Six Practical Steps for Nervous Flyers

Usually when we travel, so much of the focus is (obviously) on the destination, the things we’ll do when we get there, the places we’ll visit and the experiences we’ll have – and more often that not, those are the memories that remain long afterwards too. But for every trip there is the small matter of getting there. And for some, that ‘getting there’ is a Big Deal! Even though I’ve flown a decent amount and have done my fair share of long (long) haul, I would still say I don’t particularly like flying – and I know I’m not alone. I’m also amazed by some of the tips I’ve seen elsewhere online. (A recent piece I read suggested trying to go to sleep before take-off. Because obviously highly nervous people in a claustrophobic situation can just sleep at will. Eyeroll). I’ve therefore compiled a list of practical things that anyone can do which might go some way towards making your next flight a bit more bearable. Bon Voyage!

1. Identify what it is that you don’t like…

If you have a full-blown phobia of flying then it might be hard to do this, as genuine phobias often stem from essentially irrational thoughts or fears, but it’s worth thinking quite carefully about whether there are any specific things that bother you. You can then start to try to find ways to either combat or manage these issues. For example, a lot of my problems with flying are sensory. I don’t like the physical sensation when the plane banks or makes a turn. I don’t like the stale smell of the cabins. I don’t like the sensation of landing. I could go on – but we’ll take these as starting points. If you can break down a few similar points like this that contribute to you feeling yukky on a flight, it gives you something tangible to work with.

2. … And take steps to (try to) neutralise the problem

A lot of the discomfort of flying can’t really be helped, but if you can identify anything like the above that you can try to counteract, this can go some way towards making the whole thing feel a bit more manageable.

So – to take the examples above step-by-step – I do the following. With regard to the weird sensation of flying, particularly when the plane turns sharply to the left or right during landing or after take-off, I’ve found that being able to look out of the window and particularly to some kind of horizon line or reference point helps greatly. For me, chewing on peppermint or spearmint gum also helps to counteract the sensation of that ‘stale’ feeling inside the cabin (the strong taste and scent seems to distract my nose and tastebuds, and peppermint can also help with nausea). Bizarrely, I’ve also found salt and vinegar crisps work wonders: again, this is probably mostly because it is a distraction (i.e. food!) and also has a strong flavour – it’s fairly well known that sense of taste is dulled at altitude and when in a pressurised cabin.

Lastly, I’ve found that I just have to *concentrate* during landing. By this, I mean a combination of some of the above: the plane generally does more turns as it circles in to line up with the runway, so looking out the window to get my bearings is essential. If I can spot the runway then even better – the end is in sight. Munching on crisps also goes some way towards distracting my mind whilst my stomach busily ties itself in knots. Ways of dealing with feelings like sickness or anxiety will obviously differ for each person, but if you can identify any scents or tastes which perhaps calm you or help to take your mind off what is happening around you, try using these on your next flight. A lavender-scented scarf, sour sweets, dry crackers – it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you find something that helps!

Just looking at this picture makes me feel slightly ill.

3. Be prepared

Yes, the combination of the above probably does make me look like a bit of a weirdo, but I don’t do things by halves so am also one hell of an organised weirdo. (Plus I really don’t care). Being able to look out of the window when I need to means being organised and booking a window seat in advance whenever possible. Requiring a combination of gum and crisps to snack on, as well as water to sip if I’m feeling a bit dehydrated or queasy, means remembering to buy all of this at the airport, and having it all to hand during take-off if need be. Recently, I’ve taken to having a little bag that I can take out of my larger cabin bag, into which I can put a drink, snacks, iPad, headphones etc. and just have with me in my lap or by my feet.

A lot of the time, counteracting any sense of panic (whether induced by travel sickness or a more serious phobia) involves creating an element of control. Just the thought of having to endure a take-off or landing without my little bag of distractions makes me feel slightly panicky. But having those things to hand – even if you don’t need them – can be immediately reassuring. They are there if you do need them, and you can quickly and calmly deal with the situation; no-one will even know if you’re having a mild panic or moment of stomach-swirling nausea.

