As the winds howl violently, 350 passengers are jerked from side to side in their chairs around you. Your anxiety spikes with each sound of booming and banging from the undercarriage. Your palms sweat as you grip the armrests of your seat, and your heart beats so loudly that you’re sure the people next to you can hear it too. This pounding in your chest doesn’t seem to rest until the wheels of the plane touch the runway.
The fear of flying is just one phobia that can keep travelers at home. What might seem like a dream vacation to some may feel like a daunting task for the millions of people with anxiety. Some face fears like agoraphobia (fear of being embarrassed or trapped in open or public places), aviophobia (fear of flying), claustrophobia (fear of being trapped in confined spaces), or pathophobia (fear of disease).
Anxiety is a real disorder, but it is possible to help anxious travelers keep worries under control. Janis Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker with 19 years of experience as a therapist and life coach in Utah, suggests five helpful tips.
Johnson recommends facing fears rather than avoiding them. She suggests recalling fears that you have overcome in the past and applying those experiences to your present situation. For example, ask yourself, How did I get over the fear of moving away from my family? or How did I overcome my fears when I went on my work trip to Japan?
“If you can see yourself traveling and tolerating it—even looking forward to traveling—it helps,” says Johnson.
Writing down your feelings can be a great way to understand where your fears may be coming from. Once you start to understand the source of your fears, you may be able to discover ideas to overcome them. For example, you might write, “When I am in the air, I am startled by the noises I don’t understand.” Then, to decrease your anxiety, try wearing headphones during your flight.
“Try to picture yourself traveling and enjoying it,” says Johnson. The more specific you can create your vision, the more it will help you look forward to your trip, keeping your mind occupied with happy images rather than with negative “what if” scenarios.
Create a symbolic connection that helps you feel more secure while flying. For example, you might compare flying a plane to flying a kite. “When the kite is in the air, it is moving about, but science ensures it returns safely,” Johnson says.
After creating a story with a rational method to resolve the plot’s conflict, tell yourself this story before and during your trip. The unconscious part of your mind can hear the story and help you cope more effectively with your anxiety.
Breathing exercises are one tool that can help you keep your body steady and calm. Psychologists suggest breathing in for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, and releasing for four seconds. Keeping this steady pattern can help keep your mind busy—and can keep your heart rate consistent and stable.
As you apply these tips during your travels, remember to be patient with yourself. As you learn to manage your anxiety better, you’ll find ways to travel a little farther than you thought you could before.