Here’s How to Handle Your Worries When You’re Afraid to Fly
Fear of Flying
Even after you decide to trust the airline industry, your mind may continue to scare you with “what if . . .” thoughts. (“What if something does go wrong!”, “What if people see that I’m nervous!”, or “What if I have a panic attack!”) These worries are simply “noise”: distractions, ways to make you uncomfortable.
You will want to get that noise out of your head, to clear your mind so that you can have more enjoyable flights. You will need some special skills to get rid of them, and I describe most of them in Step 8 of the Panic Attack Self-Help Program. Here is a summary.
Worries as “noise”
Let’s say that, even though there has been some recent incident in the airline industry, you are able to reassure yourself about the unlikely chance of this incident occurring again. If you then continue to worry, you can say, “This is really ‘noise.’ I gathered the information I needed, and I trust the industry. So I am choosing to fly, and now I want to fly as comfortably as possible.”
Once you make that decision, that’s half the battle. You now need to address your worries head on, because worries don’t usually dissolve in the face of logic. Now you must apply different skills to reduce the “noise” of your worries.
Before you do anything else, take a firm stand: “I am going to handle these worries that keep popping up again and again. They just start running in my mind and keep me awake at night. They are preventing me from flying comfortably.” You cannot take half a stand here. You must fully commit yourself to confronting your worries as noise that you want to get rid of.
Then, you have to plan for those moments when you begin worrying. What happens when those worries start? As you know from your own experience, you feel scared, tense, and have difficulty concentrating on anything besides your fears.
Your first move: add some support
It’s probably becoming clear now that everything you say during these times will have an influence on how you feel. The statements that will increase your problems will be ones that start with, “I can’t . . .,” such as, “I can’t let people see me this way,” “I can’t be anxious right now,” “I can’t let this anxiety get any worse,” or “I can’t handle these feelings.”
So, let’s find some statements that will support your comfort. We are looking for statements that give you the message, “I can stop thinking those worried thoughts now.”
If you are worried about your symptoms, then the strongest kinds of statements start with “It’s okay . . .” and “I can . . . .” For instance, “It’s okay to be nervous,” and, “I can handle these feelings.” As I mentioned earlier, these statements reflect you willingness to accept your symptoms. They are permissive statements; they give you options. Those options make you feel less trapped. When you feel less trapped, you won’t feel so uncomfortable.
There are many other statements that might feel supportive to you. For instance, “These feelings I am having are uncomfortable, but they’re not dangerous.” Other examples are: “These [negative] thoughts aren’t helping me. I can let them go.” “I can stop these worried thoughts now.” “This is only anxiety.” “I deserve to feel comfortable here.”
If your worries include concerns about the flight, then respond to those negative thoughts with positive ones that you can believe in. Here are some examples:
- “These pilots are well-trained professionals whom I can trust.”
- “This plane is safe.”
- “Turbulence may feel uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous.”
- “This is not an emergency.”
When you are worried, find statements that will help you let go of negative thoughts. Think about what you need to hear to reverse your worried thinking. Look for statements that allow you to then say, “It’s okay to relax now.” But don’t just mouth those words. Find statements you can believe in, then work on believing them.
Now we will build on this opening move with two techniques: thought-stopping and postponing.
Putting a stop to your worries
Negative thought stopping is another handy tool to use as you start to worry. (Review negative thought stopping in Step 8 of the Panic Attack Self-Help Program.) For example, imagine sitting on the plane at cruising altitude. The captain announces that you will soon be entering some light turbulence. You think, “Oh, no, not turbulence! This plane can’t take it!” If you want to get a grip on things, what do you do next?
- Notice that you are worrying (“I’m starting to work myself up.”)
- Decide if you want to stop it (“But I know that turbulence can’t hurt this plane, even if it might spill a little of my coffee.”)
- Yell “STOP!” in your mind. And snap a rubber band on your wrist, if you’re wearing one.
- Then start Calming Counts or some other relaxation technique.
Stalling your worries
The postponing technique presented in Step 8 of the Panic Attack Self-Help Program is another useful tool. You need not allow your noisy worries to have free rein over your mind throughout each day. Here’s a review of that skill.
- Agree to pay attention to your worries instead of struggling to get rid of them.
- But choose your own specific time in the future to worry. Never let yourself worry-on-demand.
- As that designated time arrives, either start obsessing or consider postponing the worries to another specified time. Whenever possible, choose to postpone.
Finding enough to worry about
Do you ever find yourself worrying for days, even weeks, before taking a flight? Your mind thinks it is protecting you by reviewing your decision, checking to see that you are making the right choice. The problem is that your mind doesn’t know when to quit; the worry begins to intrude on your daily life. The more you think about it, the more anxious you become and the less competent you are at your other mental tasks.
When this occurs, start by applying the first two skills: thought-stopping or postponing. In many situations one of them will do the trick. But sometimes you may find that your worries are too intrusive and persistent, and thought-stopping and postponing aren’t enough to help you gain control.
In that situation, add the technique of Worry Time, a distinct form of paradox in which you purposely worry more instead of less. Using it only once or twice won’t bring the intended benefits. Ideally you should use it daily for about ten days before the flight.
Review the specifics of this skill in Step 8 of the Panic Attack Self-Help Program, and practice it only during the days and weeks before the flight. Don’t use it on the day of the flight, since it is best to spend that day quieting your worries. Instead, practice the many other skills available to you.
Here is a brief summary of those skills.
Creating a “Worry Time”
- Set aside two daily Worry Times of 10 minutes each.
- Spend this entire time thinking only about your worries regarding one issue. (OPTIONS: speak into a tape recorder or talk to a “coach”)
- Do not think about any positive alternatives, only the negative ones. And do not convince yourself that your worries are irrational.
- Attempt to become as anxious as possible while worrying.
- Continue to the end of each worry period, even if you run out of ideas and have to repeat the same worries over again.
- At the end of ten minutes, let go of those worries with some Calming Breaths, then return to other activities.
Thought-stopping, postponing, and Worry Time are all good ways to disrupt the noise of your worries. But keep in mind that nature abhors a vacuum. If you quiet down your mind, it’s going to start looking around for something to think about. Your worried thoughts are attractive, since they are full of emotions. And, of course, they were the last things you were thinking about.
So get involved! Re-focus your attention toward other activities that will be interesting or enjoyable to you.
- If you are on the plane, you can strike up a conversation with the person next to you. There are many interesting people on a plane, going to lots of exciting places.
- You can start reading that good book you brought along.
- You can get back to a business project in your briefcase.
- You can take time for relaxation by listening to a tape.
- On most planes you can even call someone up on the phone and chat.
If you are worrying during the days before the flight, you can do all of these, plus you can take a drive, go for a walk or get some other exercise.
Whatever you choose, know that you, not your worries, are in charge. Take control of what you do and what you think. Purposely fill your time with activities you choose. That will help ensure that the worries don’t creep back in so frequently or intensely.