It’s 4am and I’m in the tiny toilet of a Boeing 777. I’m 24 hours into a 31-hour, four-leg flight to New Zealand, and can barely think straight; my vision blurred by tiredness and hunger. How can I possibly eat when my stomach’s churning and my single-minded concentration is all that’s keeping this glorified tin can aloft?
This trip happened back in 2015 and, by the time I arrived in Christchurch, not only was I completely delirious, but I knew something needed to change. This wasn’t the first time a holiday had been marred by my fear of flying - I’d spent multiple flights to Europe and back gripping the armrests for dear life, and once had to cajole my GP into prescribing valium for a birthday trip to New York. I realised that I couldn’t live with a debilitating fear that directly opposed my greatest passion: travelling the world. I resolved that, once I got home, I’d do everything I could to overcome my terror.
For anyone who has ever felt the same, rest assured: beating a flying phobia is possible. Recently, I flew to Japan, and was relaxed enough to eat an entire Pret banquet, sleep for four hours and blub my way through Marley & Me. Quite a triumph.
So how did I do it?
To start with, there were the basics: swapping my "soothing" pre-flight milky coffee to decaff (combats jitters) and finding a great pair of noise-cancelling headphones to block out the ~scary~ noises during take-off and landing (I recommend Sony’s brilliant WH-1000XM3 design).
On a deeper level, I had to undo the negative thought patterns I’d built up over time. During my first flight, aged seven, I thought it was magical to be floating above the clouds. But following a particularly turbulent flight aged 24 - and several global aviation disasters (I hoovered up information on MH370) - my overactive imagination painted flying as the most dangerous, unpredictable, out-of-control thing I could possibly do.
To overcome these beliefs, I had to stop feeding my fears further, and that meant unhooking myself from the 24/7 news drip. The age of rolling news and obsessive coverage of every event is not great for aviophobes, regardless of the outcome. Pouring over news was compounding my sense that flying was dangerous, even though the actual chance of being killed in an airline accident is roughly one fatality per 3 million flights.
Another step I took to combat my fear of flying was to administer some exposure therapy - the act of repeatedly confronting the activity that makes you anxious. Sadly this isn’t an achieveable coping mechanism for everyone, due to the cost, and I realise now it's not the most eco-friendly method, either. But my job at the time allowed for frequent travel, and I decided to volunteer for every trip abroad, even if it meant flying solo.
Because these trips were often to exciting places I wanted to visit, I would quickly say yes before the fear overtook me, before it had a chance to rear its ugly head. To begin with, I was stomach-clenchingly nervous with every take off, jolt or noise on board the plane. But, by flying repeatedly, I was increasingly forced to challenge my notion that turbulence would lead to inevitable death, or travelling over the sea meant I would end up at the bottom of the ocean. When you’re scared of flying, the easy option is avoidance, but long gaps between flights allow your fears to fester and grow. Only by facing your phobia can you conquer it.
Beyond this, I enrolled on a British Airways Flying with Confidence course in a bid to combat my fears. This involved a morning with a BA pilot explaining the mechanics of flight, to give you confidence in what keeps the plane in the air, and an afternoon with a psychologist. They shared lots of useful tips, such as finding a mantra to repeat to yourself when you’re anxious (mine is “Flying is the safest thing I could possibly be doing right now”, which statistically is pretty accurate). The day culminated with a short circular flight over Southampton and back, during which the pilot explained what caused every noise and sensation.
Being able to look forward to a holiday without my stomach flipping at the thought of the flight is liberating - I feel light and free, no longer weighed down by an anchor of dread.
5 tips to overcome your own fear of flying, from British Airways pilot and course leader, Captain Steve Allright
- Breathing techniques
"Learn to control your breathing," Steve tells Cosmopolitan UK. "When you feel anxious, hold your breath for a few seconds, then take a long, deep inhale, followed by a slow exhale. Combine this with muscle contractions. Clenching your buttocks is effective, as it overrides the nervous signals going up and down your spinal cord."
- Keep busy
"Split a long flight up into half-hour sections. Make a plan of things to do, like writing a letter, watching films, reading a book or eating a meal."
- Trust the experts
"Pilots undergo a rigorous selection procedure and are subjected to simulator tests every six months," he continues. "Commercial aircraft are incredibly well-maintained, and checked before every flight by pilots and engineers. Plus, air traffic controllers are trained and licensed professionals, operating under a very strict set of rules."
- Understand lift
"It’s the wings that enable an aircraft to fly, not the engines. A commercial aircraft flying at 30,000ft can glide for 100 miles, even if all the engines fail."
- Stay positive
"Visualise yourself stepping off the aircraft into the arms of loved ones, or a lovely warm climate, or a successful business meeting."