4. Be honest with people around you

This goes hand-in-hand with two of the points above: regaining (some) control, and not caring what people around you think. This can be easier said than done, but worrying about what people might be thinking of you just adds another layer of unnecessary anxiety. If need be, just try to be honest with your companions – whether old friends or complete strangers – and say you’re not great with plane flights. Once when I was on a flight by myself, the elderly woman sat next to me was determined to chat to me, regardless of how green in the face I became. She was also quite determined to convert me to her religion, but that’s by the by. Eventually I admitted with a weak smile that I wasn’t feeling too good, and hoped she didn’t mind if I just kept to myself for a while. Alternatively, popping in some headphones are a useful way to switch off from people around you if you feel the need to just sit calmly and chill for a bit. If you let people know you’re feeling a bit nervy or queasy, they’d have to have a heart of stone to be offended. (And, to reiterate, not caring helps here. I’d rather mildly offend a complete stranger than be pressured into making small talk and then barfing in their lap because I can’t look out the window).


5. Trick your body and mind into feeling comfortable

This is a good one for long haul flights in particular, especially if you’re planning on trying to get some shut eye. I think one of the main reasons behind why I find it difficult to sleep on planes is because I’m in a situation that’s completely and utterly alien to where and how I would normally sleep: in a stuffy and noisy tin can, 40,000 feet in the air, fully clothed and sitting upright.

There’s not much you can do about multiple elements of this (apart from perhaps taking out a small loan and flying business class), but I’ve found that I can ‘trick’ myself into thinking I should be sleeping. In short, when I feel like I want to try and go to sleep, I try my best to recreate the scenario for how I would normally sleep at home. I change out of whatever daytime clothes I’ve worn to travel (jeans aren’t the comfiest things to sleep in) and put on some cosy loungewear – obviously something appropriate for plane travel, but as close to ‘pyjama’ as I can feasibly manage. I also brush my teeth, as I would before going to bed (also see above – horrible stale cabin air = a need to freshen up). I take my make up off as I would at home. Following any kind of routine that you normally have – that can be carried out on a plane – will subconsciously get you ready to sleep. And then the final flourish: eye mask on (to make it dark); ear plugs in (to make it somewhat quiet); and seat reclined as far as possible. I’m also usually wearing a comfy hoody, so pull the hood up for extra insulation. I’ve found this actually works surprisingly well, particularly if you wait until you are properly tired and feeling ready for sleep. Sweet dreams.

6. Break the journey into manageable chunks

Again this is particularly useful for long haul, but can be applied to any flight – particularly if you want it to be over quickly, whatever the length. In short, I think about the different things I might have to distract/entertain me during a flight (eating, sleeping, reading, watching films etc) and try to separate these out into chunks to keep me occupied throughout. I don’t want to have eaten all my snacks and watched half a film before the plane has even taken off.

I normally download a few films or tv shows on my iPad to watch, especially if I’m on a low-cost flight without in-flight entertainment, and try to space these out. In particular, I’ll try to put off watching anything until the plane has reached cruising altitude, (partly because, as mentioned above, I’m fixedly staring out the window to try to fend off motion sickness) and this normally uses up a good 20 minutes or so. Similarly with landing – and by then I’m usually so excited about finally getting on the ground that I don’t need much entertainment. (Scoping out a new city or country from the air is always pretty cool too).

If I’m on a much longer flight, I’ll try to intersperse watching films for an hour or two with walking around the plane (no DVT for me), eating whatever “food” might be doled out (usually distracting enough), maybe reading a couple of chapters of a book, and hopefully sleeping. Even this slight variety helps to break up some of the tedium for me – I can never understand the people who sit there and watch films for seven or eight hours solid. I would get bored just doing that at home…

Hopefully some of these ideas will be of use to you too – and if you have any tips or tricks of your own, please share!

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