flyingSomething weird has happened to me over the past ten years or so. I’ve slowly gotten more and more scared of turbulence on airplanes. It’s now to the point where I’m barely fighting off a panic attack.

When I was younger, I enjoyed turbulence. I would snicker when I saw other people with nervous faces when the ride was bumpy.

But suddenly it all changed.

Just a few weeks ago, I was on a flight from Tokyo to San Francisco, and every time the plane moved even a tiny bit, my body was jolted into a state of fear.

I know it’s irrational. I know it’s silly. But I can’t stop my body’s physical response! Trust me, I wish I could.

People say, “Planes are safer than cars. You are more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash.” Ok, fine. Tell my nervous system that.

It was so bad the other day that I was actually mumbling to myself—out loud—“It’s fine. This is normal.” Over and over and over…just to try to calm myself down. What a terrible feeling.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Why on earth am I suddenly reacting so poorly? I think it comes down to control. When I’m on a plane, I have absolutely no control over my destiny. My body is hurtling above the earth and I have no control over my life. I also feel trapped.

In a car, I can see what’s coming at me. If there is a big pothole, I can brace myself for the bump. No so on a plane. And that is terrifying.

On Reddit, people were talking about their fear of flying and it was reassuring to see I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

“Everybody with a fear of flying knows how unlikely it is to be involved in an accident. But it was unlikely for the victims of every aviation accident, and it still happened. It’s not the level of risk that’s frightening; it’s how utterly terrifying it must be when you are one of the unlucky ones. And some people are.”

“Statistics have no real meaning in small samples. Whether you are on a plane, a boat, or a car, you can always be ‘the one percent.’ Someone is that statistic.”

“I’ll always be nervous when I fly. It’s because I’m not in control of the situation at all. A car accident is far more likely, but at least I know–for the most part–I am able to control that situation more. If my car engine dies or a wheel falls off, there’s not a good chance I’m going to die.”

“I hate flying over water. It’s not even a fear of crashing and dying, it’s a fear of crashing and LIVING. I can’t think of a more terrifying situation than being on a sinking plane in the middle of the ocean.”

Yeah, so…..these quotes probably didn’t make you feel any better about flying, but maybe they helped you realize you aren’t alone in your fear.

Here are some new things that are making me freak out even more when there’s turbulence:

  • When I look forward, and I can sort of see the rest of the plane moving and flexing. Or, when I look outside and see the wings flexing.
  • When all you can see outside the windows is whiteness from being in the clouds.
  • When I look around the plane and it’s reinforced in my brain that we are all trapped in this structure, miles up in the sky.
  • When I think about the fact that I’m over an ocean. For some reason, flying over oceans makes me even more scared.

On a recent flight, we had some bad turbulence. I grabbed tightly onto Jim’s arm, got right in his face and said urgently, “TALK TO ME. HURRY. TALK TO ME AND DISTRACT ME.”

For anyone who has not felt this type of fear before—it’s hard to imagine. I feel like my entire body is enveloped; it’s tense and stressed for the entire flight. And the worst part is my stupid brain. During that recent rough turbulence, my brain had already imagined our death. I pictured everyone on the plane starting to scream and panic as the shaking gets worse and worse. The flight attendants are starting to look scared and you can hear glasses and things falling over in the kitchen areas. I imagine myself grabbing onto Jim’s arm, crying and hyperventilating, telling him I love him–and I even imagine how he would probably minimize his fear to try to help me get through it (what a dear.) But the worst part? The thing that sent my terror into overdrive? Wondering how freaking long it would take for the plane to finally crash. Would it be full minutes? If I’m going to die, I want it to just be over. Thinking about falling to my death for minutes puts me into a panic. (Again, I wrote this before the Malaysia Airlines crash.)

Right now you might be thinking: “Holy crap, lady. Get a grip.”

Well, my point is that my mind just goes down that dark, morbid rabbit hole and I can’t stop it.

After that trip, I went online and read lot of stories of how people deal with their fear of turbulence. And—surprise! I’m typing this on a plane right now—and I’m excited to report that it’s the first flight in a long time where I haven’t been super scared when there’s turbulence. Honestly, I’m amazed. I keep waiting for the panic to set in.

It seems what helps me the most is tricking and distracting myself. To wit:

  • If you close your eyes when you are riding in a car, you will notice small bumps all the time. So, on the plane, just imagine that turbulence is like going over bumps in a road. Like bumps in a road, turbulence is not really dangerous (as far as crashing goes). At first, I thought this tactic was stupid, but I can’t believe it actually helped me on my flight today.
  • I closed the shade and didn’t look out the window hardly at all. It helps me forget I’m zooming through the air.
  • I watched a movie on my iPad. I don’t like watching TV or movies on planes, because I get a little motion sickness, but once I was engrossed, it took my mind off the bumps.
  • Some might suggest having a few drinks to relax, but alcohol exacerbates my motion sickness. You can try muscle relaxers, anxiety medicine (like Xanax) or, for me–Dramamine. That puts me to sleep.
  • Look at the flight attendants. They will be completely calm and simply going about their duties. There’s nothing to worry about if they are calm, right?

I am as shocked as anyone that these tricks helped me on my flight today. I kept waiting to feel the fear, and it didn’t come… and it was a huge relief.

Helpful commenter Susanna has her pilot’s license and gave even better suggestions: “Learn more about what happens on airplanes. Basic physics will keep you in the air even in turbulent weather. And if you know why the plane just reduced its engine power or made that ominous clunking sound, you’ll have one thing less to worry about. Books about commercial flying (like this one) can help you learn more about everything that happens.”

“Consider taking an introductory flight at the local flight school. They’re cheap, the instructors are friendly and there are no dumb questions. They’ll even let you take the wheel (with them at the same time, of course) so you can get a feeling for how the plane moves through the air and responds to your actions.”

raro plane

A small, 3-seat-across plane I took in the Cook Islands about 10 years ago. I fought off a panic attack the whole time.

It wasn’t until I experienced this irrational fear of turbulence that I realized what a burden fear is, and it reminded me of the post I wrote about relating to people who have mental illness. I couldn’t stop the fear from paralyzing me, and it was awful. So awful.

Do you fear turbulence or flying? If so, what tactics do you use to get through it?