5 Thoughts To Calm Your Nerves When Flying

Many of us feel scared to fly on a plane from time to time. But we can usually chill after a few minutes in the air, and shift our attention over to the free in-flight TV or complimentary pretzel situation. However, for the truly nervous flyer, things aren't quite so simple.

People who struggle with a severe flying phobia can't just forget their plane-related anxiety. That's because no amount of deep breathing/ prescription medication/ bargaining with a higher power can truly silence the little voice in the back of a nervous flyer's head. What voice? The one that says unhelpful things like "I don't know, maybe we COULD have taken a Segway from Chicago to San Diego? Is it too late for that now?" or "I don't mean to get theological on you, but if God had really meant for us to fly, why do planes make CONSTANT TERRIFYING METALLIC GRINDING NOISES AHHHHH?" If your nervous inner flyer were a real person, you'd avoid sitting next to them on the bus. But unlike some bus weirdo, you're stuck with this jerk until you hit your destination.

So is there anything you can do to cope (besides weep openly and demand that your seatmate hold your hand for the duration of the in-flight screening of Must Love Dogs)? Fortunately, yes: long-term treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy and airport-sponsored classes for scared flyers, work, and are definitely worth considering if your phobia of riding in a giant piece of sky-metal is keeping you from living a full life. But if you're traveling now and need some help, give the five ideas below a shot. They may not permanently silence your nervous inner flyer, but they might at least calm them down long enough for you to down some complimentary pretzels in peace.

1. "These Noises Are Unfamiliar, But They're Not Dangerous"

Yes, the creaking/ grinding/ weird motorized scraping sounds of an airplane all sound freaky and unfamiliar to you — because you spend maybe ten hours a year on a plane. But think of all the weird (yet totally normal and safe) noises that you hear in your house or workplace every day — noises that don't startle you because you're used to them. As Michael Salem, author of Brave Flyer, told, "Every flight will make some unfamiliar sounds, such as gear retractions or flap movement...You are not an aeronautic engineer, so when you hear an unfamiliar sound, you should expect it to be normal unless someone tells you otherwise." The entire flight crew is very invested in making sure that the plane doesn't crash — possibly even more than you are! — so you best believe they are keeping their eyes and ears peeled for anything dangerous or abnormal.

If sudden noises are a point of stress for you, try to apply the same logic you'd apply when spending the night in an unfamiliar house: is that creak in the middle of the night more likely to be the sound of a headless, deranged ghost who thirsts for your blood? Or just the sound of the house settling? If you answered "Headless ghost obvi," you may want to invest in a set of noise-canceling headphones and some absorbing podcasts or audiobooks, to try to take noises out of the picture completely.

2. "Planes Don't Crash Because Of Turbulence"

Do you spend a decent chunk of every plane ride bracing your body through every patch of turbulence, convinced that only blind luck is keeping your plane aloft? I'm right there with you; for years, I assumed that every pocket of turbulence was the equivalent of a car hydroplaning. But in reality, turbulence is closer to hitting a pothole: annoying and uncomfortable, but not actually dangerous.

Yup: the vast majority of the time, plane turbulence is not dangerous. As Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, blogger and author of Cockpit Confidential, wrote on his site,, "Turbulence is an aggravating nuisance for everybody, including the crew, but it’s also, for lack of a better term, normal...The level of turbulence required to dislodge an engine or bend a wing spar is something even the most frequent flyer — or pilot for that matter — won’t experience in a lifetime of traveling." So really, turbulence is a threat to nothing (except perhaps your complimentary beverage).

And if you're really anxious about turbulence, you can hit the Turbulence Forecast website, and find out how turbulent your route has historically been. You can also try to get a seat near the front of the cabin, where turbulence typically makes less of an impact.

3. "Planes Are Actually One Of The Safer Forms Of Travel"

For a nervous flyer, taking a six-hour-long plane ride across the country might feel like taking your life in your hands; but statistically, it's actually safer than driving to the grocery store to get some nachos. In fact, it's safer than eating nachos.

According to the National Safety Council, your odds of dying in a plane crash are one in 8,015. Compare that to your odds of passing from this mortal coil due to a car crash (one in 112), walking (one in 704) or riding a motorcycle (one in 911) or a bike (one in 4,535). Flying is also safer than eating (you have a one in 3,375 chance of choking or otherwise dying from ingesting food). So essentially, you'd be better served by developing a debilitating fear of nachos than by maintaining your fear of flying (but please do not develop a debilitating fear of nachos, I'd never be able to live with the guilt of having sent you down that road).

4. "I'm Flying So That I Can Get Somewhere Really Important"

OK, maybe you read through all these facts, and the only words that registered for you were "plane" and "dying." Fair enough — phobias aren't generally based in the actual facts, so facts may have limited power to help you control them. So if knowing about actual plane safety doesn't comfort you, try shifting your focus. As Jonathan Bricker, Ph. D., an affiliate associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Conde Nast Traveler, “Focusing on the higher purpose of your trip puts the fear into perspective.”

So consider why you're up in the air today. Are you going to see your best friend graduate from college or attend your grandma's 90th birthday? Try focusing on how wonderful seeing the people you care about will feel, and how it's worth a few hours of discomfort (try making their pictures the background on your phone, just to remind you). Taking a big trip abroad? You're going to learn so much, and have so many meaningful/unforgettable/extremely Instagrammable experiences! Focus on that, instead of the random creaks and grinds of the plane machinery.

5. "Puppies/ Kittens/ Cupcakes/ Sunshine/ Other Assorted Happy Things!"

Or maybe none of this stuff works for you. Maybe your fear of flying is so deeply ingrained, you can't talk yourself through it or around it. In that case, your best option is to...pretend that you are not on a plane. Think about something else. Anything else. Think about fluffy kitties, or romping puppies, or Lisa Frank unicorns who gallop down a rainbow and present you with an extremely delicious plate of souvlaki. Whatever gets your mind off things.

Julia Cameron, author of Safe Journey: Prayers and Comfort for Frightened Fliers and Other Anxious Souls, recommended in the New York Times that anxious flyers load up on "[c]omforting distractions like Kindles, video games, crossword puzzles, trashy reading." Is your happy place Central Perk? Download twice as many Friends episodes as you could possibly watch on your flight. The best part of watching TV or movies on a plane is that there's no one there to judge your choices, so get as real and as corny as you need to. Get some Disney movies that always chilled you out as a kid. Get that episode of Full House where they start that awful Ace of Base cover band. Doesn't matter what it is, as long as it gets your mind off the fact that you're 45,000 feet above sea level (wait, am I making this worse? Sorry).

Will these techniques turn you into that relaxed person on your flight who can sleep through the whole danged thing? Probably not. But they probably will make you more relaxed than that one baby who's been freaking out since take-off, and that's something, right? Baby steps (literally)!

Images: danist soh/ Unsplash, Giphy (5)