How to Accept Your Anxious Feelings About Flying

How to Accept Your Anxious Feelings About Flying

All of these next five points are a summary of the primary themes covered in the book Don’t Panic, Third Edition. I will review them briefly here, and again encourage you to read Part II of the book for a more comprehensive understanding (see Resources).

Whenever you begin to get anxious and panicky — whether before or during a flight — accept these symptoms. Don’t fight or try to hold them back.

If you struggle against your anxious feelings, you will cause an increase in the symptoms you are trying to reduce! Your heart will race more, your palms will sweat, you’ll feel more lightheaded and dizzy, your stomach will become more tense. So when you notice your symptoms, tell yourself, “It’s OK I’m feeling this way. I expect to be nervous right now. I can handle this.” Then work on believing those thoughts, not just repeating the words.

How your mind and body keep you anxious

I assume that you are reading this section not because you have had one uncomfortable time on a plane, but several. Why do these anxious thoughts and feelings keep returning?

Let’s assume that you have had some flight experience that you consider bad or traumatic. It may be a situation you were involved in, or it could be a vicarious experience of stories you have heard. In either case, let’s also assume this traumatic experience is fresh in your memory. Here is what occurs when you get uncomfortable again.

How to Become an Uncomfortable Flyer

  • Think about flying
  • Remember a past problem
  • Imagine that happening to you in the future
  • Your body goes on guard
  • Worry about your symptom

YOU THINK ABOUT FLYING. Perhaps you are out taking a walk in the park and hear a plane overhead. Or maybe you are reflecting on the possibility of taking a flight in a few weeks to go on vacation, or starting a new job that’s going to require you to fly as part of your responsibilities. Anything that reminds you of flying can lead to your discomfort.

YOU REMEMBER A PAST PROBLEM. Why would something as minor as hearing the sound of a plane cause you to feel tense? Any kind of stimulus such as this can trigger your negative memory, because your mind will retrieve the past relevant event that has the strongest emotion. As I mentioned earlier, when you remember that event, something interesting happens: your body responds to the imagery almost as if the event were happening again. You, in turn, get anxious.

YOU IMAGINE THE PROBLEM HAPPENING IN THE FUTURE. If you are thinking of the possibility of taking a flight soon, then your mind won’t stop there. In the back of your mind, you will probably ask the question, “Can this happen to me in the future? How will I handle it?” To assess those questions, your mind will visually put you in that uncomfortable future scene.

YOUR BODY GOES ON GUARD. Your body becomes directly involved in that experience and will respond appropriately to the moment. Only it will be responding to your imagery, not to reality. Even if you are taking a leisurely bath in the comfort of your own home, if you start seeing yourself on a plane, feeling claustrophobic, and not handling it well, then your body will give you symptoms of anxiety.

If you imagine yourself having trouble, then your mind will send your body the message, “This is an emergency!” Your brain sends a signal to its hypothalamus, and the hypothalamus sends a signal to your adrenal glands, which are on top of your kidneys. Your adrenal glands will secrete a hormone called epinephrine. (We used to call it “adrenaline.”) Epinephrine will stimulate the production of specific physical changes: the eyes dilate to improve vision, the heart rate increases to circulate blood more quickly to vital organs, respiration increases to provide more oxygen to the rapidly circulating blood, the muscles tense in the arms and legs to help you move quickly and precisely.

This is your body’s emergency response, gearing up to help you in a crisis, the same response that helps when you are about to fall or when your car goes into a skid in the rain or snow. So we don’t want to change your body’s response; it is a valuable part of your survival skills. Instead, we want to stop your mind from sending your body the message that, “This is an emergency!” every time you think about being on a plane.

YOU WORRY ABOUT YOUR SYMPTOMS. An interesting thing happens next. When your symptoms become strong and persist, you start to worry about them as well as the flight. You know you can’t control the plane, and you know you can’t get off whenever you want. And now you begin to think you can’t control your body either!

How does your body respond when you say, “I don’t feel in control?” Here is that same message again: “This is an emergency!” As soon as your body hears “emergency,” it jumps to your rescue: “I’m here to protect you!” And it will secrete more epinephrine to prepare you for that “fight or flight” response.

