6 Tricks to Try to Calm Your Fear of Flying

7 minute read

Gina Moffa’s fear of flying took off early. When she was 10, her mother—overwhelmed by bad turbulence on a flight to Italy—clambered to the emergency exit and tried to get out of the plane. A fellow passenger offered her Valium, and a nun onboard prayed the Rosary with her. “And then she was OK,” says Moffa, now a grief therapist based in New York City. “But it taught me there was something to be afraid of.”

That hasn’t lessened over the years. Moffa recently returned from a “precarious adventure” to the Portuguese island Madeira that involved flying in a tiny 12-seater plane for nearly three hours over the Atlantic. She almost didn't board. “They were like, ‘Ma'am, you're going to make us late—we have to get on before the winds come,’” she recalls.

If your heart also takes a nosedive while flying—especially recently—you’re not alone. Research suggests about 25 million adults in the U.S. experience aerophobia, and who can blame them? Door plugs are dropping off of Boeing 737 and small planes alike. Engines are catching on fire midair, and tires are falling off.

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But the truth remains: Flying is safe. Even now. According to the National Safety Council, the lifetime odds of dying on a plane in the U.S. are “too small to calculate.” That’s part of the reason Moffa hasn’t allowed herself to be grounded. On her recent rickety flight, “I was terrified to the point of palpitations, but I didn’t cause a scene,” she says. “It’s a very common fear, and it can be immobilizing, but you can’t let that fear get in the way of witnessing the beauty in the world.”

We asked experts to share the psychological tricks that help them conquer their flight anxiety.

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Moffa has learned that she’s able to cope with her fear of flying best if she understands everything about her trip—including what type of plane she’ll be on, the forecast, and expected turbulence. “If I know that I think catastrophic thoughts around flying, which I do, then I can say, ‘OK, so what are the facts?’”

That philosophy led her to the aviation corner of TikTok, where pilots post video explainers of how they prepare for take-off and landing, strategies to avoid thunderstorms, and navigating worst-case issues like engine failure. “They’ll show you what they’re doing in the cockpit, and what the noises are,” Moffa says. “That way if you’re sitting near the wing and you see part of it go down, you’re not like, ‘Wow, we’re going to lose our wing.’ It’s actually just part of what it's supposed to do to keep you in the air.” Knowledge is power, she says—and, in this case, peace.

Establish some sense of control over your environment

After years of flying without any issues, Los Angeles psychologist Carder Stout developed aerophobia in his 30s. Now, he has an action plan that he shares with his clients and uses himself. Step one: Ensure you feel some sense of control over your environment. That means bringing your own pillow, blanket, and slippers. “I pull down the window shades in my aisle, or ask the other passengers to do so,” he says. (No one has declined the request yet.) During take off, he puts on Pink Floyd, closes his eyes, and visualizes a peaceful, tranquil, and safe place that he's visited before. That image, he says, helps calm his jittery nerves.

Journal positive phrases

Once the plane levels off and is cruising through the air, Stout starts journaling positive phrases. For example: “I’m going to be fine. I’m safe. Planes aren’t so bad, after all.” They become his mantras for the flight, he says, anchors he can return to whenever he needs to settle back down. If the plane suddenly feels like it’s falling, or turbulence jolts you out of your seat, repeat after him: “I am going to be fine.”

Try the Havening Technique

When Dr. Christine Gibson, a family doctor and trauma therapist in Calgary, Canada, treats people with specific anxieties, she focuses on teaching them that they have control over their own body. “We can slow our heart rate down,” she says, and let our sympathetic nervous system know there’s nothing to fear. “We’re not just a giant reflex. We can consciously say to our mind-body system, ‘You’re OK. You're safe right now, even though your brain is trying to tell you you’re in danger.’”

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One way to do that is through the Havening Technique, which aims to shift emotions; its name is a nod to finding a safe space, or a “haven.” It involves using one hand to gently brush your palms, shoulders, and face in an up-and-down motion. Start by lightly rubbing your right hand across the palm of your opposite hand, then gently stroking from your shoulder down to your elbow, and across your forehead and cheekbones. You might rub both arms at once, for example, which mimics hugging yourself. After a few repetitions, you should feel calmer, Gibson says.

Practice tapping

Another one of Gibson’s favorite ways to calm down is the Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as “tapping.” It derives from traditional Chinese medicine, and she likes to think of it as self-acupuncture. First, you’ll need a “set-up statement,” which Gibson suggests might sound like this: “Even though there is anxiety when I think about flying, and I’m noticing my heart’s pounding right now, I'm actually safe.” Repeat that as you use two fingers to tap on the acupressure points on your body that are associated with stress relief. Among them: the top of your head, the spot between your eyebrows, the middle of the cheekbones, and the spot between the nose and the lip.

You can subtly practice tapping while you’re in your airplane seat, Gibson points out. “If you have anxiety and it's like an eight out of 10, and it's causing you a lot of distress, you do tapping over and over again until the distress is at a three,” she says. “It’s still there, but it’s shrunk and not really bothering you.”

Consider exposure therapy

If you can’t shake your fear of flying, it might be time to enlist a therapist who specializes in treating phobias. Exposure therapy can be highly effective, says psychologist Shmaya Krinsky, founder of Anxiety and Behavioral Health Psychotherapy, which provides telehealth in New York and New Jersey. It involves systematically and gradually “exposing people to the source of their fear in a safe and controlled environment,” he says. With one technique, for example—called imaginal exposure—you might be asked to visualize the process of going to the airport, boarding the plane, and experiencing a bad bout of turbulence. Another technique, in vivo exposure, forces you to directly face the object of your fear; perhaps climbing onto a stationary plane. Virtual reality can also play a helpful role in exposure therapy, Krinsky points out. It might be a bumpy ride, but after a few months, you’ll arrive at the other side—no fear-of-flying baggage in tow.

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