Oh My God, The Plane’s Taking Off! How Can We Deal with Anxiety?

Many people suffer from fear of flying, sailing or even roller-coasters. How to deal with such fears and how our loved ones can help?

The planning of your trip is all done and you’re very excited and counting the days but your tummy churns when you realise that soon you will need to face your fear of getting on a plane or boarding a boat.  As a therapist, I often encounter clients who are struggling with such fears. We call them phobias. Whether it is a fear of heights, or fear or flying, or fear of boats, the bottom line is that it hinders peoples’ travels sometimes to the point of not being able to board a plane or a boat.

It is important to realise that these fears (as irrational as they may be) are legitimate and coping can be a real challenge.  A plane hanging between the skies and the earth is not a ‘natural’ state for many of us and the challenge of gravitation does not make it easier.  The same goes for boats at sea or elevators. We’ve all heard of terrible disasters and this acts as fuel to the already blazing fear which often leads to panic.

When we encounter someone who is panicking, the first thing to do to explain to that person that their response is normal and that they’re not going crazy.  It’s just anxiety and there’s no real threat.

How do we reduce anxiety? First, we need to try and calm down the physical symptoms. For example, drink water when the mouth is dry or stop hyperventilating.  Because many suffers will be focusing on their symptoms which will worsen the anxiety.  A common scenario is that the anxious passenger will say “leave me alone, I’d rather not speak”, and when left to their own device they tune into the plane noises, turbulence, and other things that frighten them.  This adds to the already high level of anxiety.

The way I recommend dealing with such anxieties is to try and do the opposite of what the phobia ‘dictates’.  Meaning, slower and regulated breathing from the tummy rather than the chest. Closing eyes imagining a safe place.  Trying to visualise a picture that promotes feeling secure and decrease the anxiety. ‘Directed Imagination’ can help a lot, same goes for meditation. It’s very important not to consume stimulating beverages (such as coffee, coke or alcohol).  You can follow on by basic diversion techniques: listen to music through a headset or watch an inflight movie. Having a supporting group or spouse is very important.

When to get professional help?  The level of suffering and interference with one’s normal life is quite subjective and is likely to be the deciding factor.  About 30% of people experience one phobia or another during their lives and usually it passes by itself.   When it doesn’t pass by itself and the suffer is overwhelmed, it’s time to seek professional help.

Searching for a natural way to reduce your fears?  Here’s a few tips:

  • On the day of intended travel avoid spicy foods to avoid increasing tummy sensitivity. Avoid caffeine and increase your water Give preference to easily digestible foods preferably plant based. This will help keep your digestion system more relaxed.  Have less salt, especially if you’re hypertensive.  Avoid sweet beverages, cakes and other sweet snacks. If you want to be really ready for travel, start with the list above already a few days prior to your trip.
  • During the trip keep yourself busy with things that help you relax. Pre-prepare soothing music, a relaxing book, preload your tablet with interesting movies. Think what you should be taking with you that will make you feel relaxed and help pass the transit time comfortably.
  • Bring along anything that helps create a ‘homey’ feeling, such as comfortable clothes, a jumper, a blanket, comfy socks and maybe even a pillow and your favourite sleepers.
  • During the trip, make sure to be very hydrated. Drink plenty of water. Take with you any infusions that can help you relax and are unlikely to be found on the plane or the boat.
  • Make sure you have a fresh lemon with you. If you feel nauseous, take it out and scrape it a little and breath it in. alternatively, squeeze a slice into a glass of water.
  • During the trip, choose vegetarian and fruit-based dishes. The standard on-board food offering is not always the best option. To be sure, bring with you some fruit from home. For example, apples, pears and maybe a few almonds or walnuts.  If you really feel like ‘investing’, you may even pre-prepare a quinoa salad for the trip.
  • During the trip (and when the seatbelts sign is off) it’s important to move around a bit and do some stretching. You can even find on YouTube some clips that will show you how to relax your neck and your back during travel and whilst seating down.

Udi Gon-Paz is a Functional Therapist specialising in Clinical Nutrition and Stress Therapy. Licensed to practice in Monaco and the UK and carrying full professional indemnity insurance.