Does the thought of stepping foot on a plane reduce you to a quivering wreck?
If so, I know how you feel. Because that used to be me.
Luckily, I’ve refined a series of mind hacks to beat this miserable phobia. But before I show you how, let me share my fear of flying story.
I’m originally from Australia – a country where the distances between its handful of cities is so vast that flying is an essential part of life.
That’s why I was a part of the jet-set pretty much from birth. In fact, as a kid, nothing excited me more than the chance to roar off down the runway.
It was pure bliss.
I still loved planes. But when I had to fly in one, I increasingly felt there was something unsafe about the whole thing.
And by the time I hit my mid 20s, this mild discomfort had morphed into something bigger: a full-blown fear of flying.
Things got so bad, I’d obsess about a flight from the moment I bought a ticket.
And by the time I arrived at the check-in, I’d be consumed with fear. This would intensify the closer I got to the aircraft door.
By the time I’d sat down, I was convinced I was going to die.
Not surprisingly, mid-air panic attacks became a routine part of my travels.
That’s when I chose to quit flying altogether. The dread was more than I could bear.
While that solved one problem, it threw up another: I was now effectively cut-off from the outside world.
The impossibility of regular travel was underlined the one time I took a train from Sydney (where I lived) to my hometown of Perth.
The 2,500 mile trip took three long nights. And that was one-way.
As an ambitious young guy, this wasn’t just frustrating.
It was downright depressing.
Faced with a life of confinement, I decided I HAD to act.
That’s when I enrolled in a fear of flying course run by a local airline. To my amazement, I finished the course by doing two commercial flights in one day.
It was the first time I’d flown in nearly three years.
That was in 1996.
Since then, I’ve flown hundreds of times – and all over the world.
In fact, I now live in London – a 24 hour flight back to Sydney. And I’ve flown that route so many times, I’ve literally lost count.
At a guess, I’d say I’ve done 20-30 round trips.
And while doing so, I’ve refined a series of steps that are ESSENTIAL if you’re to beat your own fear of flying.
Step 1: Build the right mindset
Your mind-set is the ONLY thing that will determine your level of success.
To get results, you must build a DETERMINATION to succeed. But how?
The trick is this: don’t see the process as a terrifying chore. Instead, think of it as an exciting game.
One you intend to win.
This competitive spirit will give you the strength to smash your fear to bits. And to carry on when you hit the inevitable set-backs.
Step 2: Reduce your anxiety
We all have a baseline of anxiety that we carry around 24/7. Psychologists call this ‘background anxiety’.
But in my experience, people with a fear of flying often have a higher level of background anxiety than others.
That means when something scary happens out of the blue, their anxiety levels tend to spike higher than other people’s.
For example, if a door at home slams unexpectedly, the person with a higher background anxiety level will have a more intense reaction.
That’s why you MUST reduce your background anxiety. But how?
I started using a technique called ‘progressive muscle relaxation’. Now I do mindful meditation.
It doesn’t matter what you use – as long as you do it daily. And for enough time to have an impact.
20 minutes per day is ideal. But even five minutes is better than nothing.
Step 3: Learn about flying
Do you worry about things like turbulence? Or the wings snapping off? Or the bumps, thuds and whirring sounds that are part and parcel of flying?
If so, it’s likely you don’t have a clue what these things are. Or how they REALLY work.
Sadly, until you find out, they’ll keep terrifying the HELL out of you. The solution?
Identify ALL the things that scare you. Then find out what they are. And how they function.
In other words, fill your mind with FACTS.
Armed with this information, you’ll be able to CHALLENGE negative thoughts as they (inevitably) enter your head.
This is a VITAL point. Why?
Because developing the ability to challenge your negative thoughts is CRITICAL to beating your fear.
Step 4: Start small
I think ‘gradual exposure’ therapy is the best way to treat phobias.
The idea is that you eliminate your fear in small steps by GRADUALLY exposing yourself to the thing that freaks you out.
For example, if you were scared of going up tall buildings, you wouldn’t start treatment by heading to the top of a skyscraper.
Instead, you’d spend Day 1 hanging out on the first floor simply getting used to BEING in a skyscraper.
On Day 2 you might head to the second floor. And you’d stay there until you were totally relaxed.
The idea is that you’d rinse and repeat these steps until you finally reached the top of the building.
And it’s the same with flying. To start your program, you should focus on getting comfortable in the environment where you experience your LEAST intense fear.
For example, imagine that the place you feel the least intense fear is at the terminal building waiting to catch a flight.
In that scenario, you’d begin your treatment program by heading out to your local airport to hang around the terminal.
You wouldn’t be flying anywhere. Just staying there until you were bored rigid.
Next, you’d make more visits to the terminal until being there no longer generated anxiety.
At this point, you’d move onto the next step. That might be something like boarding a plane – but not actually flying anywhere.
Step 5: Use visualization techniques
Of course, convincing an airline to let you board their planes without flying anywhere ain’t gonna happen.
But luckily, you don’t need to in order to get the SENSATION of boarding a plane. What’s the trick?
It’s called ‘visualization’. Here’s how it works.
Find somewhere at home where you won’t be disturbed. Then IMAGINE you’re boarding a plane – with as much detail as possible (i.e. sights, sounds, feelings, smells).
Next, as you start feeling anxiety, identify what thoughts are causing it. Then CHALLENGE those thoughts with facts – the ones I mentioned in Step 3.
I know this sounds like a waste of time. But trust me – it works. Especially once you’ve practiced it a few times.
Once you’re bored out of your skull with boarding, visualize all the other parts of the flight that have traditionally made you nervous.
When you can handle that, you’re ready to take the next step.
Step 6: Focused flying
Now it’s time to catch a real flight.
But you don’t want to just board a plane and hope for the best. Instead, you need to do what I call ‘focused flying’.
The idea is that you set out to experience every element of your flight in a very deliberate way.
That means taking your new-found knowledge about how flying works. Then DELIBERATELY observing the things you’ve learnt about.
For example, let’s say you used to be terrified of take-off. Before catching your first flight, you’ll have learnt about all the sounds and sensations that occur at take-off.
Then, as you’re actually taking off, you deliberately look out for those sounds and sensations. The result?
Instead of being panicked by them, they become signs that everything is working PERFECTLY.
To get started with focused flying, I suggest you begin with the shortest jet flights possible.
Once you get comfortable with these – you should graduate to longer flights.
Or flights that feature things you still find troubling. Like flying at night. Or over the sea.
The idea here is to keep pushing your fear envelope until you’re comfortable with any kind of journey.
Step 7: Keep on truckin’
Once you’ve managed to get back in the sky with minimal fear, you need to keep flying often. And for the rest of your life. Why?
Because like speaking a foreign language or maintaining your fitness levels, if you stop practicing you can start getting rusty. And old fears can creep back.
So how often should you fly?
There’s no hard and fast rule. But based on my own experience, I’d say at least every 4 months. More is always better.
And it doesn’t have to be crazy expensive. Day trips to nearby cities will do.
And one last thing: keep up the relaxation. It’ll help your flying. And give other bits of your life a boost, too.
|Written on 8/6/2013 by Tim Benjamin. Tim Benjamin is a former fearful flyer. He shares tips and tricks for beating your fear of flying at Fear of Flying School.|
Photo Credit: mualpha