One in four people experience flight-related anxiety and for good reason, let’s uncover the real reasons behind why flight anxiety affects so many people and how to fix it.
Flying in airplanes IS scary.
No matter how safe something may be, that does not reduce our fear of it. Many of our fears come as a part of a package deal that includes a fear of heights, loss of control, the unknown, packed small places, and unfamiliar people. Combine all of these and it is clear why airplanes are such anxiety causing machines. Being tossed around in a crowded, noisy, metal contraption 30,000 ft in the air exposed to storms, terrorists, and babies is a very scary proposition for the rational part of our brains to come to terms with.
Fix: Make sure to get a window or aisle seat, lower or close the window shade, and use the bathroom prior to boarding the plane. Bring some good distractions with you and get into them prior to boarding so by the time you sit down you are right in the middle of them. The best sources of distraction are meditative music or hilarious comedies. Avoid as many sources of stress as possible by: not drinking any caffeine or energy drinks, preparing a small bottled water after security check-in, make sure your phone/device is fully charged (bring a battery pack if necessary), avoid reading the news or watching the news prior to boarding, avoid stress-inducing films. Bring your own headphones (noise canceling are great).
Airports demand social interaction.
The reason why self-checkout is a success at grocery stores is that people would rather do manual labor than being forced into a social interaction. Getting on a plane puts passengers through more social interactions with strangers than most people are used to. Checking in a bag, going through security, changing a seat assignment, waiting in line, sitting next to someone, these social interactions with strangers are all sources of anxiety and that is barely just the start.
Fix: Check into your flight the day before (and pick a seat if necessary) via mobile and email yourself the boarding pass. Avoid checked luggage if possible. Examine your luggage before security to make sure nothing will get flagged to avoid being stopped at security. Avoid interactions with strangers at the gate and plane ride by bringing a book and headphones. Travel with a friend!
Flying is full of the unfamiliar and unknown.
Traveling forces us to consider things we normally take for granted. Sharing a bathroom with 100 other people means we don’t know whether it will be available when we need it. We might have made plans we are unsure about. Going to a new place means we may encounter cultural, language, or other communication barriers. The destination will be filled with unfamiliar foods, stores, and people. These anxieties can really pile on and quickly get out of control.
Fix: Eat a nice, familiar meal prior to flying. Something with lots of starch and tryptophan (potatoes and turkey) will activate your body’s parasympathetic nervous system and put you in “rest” mode. Try not to drink too much prior to flying but make sure you have access to water in your carry on bag. Bring candy (your favorite is best).
Flight-anxiety is real and the causes are many. If only there was a small solution to anxiety in a vending machine right before the security checkout. I stopped hoping and brought my decade of neuroscience experience to bear on this problem. In addition to all the tips offered here, I have also spent the past few years working on a solution called Nerv. Nerv is a small, healthy, 2 oz drink that is scientifically formulated to help manage occasional stress and anxiety. It was designed with airports in mind so you can take them right through security. We currently offer Nerv here at our online store and are working to stock Nerv at airport convenience stores and vending machines. There is no way to eliminate all the anxiety surround flying but I hope Nerv can be your secret superpower to beating it.
About the author: Dr. Michael Jiang is a neuroscientist entrepreneur and co-founder and inventor of Nerv, a small healthy supplement for the management of occasional stress and anxiety. His mission is to destigmatize the conversation around mental health by offering accessible, healthy, and intuitive solutions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of others.