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Anxious woman sits on aeroplane

3 Easy Ways to Help Manage Aeroplane Anxiety

Reading time | 5 mins

As an introvert and a person who lives with anxiety, I’m not a fan of flying.

Being on an aeroplane is an attack on all of my senses. The lack of personal space, harsh lighting, unstable temperatures, variety of foul smells, and noise – LOTS of noise – all contribute to a stressful experience for me. Then there’s obviously the thought of being thirty thousand feet in the air!  

I had a particularly bad experience with a toilet flush on a flight to Philadelphia earlier this year. The roar that accompanied the flush was so loud, I feared that I was about to be sucked into the system and dropped from the sky! I bolted out of the cubicle and crashed into a confused looking air steward.

What if turbulence hits? You know you can’t cope with that!”  

What if the plane has to make an emergency landing?”

 “What if somebody vomits and stinks out the cabin?”

Anxiety and intrusive thoughts

As someone with anxiety issues I tend to struggle with the lack of control I feel when flying. Rationally speaking, yes, I know that I probably have a higher chance of being killed by a coconut or a kangaroo, than in a plane crash. Yet I still can’t shake the sense of dread that comes with flying.

For a designated amount of time, I am confined to a seat with no escape, and no escape from my intrusive thoughts:

What if turbulence hits? You know you can’t cope with that!”  

What if the plane has to make an emergency landing?”

 “What if somebody vomits and stinks out the cabin?”

There are so many variables that I cannot control, or escape from. And as someone with anxiety, I need an emotional escape plan.

The airport dread

Generally, the airport experience is not designed for a person with fragile nerves, or for someone who is lacking in the patience department. The queuing, the faffing with passports, the frequent tannoy announcements. Then of course, there’s the security checks.

I can assure you that I’ve never tried to smuggle an illegal item in or out of a country in my life. Yet, whenever I am going through security I convince myself that I somehow have a gun in my hand luggage, or a bag of cocaine with a street value of ten million pounds stuffed down my pockets. It’s a very intricate daydream. I even think about what I’ll say in court and whether I’d prefer the top or bottom bunk in prison.

As I walk through the metal detector thing, I try and look as ‘normal’ as possible… But alas, I suspect that I might look like a crazed rabbit – one that hasn’t only seen the headlights, but who has in fact swallowed them. By the time I’ve battled my way through, desperately grabbing my things from the tray on the conveyor belt, I need a stiff drink and a lie down.

“Everybody has to do it,” my dad once said regarding airports and flying. “Nobody likes it. You just have to suck it up and get on with it.”

I’m not arguing with this statement. It’s true, the experience is unpleasant for most people. However, I do believe that those with a mental health conditions can find it especially challenging.

So here are some tips to consider the next time you take a flight.

Top tips for reducing airport and flying anxiety

Clear communication

Be honest about how you’re feeling. Don’t assume people will automatically know that you’re struggling. Even those closest to you may not realise. Remember, everyone is distracted at an airport.

My anxiety can sometimes manifest as anger. It might appear as though I’m behaving like a spoilt child, but it’s usually because my anxiety is attacking me. When this happens, I apologise, explain how I’m feeling and what I need at that moment to feel better. For example, a seat in a quieter area.

Plan ahead 

Don’t leave anything until the last minute. Give yourself enough time to get to the airport and go through security. Put your liquids in a see-through plastic bag at home. A packet of sandwich bags costs a few pounds from the supermarket. Jostling about with your cosmetics in the security queue is not fun!

I would also advise against wearing jewellery (metal detector drama) and if possible, wear shoes that can be removed easily. Keep everything as straightforward as possible. This might sound simple, but reducing as much stress as possible in advance will really make a difference.

Pack an aeroplane ‘Survival Kit’

My aeroplane survival kit has everything that I need to feel as comfortable as possible. It’s a collection of things that work for me, but please adapt for yourself to suit your own needs.

  • A bottle of water (under 100ml). Never underestimate the impact of dehydration from flying. Some of the signs might surprise you. For example tiredness, dizziness, disorientation, and in my experience, mood swings can all be managed better if you are hydrated. Planes have low humidity, so it’s important to drink plenty of that good old H20.
  • Eye drops. See above.
  • Hand cream. See above. My hands get so dry on planes!
  • A travel pillow. Planes are uncomfortable, FACT. A good travel pillow is an easy way to provide a bit of relief.
  • Slippers. That’s right, you heard me. I like to have comfy feet!
  • A large scarf. Preferably one that can double up as a blanket. The temperature on planes can be unpredictable. I like a security blanket to snuggle up in if it’s chilly.
  • A pulse point essential oil. If like me, scent really alters your mood, then you need to invest in some travel sizes. A trick is to put a little on your clothing too – for example, on the collar of a shirt or a scarf. I like to surround myself in a cocoon of relaxing scents. It’s my only defence against undesirable smells.
  • Headphones. An absolute necessity for me.
  • Activities. Have something pleasurable to do and save it for the flight. I like to give myself a facial. I realise that this might sound ridiculous, but I find the process to be very relaxing! I don’t lie there with cucumber on my eyes or slip into a dressing gown, but I do like to cleanse and apply a hydrating mask (it’s a clear one). Check out this video from makeup artist Lisa Eldridge. I love her in-flight routine. Thirty minutes before we land I reapply my make-up, which is another pleasurable and distracting activity. Puzzles, music, books and films also work a treat.
  • Snacks - Sometimes it can take a decade for that trusty food cart to be wheeled down the aisle. Food has an impact on my mood, and I like to have almonds on hand in case I get peckish. They’re high in protein and packed full of magnesium, which supports the nervous systems.

When you live with anxiety, being prepared is a necessity. Respect your brain and anticipate your needs – this should help manage anxiety symptoms, and make travelling easier for you and those around you.

UK/MED/19/0249 October 2019