Flying Anxiety Guide – How To Overcome A Fear of Flying

Just over 40% of the US population experience some degree of flying anxiety according to studies. If you regularly suffer from flying anxiety, then you’ve probably heard the stats about how safe flying really is, particularly compared to other modes of transportation, or about how rare accidents are in the aviation space. Unfortunately, we typically can’t overcome our fears and phobias with a few well-quoted statistics. In this article we look at what flying anxiety is, what the symptoms are, uncover why we suffer from a fear of flying in the first place and then look at several medications, techniques and books that should help you overcome your own fear of flying.

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Flying Anxiety Key Takeaways

Without revealing the whole article, here are the most interesting & useful takeways about Flying Anxiety:

  • Aviophobia, the clinical term for a fear of flying, is characterized by a marked aversion towards flying on airplanes or any type of aircraft in general.
  • The symptoms of flying anxiety include (either before or during an air flight) shaking or shivering, increased heart rate or heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, clouded thinking or confusion and severe irritation.
  • Solutions for overcoming flying anxiety include medications like dramamine & ambien, or supplements like GABA, melatonin or PerformZen. There are several books around flying anxiety that aim to help the reader understand logically the process of flying, which can help somewhat in removing the more irrational flying fears.

I travel a lot. Last year alone I flew 16 times, and while a little bit of that was ‘lockdown revenge’ travel where I decided to make time with friends and family a priority for the year (even if said friends and family lived on the other side of the world); this was actually a fairly normal year of flights & travel for me.

What doesn’t make sense (to me or anyone I tell this to) is that I have a severe fear of flying, and have done so for as long as I can remember — since taking yearly vacations with my family as a toddler. Every flight I’ve ever taken has been an exercise in stress, lots of frantic and negative self talk, and sometimes even cancelled flights and excuses to myself and others about why “I just can’t make this trip!”

That is, flying used to be like this for me! I have had to go through an entire journey to finally address my flying anxiety in order to figure out how I could fix this life-long limiter once-and-for-all.

Here, I’m going to share with you what I have learned about flying anxiety, share with you what the latest research on flying anxiety reveals to us, and pinpoint several techniques, books & tools that you can use to overcome your fear of flying.

Boeing and other well respected organizations have carried out many surveys over the past 30 years with a focus on mental reactions to flying, and they estimate that one in every six people have some form of a fear of flying, referred to in the studies as flight anxiety [1]. Assuming that the research numbers can be extrapolated out to the general population, you can take a little bit of comfort in knowing that you are not alone with your flying anxiety issues. And the good news is it something that can be managed, controlled and (in some cases) overcome completely.

So join me as we dive-in to this common phobia — a fear of flying — and work out how you can overcome your flying anxiety.

What is Flying Anxiety?

Aviophobia is the clinical term for flying anxiety, flying phobia or the fear of flight. It is a crippling form of anxiety that is classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific phobia, characterized by a marked aversion towards flying on airplanes or any type of aircraft in general [2].

Symptoms of Flying Anxiety

While the cause of Aviophobia can be varied, people experiencing the phobia may develop any (or several) of the below-mentioned symptoms either before or during an air flight [3]:

  • Shaking or shivering
  • Increased heart rate or heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Clouded thinking or confusion
  • Irritation

For many reading this, even the idea of traveling or booking a ticket for flight travel may bring out these symptoms.

My ‘Adventures’ Overcoming A Fear of Flying

As I shared above, my fear of flying has been intense for as long as I can remember. But flash forward to [year] and my fear of flying has all but disappeared. I do occasionally get nervous before a flight, but my fears are on a 2 out of 10 level rather than the 9 that they were previously at!

I have actually come to enjoy flying. I look forward to it. I think of flying as a time to relax, rest and enjoy being disconnected from the outside world. When booking a flight I smile calmly, confident in the knowledge that sitting in a plane is one of the safest places I could possibly put myself.

If I can overcome such a debilitating case of flying anxiety; I’m almost certain that you can do it, too.

How? Well the first step is understanding why we experience flying anxiety and a fear of flying in the first place.

Why do we suffer from a fear of flying in the first place?

Amongst the numerous factors that can contribute to someone developing/succumbing to a fear of flying; I believe that the most common are news/media coverage of flying accidents & tragedies combined with other pre-existing phobias and anxieties.