As soon as that happens, you say, “Uh, oh, things are getting worse, I’m feeling even more terrible. This is really frightening.” This becomes a vicious circle: you notice physical sensations, and you become frightened by them, which causes an increase in those physical symptoms. As they increase, that scares you even more.

Then either one of two things can happen. The first is that you continue to book that flight or to stay on the airplane, but you feel anxious and uncomfortable the whole time. This is why some people experience a tense stomach throughout an entire flight, even if that flight is smooth and routine. Your other choice is to escape. You say, “This is enough, I’ve had it, I can’t tolerate it.” And you walk off the plane before takeoff, or you cancel the flight that you booked.

Have you ever avoided a flight at the last minute because of your discomfort? What happens next? Let’s say you are on a flight, and the door is closing before takeoff. Now your symptoms get very strong. You say, “Hey, I can’t tolerate this. I am out of here!” And you walk off the plane. The door closes behind you, and the plane backs away from the gate.

Two things change. First, your symptoms will begin to diminish. Your breathing rate returns to normal, your heart rate starts to slow down, your blood pressure drops, and you begin to feel a sense of relief and comfort. In other words, your body reinforces your avoidance. Your body relaxes and tells you, “It was a smart decision to get off of that flight.”

Second, you will tend to finish that picture of the flight in your mind. You will say, “Thank goodness I got off the flight. What if I had stayed on the plane? My heart would have raced so strongly that I would have had a heart attack.” Or, “My symptoms would have gotten so severe that I would have had a panic attack. I would have humiliated myself. We’d be thirty-one thousand feet in the air, and I’d be running down the isles screaming.”

The reduction of your physical symptoms, coupled with this image that things would have been awful if you had stayed on the plane, will reinforce your decision to avoid flying. Next time, it might be much harder to face your discomfort.

How to respond to your symptoms

I have explained what the protective “emergency” response is and why it occurs. I have also talked about what people tend to do when they experience the symptoms of this response. Now let’s look at what to do differently so that you will become more comfortable.

I base almost all these next strategies on the important concept of paradox. Paradox means “the opposite of logic.” In other words, when you begin to get anxious and panicky, your mind says, “You better become scared of these symptoms. You better run and escape from the situation.” I encourage you, instead, to accept these symptoms, to not fight them.

I’m not asking you to erase all of your fears and worries about flying. I’m suggesting that you respond to them differently once you notice them. It’s all right if you are startled when you hear a noise or feel a bump on the plane. That’s perfectly fine, and many people who fly will have that reaction. Once that occurs, how can you take care of yourself? Here is the beginning of what you do:

1.  NOTICE YOUR DISCOMFORT. Step back for a moment and comment on your discomfort. Keep it simple. Say to yourself, “I’m starting to work myself up.” Or “I can feel myself getting more and more nervous right now.” Or “I’m sitting here thinking how bad this flight could get, and I’m scaring myself.”

2.  ACCEPT YOUR DISCOMFORT. Your negative images are understandable: you are scared of the flight, so you worry about it. This causes your mind and body to brace for the worst possible outcome. That response is built into the brain, as a genetic predisposition. When we are threatened, the mind and body shift to a survival stance, which is a natural, biologically based process. This is a fact. If you resist this fact, you only make matters worse for yourself.

Decide to accept this response, just as you would accept your startled response if someone made a sudden loud noise behind you. (I want to point out here that when you bring your attention to your symptoms, even in this manner when you are trying to help, you may become a little more nervous. Accept that added nervousness, too!)

Find a statement that will support your acceptance. Say it in your mind, and let it help you. Try to believe what you are saying.

Two common statements that might reflect your acceptance are:

“It’s okay to be nervous.”


“I can handle these feelings.”

Acceptance is your initial position, your opening stance. You then KEEP REMINDING YOURSELF TO ACCEPT YOUR SYMPTOMS as you begin to take action. There are a variety of simple techniques you can use to calm yourself down. But none of them work very well if you are saying to yourself, “This can’t go on! I can’t stand this! I’ve got to feel better now!” In other words, “This is an emergency!”

The rest of this self-help program will offer you specific actions you can take to become comfortable. Please keep in mind that accepting your symptoms will serve as the foundation of every other skill you learn. When you are having trouble applying new skills, think first about whether you are applying the principle of acceptance.