Relaxation Skills for the Fear of Flying

Relaxation Skills for the Fear of Flying

Why should you spend time learning how to relax? Because twenty-five years of research shows that if you can loosen muscles in your body, your anxiety will reduce automatically. This is a great way to alleviate some of your symptoms! Instead of trying to quiet those noisy thoughts, you can loosen your muscles, and your thoughts will relax as well. Calming your body will help calm your mind.

Get tense before you relax

Of course, many people can give you the advice: “Just relax!” Sometimes you feel so tense that you can’t “just relax.” But remember the principle of paradox? It means doing things that seem opposite of logic. These are the times to apply paradox by supporting your physical symptoms as a way to reduce them.

There are two different ways to apply this principle. You can reduce your tension by intensifying it before you begin to let it go, or you can encourage and invite certain physical symptoms instead of resisting them. Each of these ways enables you to reduce your uncomfortable physical symptoms.

These two approaches sound very much like the other kinds of paradox that I’ve talked about already. When you are growing increasingly anxious and tense on the plane, I am going to suggest that you increase that tension, that you try to become even more tense. That, of course, is going to go against your basic nature, to resist tension. But when you apply this principle, you’ll be surprised at the response you get from your body.

Keep in mind the body’s physical reaction to fear. If you’re like most people, every time you have a fearful thought, your body responds by becoming a little more tense. So why fight it? The reason is, of course, that nobody wants to be tense.

But why fight it initially? In some cases you’ll only be making yourself more tense. Instead, do the opposite. Go with your impulse to become tense, but do it consciously, purposely, voluntarily. Now you are taking control. You like to be in control, don’t you? (Most people do.) So actually tighten your muscles before you loosen them, instead of simply trying to relax them.

One way is by using the Ten-Second Grip. Here’s how to use it.

The Ten-Second Grip

  1. Grab the arm rests in your seat and squeeze them as hard as you can, making your lower and upper arms contract. Tense your stomach and leg muscles as well.
  2. Hold that for about ten seconds, while you continue to breathe.
  3. Then let go with a long, gentle Calming Breath.
  4. Repeat that two more times.
  5. Then shift around in your seat, shaking loose your arms, shoulders and legs and gently rolling your head a few times.
  6. Finish off by closing your eyes and breathing gently for about thirty seconds. Let your body feel warm, relaxed and heavy during that time.

Try to increase your symptoms

Along with physical tension, you can experience many other anxious symptoms. Your heart starts racing, you begin to get dizzy or light-headed, perhaps you get a lump in your throat, you have a difficult time swallowing, some pain in your chest, numbness or tingling in your hands or feet or around your mouth, maybe shaking or nausea. All of these symptoms can make you even more frightened than you were when you began to have your fears, do we need to have a way to respond to them. Here is a summary of a paradoxical procedure that you can apply to these symptoms.

Using Paradox During Panic

  1. Take a Calming Breath, then begin natural breathing. Don’t fight your physical symptoms and don’t run away.
  2. Observe your predominant physical symptom at this moment. Say to yourself, “I am going to take voluntary control of these symptoms. I would like to increase my [name the predominant symptom].”
  3. Consciously attempt to increase that symptom.
  4. Now attempt to increase all the other symptoms you notice: “I would like to perspire more than this. Let me see if I can become very dizzy and make my legs turn into jelly, right now.”
  5. Continue natural breathing, while you consciously and fully attempt to increase all your symptoms of panic.
  6. Do not get trapped in worried, critical, or hopeless comments (“This better start working soon! I certainly must be doing this wrong. It’ll never work.”)

Again, it’s obvious that these are paradoxical instructions, because they seem somewhat crazy to say to yourself. (“Here I am with shaky legs, feeling dizzy, like I’m about to faint. And now I’m supposed to try to make this worse!?”) So it does take courage and a little faith. If you will practice during times of low-level anxiety, you will have another valuable skill on hand when a real worry sets in.

Help your body relax

Remember that you don’t have to be run by your discomfort. Take charge of your comfort by taking action. If you have only a minute or two, simply take a single Calming Breath or do the Calming Counts, and release your tensions in the process. Practicing your breathing skills, using the Ten-Second Grip, paradoxically trying to increase your symptoms — these are all ways to reduce physical symptoms of tension.

There other ways to manage your discomfort as well. For a summary of them, refer to the chart “Responding to Physical Symptoms” at the end of Step 7 of the Panic Attack Self-Help Program. Use the formal relaxation skills of Step 5 of the Panic Attack Self-Help Program to help train your body and mind to slow down and experience comfort. Practice them daily for several weeks.

Get involved!

Keep in mind, too, that you don’t have to be totally relaxed to be in control. Sometimes you may need to try out your skills, let them help you reduce your tensions as much as possible, then accept that you may still have some leftover tension. Don’t worry about that. The best thing to do at that point is to get involved with your surroundings. You may be surprised to discover that after you focus on that interesting person next to you, in a few minutes your tension isn’t so bothersome.

I’m not suggesting that you become so frightened of your discomfort that you try to block it out. Too many people read the same paragraph in a novel over and over in an effort to distract themselves. That’s not too helpful.

Instead, pay attention to your physical discomfort, and choose some direct actions to increase your comfort. You might say, “It’s okay that I’m feeling some tension now. This is my first transcontinental flight in eight years. I’ve reassured myself and practiced the skills. Now I’m going to get involved a while with my novel. I’ll check my symptoms in ten minutes.”

Home Study

Achieving Comfortable Flight, Audio 7: Generalized Relaxation and Imagery
Achieving Comfortable Flight, Booklet A: Personal Strategies