Media Coverage of Air crashes, Hijackings & Malfunctions

The documentary film Downfall and The Case Against Boeing increased flying anxiety for many people as they no longer felt safe in commercial planes
The Netflix documentary “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” tells the (at the time) unfolding news story of two back-to-back airplane crashes in 2018 that took the lives of a total 346 passengers in 2018.

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind the documentary stated in an interview that she made the film due to her “primal fear of flying” [4].

What this documentary made clear is that there is an alarming effect that follows media coverage of plane crashes, airplane malfunctions, hijackings, etc. The tragedies are all that people can think about whenever getting on planes, or talking to friends and family with an upcoming flight. And understandably so; it’s a strange, yet perfectly natural, human reaction to events that are by all metrics, quite rare!

It can be argued that increased fear of flying in the wake of increased media coverage of an aerial accident is a case of availability bias (also called the availability heuristic) [5].

The availability bias is a well-studied theory/mental model that says our brains tend to make decisions based on two kinds of information: a recent memory and/or a vivid memory.

Our brains tend to act as if things that have happened recently, or things that stand out in our minds are more likely to happen again. This is because things that have just happened are top of mind, so related thoughts about it pop-up quickly and easily. And when an event is vivid and easier to remember, it becomes easier to imagine it happening again [6].

So, naturally, if somebody isn’t that knowledgeable about the actual risks involved or has little to no experience with flying broadly, and they have recently seen media coverage of crashes or accidents; it makes sense that they would potentially form preconceived notions about airplanes in their mind.

Other Phobias

Some people have different pre-existing phobias that may intertwine and possibly worsen aviophobia/fear of flying. Claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), or the fear of terrorism and hijacking are all good examples [7].

Previous negative flying experiences

It is entirely possible that a fear of flying/flying anxiety is purely the result of a bad experience in the past, which may have solidified one’s prior fear (or possibly caused it in the first place). Examples include a previous flight with severe air turbulence, plane controls going haywire, or a forced landing that was jarring (physically and emotionally).

Underlying Causes of Flying Anxiety

All of these are perfectly reasonable explanations for developing flying anxiety and a fear of flying, but if none really resonate with you then it’s worth understanding that human fears and anxieties can be multi-variate and each person may have different (known or unknown) root causes.

The psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) Yuko Nippoda explained in one interview how a fear of flying can often stem from a lack of control [8].

She stated in the interview:

“If you are on a train and you need to get off, you can do so at the next stop. If you’re in a car, you can get out almost anywhere. But once you get on an aeroplane, you cannot leave. This sense of losing all authority over your actions can be very frightening.”

Nippoda highlighted that people are used to feeling their feet on solid ground. It follows then that the idea of floating in the sky can easily lead to imagining worst-case scenarios:

“If catastrophic situations, such as engine failure, bad turbulence or a hijacking occur, the plane could crash. This fear of death can cause major flight anxiety, even if someone knows deep down those things are extremely unlikely. Their mind can go into overdrive.”

Understanding that a simple of lack of control — whether it is rational or not — can lead to a severe fear of flying, can help you to understand that the psychology of our fears can go very deep.

The point here is that the start of your journey towards overcoming your fear of flying begins with questioning yourself; delving deep into your own psyche and understanding what the root of the fear is. Once you understand the root, you can properly address (and potentially solve) it.

Medications For Fear of Flying

There are several over-the-counter (OTC) medications commonly prescribed to help people manage their flying anxiety symptoms or to help people sleep during flights, including dramamine, diazepam and benzodiazepine drugs like lorazepam, temazepam or clonazepam.

Here’s a summary of some of the most common medications used to help with flying anxiety symptoms:

Dramamine For Flying Anxiety

Dramamine is used to fight motion sickness and also helps some people manage their flying anxiety
Dramamine is an over-the-counter medication that is typically used to fight motion sickness, but it can perform double-duty as an anxiety relief solution for air travel [9].

We have a comprehensive article about Dramamine for anxiety purposes, which you can read if interested. But in summary, Kathleen Bangs — who is a former commercial pilot who now teaches flight classes and covers air travel for several publications — explained Dramamine usage in a magazine interview:

“Many people think the OTC drug Dramamine is only taken to combat nausea, but it’s actually quite effective at inducing drowsiness and reducing anxiety in nervous flyers. I recommend it to passengers as an alternative to that pre-takeoff or in-flight martini. Besides, alcohol dehydrates the body on a cellular level, and the last thing anyone needs while traveling in the ultra-dry air of an airline cabin is more dehydration.”

