Summer vacation is here and it's time to plan a trip somewhere exciting. If you're dream destination can't be reached by train or automobile, then you'll be booking a flight. But if you part of the 25 percent of Americans who suffer nervousness about flying, you'll want to conquer that fear so it can't keep you grounded. NYC Neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez offers expert tips to help you break this cycle of fear and see the skies as “friendly?”
How to Ease Your Fears Before Your Book a Ticket
Develop some knowledge of flying- Read a book called, “Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel.” By Patrick Smith. People are afraid when they don’t’ understand what is happening to the plane and why. What do certain noises mean? Why does the wings flap in flight? Can turbulence cause the plane to crash? What's wind shear - and can it really rip the wings off a plane? How does a plane get off the ground? Why does the plane sometimes bump, jig, and turn at a high angle during climb out? Flying is statistically the safest form of transportation. It is far more mysterious to most than driving a car. By educating yourself through a consumer-friendly book written by a pilot, this will help to ease your fear and take some of your power back.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
This is a form of therapy, also known as (CBT) that believes that If you change your thoughts, you can change your response and behavior. Addressing general anxiety can reduce the intensity during triggering moments, like being on a plane. The therapist may suggest exposure therapy, where your first assignment is to drive to the airport and walk into the terminal. The second assignment might be to take the shortest flight possible from your home with a trusted friend or loved one. The third time might involve a longer flight alone until the fear is de-escalated and flying begins to feel “normal.” This type of “practice” is known as exposure therapy.
How to Avoid Anxiety and Panic When Are Airborne
Talk to the Senior Flight Attendant Before you Board
Ask to board early by telling the gate attendant that you suffer from fear of flying and wish to talk to the flight attendant in the pre-boarding phase. They are accustomed to dealing with nervous fliers. Explain your fears to him/her. Perhaps it is take off that concerns you the most, or maybe it turbulence or landing. Tell them your seat number and ask if they could come and check on you during the inflight times that are most concerning to you. If you are traveling alone and your seatmate seems friendly, perhaps you could ask them to engage you in conversation during take-off to keep your mind off things during this phase of the flight. Strangers can be surprisingly nice inflight.
Bring an Inflight “Tool Kit”
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Distraction is key to staying out of fear/panic. In your carry- on, pack crossword puzzles, coloring books, download books or movies that are “light.” Do not watch or read anything that includes topics of murder, terrorists, plane crashes, fires, death, or anything that can trigger fear. Anything you are reading or listening to, or watching should conjure pleasant thoughts.
Brain games are great because they keep your mind occupied, and that is the goal. The last thing you want is to be clutching your seat handles waiting for every little air pocket. While you are at it, skip the inflight coffee or Diet Coke. The last thing you need is caffeine to make you jittery.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
In progressive muscle relaxation, you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and you relax them as you breathe out. You work on your muscle groups in a specific order. When your body is physically relaxed, you cannot feel anxious. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation for a few weeks will help you get better at this skill, and in time, you will be able to use this method to relieve stress. You can use an audio recording to help you focus on each muscle group, or you can learn the order of muscle groups and do the exercises from memory. Choose a place where you won't be interrupted and where you can lie down on your back and stretch out comfortably, such as a carpeted floor. Breathe in, and tense the first muscle group (hard but not to the point of pain or cramping) for 4 to 10 seconds.
If your fear is really intense and you have discussed this with your psychiatrist, they might feel it appropriate to prescribe you a low dose of a benzodiazepine such as Klonopin or Ativan which work very quickly to calm intense anxiety or panic. These medications are habit forming, so it is best to use them only in extreme situations of panic when you are faced with a phobic situation. Remember not to mix them with alcohol. Sometimes just knowing they are there as a "rescue" can make the phobic person feel better.
About the Doctor:
Dr. Sanam Hafeez PsyD is an NYC based licensed clinical psychologist, teaching faculty member at the prestigious Columbia University Teacher’s College and the founder and Clinical Director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. a neuropsychological, developmental and educational center in Manhattan and Queens.