and will spiral into a fear that they should trust their gut and cancel their flight to avoid a catastrophic event.
People with anxiety disorders typically know how to manage their anxiety and self-soothe. Sometimes though, anxious feelings can become so intense that people will become overwhelmed by the anxiety during the flight and experience a panic attack. Panic attacks involve symptoms including difficulty breathing, sweating, elevated heart rate, and even nausea or vomiting. 90% of flight phobics are more afraid of the panic attack than of the act of flying itself.³
How to avoid flight anxiety
Luckily, before things reach a boiling point, there are a few things you can do to avoid or overcome flying anxiety. Like most phobias, the secret ingredient isn't just one medication or one type of therapy. It's a culmination of things that come together to help desensitize you to the fear of flying itself.
First and foremost, exposure therapy works. Being put into the situation and realizing that it's never as intense as you believe it will help you get through it. For fearful fliers, anticipatory anxiety is the real kicker. The fear experienced in anticipation of the actual flight causes many people to avoid flights or cancel flights altogether. Avoiding flying ultimately keeps flying phobia alive and well, so exploring it and learning healthy ways to deal with anticipatory anxiety and anxiety during the flight is essential. Regardless of which methods you choose, exposure therapy should always be included.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Seeking help with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help when tailored to flying specifically. CBT with a counselor can teach a fearful flyer different techniques to manage their anxiety. For example, they may guide you through diaphragmatic breathing exercises to use while you're flying. They may also teach you grounding techniques and ways to calm down when you feel like you might have a panic attack. They can also offer general education. Understanding how a plane flies, what turbulence means, and what certain sounds on your flight are caused by can also help anxious fliers overcome their fears.
Prescription Anti-Anxiety Medication
Last but not least, there's always medicine. For people prone to panic attacks in specific situations like flying on an airplane, a doctor may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication to help you avoid panic while flying. Most of the time, doctors will prescribe SSRI or SNRI medications for clinical anxiety, though these will need to be taken daily for a long time to work. Alternatively, they will prescribe benzodiazepines for anticipatory anxiety, which can help with acute anxiety and make exposure therapy less effective.
Regardless, medication isn't always in the cards for everyone, and neither is therapy. As the "Made to Work. Made for All." CBD brand, we believe that many people with travel anxiety may find relief from anticipatory anxiety and panic attacks by taking CBD as a daily supplement. CBD may interact with our endocannabinoid systems to help us regulate our moods and keep our bodies functioning nominally. CBD may be known for its potent anti-anxiety effects, and enjoying a serving before a flight may help reduce the panic-inducing impact of flight anxiety. However, you should make sure to determine how much CBD to take before trying any form of product. More research is needed to understand how CBD truly works fully.
Making yourself comfortable
If you know, you're the type of person who feels more comfortable when they can see out of the window, purchase an assigned seat from your airline. You will be able to choose where you sit, giving you the freedom to look out your window from a window seat or the ability to move about the airplane cabin easily if you choose an aisle seat. Bring them to your seat if certain items help you self-soothe, like a favorite warm blanket or fuzzy pair of socks. Things like headphones, earplugs, and earbuds can also help distract you and avoid some of the sounds that may make you anxious during your flight. It also helps to check the turbulence forecast to help you mentally prepare for uncomfortable bodily sensations and self-soothe.
How to cope with flying anxiety
If you have a flight coming up and don't have the time to dive into therapy and get on medication before your departure, the bright side is that you're still jumping into exposure therapy by going through with the flight. That's not to say that exposure therapy is easy for mental health without the proper tools. If you know you're an anxious flyer, you can do a few things to self-soothe during your flight to help prevent a panic attack or overcome one if you feel yourself becoming panicky.⁴
Visualize an easy flight
A lot of the time, travel anxiety is a mind-over-matter thing. Before your flight, you can practice visualizing a safe and easy flight so that you can feel more comfortable when the day finally comes. Imagine yourself feeling calm and relaxed during your flight, and use all of your senses to steady yourself. If the thought of flying alone makes you uncomfortable, address those fears and shut down the anxiety. Practice makes perfect, so try to set aside some time every day before your flight to take a few deep breaths and imagine things going well. The same can work for you while you're on your flight.
Practice grounding techniques
If you're already onboard your flight and feel your flying fear creeping in, it helps to monitor your breathing closely. One powerful grounding technique is Box Breathing, which involves breathing in for four counts, holding your breath for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding for four more counts until you inhale again. Deep breathing can also help, where you breathe in for seven counts, hold for two counts, and then breathe out for seven counts. You can also practice the 5-4-3-2-1 breathing exercise, which helps you to ground yourself in the moment. Look for five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. These grounding techniques can help prevent the brain from releasing so many stress hormones that it becomes flooded, leading to a panic attack. Take a deep breath each time you start to feel anxious or feel like a panic attack might be coming.
Think realistic thoughts and find distractions
It's easy to find yourself on a negative spiral when dealing with anxiety. Often, these negative, anxious thoughts perpetuate and worsen the anxiety. It's a good idea to try and keep your thoughts and reactions realistic while you fly. Remind yourself that thousands of flights are safely making it to their destinations, and so will yours. Tell yourself that even if you do begin panicking, it's a physical sensation and that you will be able to manage it. The physical responses tell you that you do indeed feel afraid, but you're not in any actual danger. You can also move around the cabin to stretch and help relieve anxious tension, and find ways to keep your mind occupied. You can play a game, read a book or magazine, watch a movie, or listen to music while you fly to help you cope.
Take CBD and get some sleep
If you're wondering, "Can you bring CBD on a plane?", the answer is generally yes, but with the right amount. If you're settling in for a long flight or catching the red-eye, take a few CBD gummies before you climb aboard. The CBD may help take the edge off, for one thing. But many full-spectrum CBD oils and gummies also contain CBN, which may be a potent sedative and may help you get some much-needed sleep. Before you know it, you'll wake up on the ground feeling refreshed, and you'll have slept through all of the turbulence and triggering experiences of flying without letting your anxiety get the best of you.
Seek support if you need it
Your cabin crew is there to help you. Opening up to your fellow travelers or your flight crew can help you calm your nerves and feel less anxious about how the people around you may think if you have a panic attack. Pilots and flight attendants should also be aware of what you're going through so that they'll be able to assist you more effectively should you need them. Their job is to make you feel safe and comfortable, so if you need anything from a stiff drink to a fluffy blanket to soothe your fears, reach out to them.