Dramamine is an H1 receptor antagonist, meaning that it’s an antihistamine that reduces the effects of natural chemical histamine in the body. It’s mostly used by those who are sensitive to motion sickness during travel in order to treat or prevent nausea, vomiting, and dizziness, but the motion sickness drug provides relaxation and anxiety relief benefits as well.

Dramamine is generally considered safe when used as directed, but it is not completely without risks. Abuse of dramamine has been reported, and often involves ingestion of high doses to induce psychotropic effects, including hallucinations and euphoria [10].

And there appears to be a potential for the development of physical dependence on the drug in individuals who chronically abuse it, although this is not very common [11].

Ambien For Flying Anxiety

Ambien is the brand name for Zolpidem, a medication commonly prescribed for anxiety-related insomnia and other sleeping difficulties.

In addition to inducing sleep, Ambien has been shown in studies & common usage to help with various anxiety symptoms. Ambien works by increasing the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger in the brain [12].

The responsibilities of GABA include slowing nerve firing, reducing anxiety levels and muscle tension and helping to initiate sleep. The neurotransmitter also diminishes the impact of brain chemicals which permit a person to fall asleep. The anxiety relief effects of Ambien are accelerated with the individual’s ability to obtain restful sleep before, or during a flight.

Benzodiazepines For Flying Anxiety

Benzodiazepines like Valium, Xanax, Restoril, Ativan and Klonopin, are the oldest and most well-known controlled substances for anxiety [13]. They work by decreasing abnormal excitement within the brain, acting on the brain and central nervous system (CNS) to produce a calming effect [14].

Xanax, specifically, slows down the movement of brain chemicals that may have become unbalanced, resulting in a reduction in nervous tension and anxiety. Much like Ambien, Xanax does this by boosting the effects of a natural chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is made in the brain [15].

Natural Flying Anxiety Medications

Researchers in the aviation field have started to recommend more natural (and non-addictive) alternative medications and solutions to help people with flight anxiety. We personally recommend looking further into Melatonin, GABA supplements and natural calming solutions like PerformZen.

Melatonin for flying anxiety

Overnight flights can often be particularly stressful for the anxiety-prone individual; mostly because of the potential for sleep disruption. In these circumstances, the use of melatonin, a natural supplement that can be purchased over-the-counter, can be extremely useful.

One Tampa Bay Concierge Doctor, Dr. Khalid Saeed, was quoted in an interview summarizing Melatonin as follows [16]:

“[I recommend] Melatonin as a natural supplement to my patients with flight-related anxiety. Melatonin induces sleep and adjusts your circadian clock to help you function better when you reach your destination. I suggest taking melatonin a few days before your trip so that you’re ready to sleep thirty minutes to an hour earlier than normal. It will decrease jet lag if taken close to your target bedtime at your destination, and there are no major side effects to worry about. Plus, your flight will be over before you know it!”

Melatonin is a hormone that your brain produces when it ‘detects’ darkness. Melatonin helps with the timing of your circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock) and with sleep. Being exposed to light at night can block melatonin production [17].

Research suggests that melatonin plays other critical roles in the body other than aiding sleep, and a well known ‘side-benefit’ of melatonin is its ability to help with jet lag.

Jet lag affects people when they travel by air across multiple time zones. With jet lag, you may not feel well overall and you may have disturbed sleep, daytime tiredness, impaired functioning, and digestive problems.

Studies performed in 2010 and 2014 revealed that melatonin supplements can have a positive effect on jet lag. Four studies in particular that included a total of 142 travelers, showed that melatonin may be better than a placebo (an inactive substance) in reducing overall symptoms of jet lag after eastward flights. Another study of 234 travelers on eastward flights looked at only sleep quality and found evidence that melatonin may help with improving sleep quality [17].

GABA for flying anxiety

Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is a naturally-occurring amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter within the body. GABA has been shown in studies to have a calming effect, and GABA deficiency is believed to play a part in several common anxiety disorders [18].

Studies that used GABA supplementation have found it often has a positive effect on stress and anxiety [18], which would help overcome flying fears/flying anxiety in a similar way to benzodiazepines like xanax — but without the associated addiction risk, drowsiness or other side-effects!

Does PerformZen work for flying anxiety?

This is a fairly common question that we get asked at PerformZen HQ, and the short answer is yes, PerformZen can absolutely help with relieving your flying anxiety symptoms.

Our supplement, PerformZen Calm Performance Formula, is a natural supplement designed to help you stay calm under pressure — whether that’s getting up on stage to perform in front of an audience, or stepping onto a plane for the first time in months/years even though the mere thought of flying used to invoke fear, aggressively negative thought cycles and extreme flying anxiety. PerformZen was made to get you through situations like this with a calm, eased, focused mind.

PerformZen works by boosting the neurotransmitter GABA in your brain. GABA works by inhibiting brain signals to reduce nervous system activity. Being deficient in GABA has been linked with a higher risk of anxiety in numerous studies [19].

GABA supplementation has proven particularly helpful for those who experience flying anxiety, and PerformZen also contains other ingredients that help boost cognitive performance so you can keep nervousness at bay and focus on keeping a calm head before and during a long or short flight:

  • Magnesium – Magnesium is a natural relaxant, and helps with absorption of GABA in your body [20].
  • Vitamin B6 – Magnesium and Vitamin B6 work together to improve mental focus and cognitive processes. B6 also promotes GABA synthesis in the body [21].
  • Theacrine – When you’re about to enter a high-anxiety situation like an upcoming flight, Theacrine helps stabilize your energy levels so you don’t experience excessive tiredness or jittery ups and downs [22].
  • Ginkgo Biloba – Ginkgo Biloba will keep your fight-or-flight response under control and prevents the symptoms of generalized anxiety [23].

Perform Better Under Pressure. Every Time.

Performance Anxiety is common before a big event or performance. For some of us, the stakes are extremely high and we have to perform at our absolute best! PerformZen was created for you; the high level performer who wants to stay focused & creative while delivering the best performance of your life, without the crippling anxiety & nerves. 100% natural and with none of the side-effects of beta blockers. Get a 10% discount on PerformZen today:

Book Recommendations To Help With Flying Anxiety

In my own journey of learning all about my flying anxiety and the different techniques & medications that could help me overcome it, I read a bunch of literature about anxiety in general, and more specifically about fear of flying and the aviation industry in general. Here are the books that I found the most useful:

Flying Anxiety Book Recommendation #1: Cockpit Confidential

Cockpit Confidential - Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel - Questions, Answers, and Reflections

Written by Patrick Smith, a pilot and writer of the ‘Ask the Pilot’ column for Salon, this book covers nearly every question you could possibly have about flying. And the fact that the author is so matter-of-fact about everything, and seems to make even the most horrifying-sounding of situations appear as though it was not a big deal in any way (because it likely wasn’t) can really help set your mind at ease about flying.

Flying Anxiety Book Recommendation #2: Soar – The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying

Soar - The Breakthrough Treatment For Fear Of Flying

This book is all about the psychology behind a persons fear of flying. ‘Soar’ teaches you exactly why you have this fear, what’s going on in your body when you experience anxiety aboard planes, and it even shares some incredible coping methods for when you’re up in the air.

I highly recommend this book as it’s particularly good at dampening down anticipation anxiety when you’re (for example) wondering if you should cancel your trip. It’s recommended that you read this book at least a week before your flight, if not longer, as some of the calming exercises can take a few days to see be effective.

Flying Anxiety Book Recommendation #3: Easyway To Enjoy Flying

Easyway To Enjoy Flying Paperback by Allen Carr

This book takes a totally different approach to the ‘Soar’ book mentioned above, and I got the most from it when reading while on the plane. It’s all about dispelling the most common myths around the safety of planes, for example understanding what’s happening during the take-off, or when there’s any turbulence during a flight. If there’s one part in particular about the flying process that you really don’t like, this book will help you understand what’s going on when it happens and, most likely, help you realize that it’s not necessarily as big of a situation as you may have first thought.

So Is There Any Way To Overcome A Fear of Flying?

Absolutely, you can overcome a fear of flying and flying anxiety following the methods discussed above. A resource that really helped me in my journey to beat flying anxiety is the sub-reddit at r/fearofflying where people regularly post about their own experiences with flying fears and share whenever they make progress getting it under control. Check out that sub-Reddit, try some (or all) of the methods discussed above, and get to work overcoming your own fear of flying.

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Eric is a performance expert and a member of the PerformZen team since it was founded. Eric has battled anxiety his entire life and he is passionate about helping people gain control over the things that they fear most, with anxiety being at the top of that list for many!

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