Does the thought of getting on a plane make your palms sweat? Do you breathe faster? Apprehension about flying is normal, but the degree of fear of flying covers a wide spectrum: some travelers are mildly uneasy during plane trips, whereas others are grounded by their desperate refusal to fly, despite profound professional and personal cost. Before you seek help out, you need to know where you fall on the fear spectrum. Are you apprehensive, uptight, or utterly panicked?

Take for instance Nigel, a 29-year-old vice president of a San Francisco public relations firm. He was once a tranquil flyer. But when he reached his early twenties, a few incredibly turbulent flights and one troubled landing propelled him into a tailspin of terror.

"My fear never kept me from flying," Nigel says, "but from the moment I bought my tickets I'd lie awake at night dreading the plane trip as if it were my own execution." Since Nigel logs in 35,000-50,000 miles of airtime a year, those anxious sleepless hours added up.

Refusing to let panic control his life, Nigel enrolled in a course to overcome his fears. One evening a week for ten weeks, he practiced breathing exercises and acupressure techniques. A commercial pilot explained turbulence, flight sounds, and passenger sensations, such as a dropping feeling as the plane levels in the air. Group members supported each other through sharing and mutual encouragement.

Was the course worth it? Nigel says it is one of the best things he has ever done for himself. "I'll always have some fear, but I've learned how to deal with it. It's really made a difference in my personal and professional life." He mentions his honeymoon, which concluded with a 14-hour flight home from Greece. "I was stressed but I could cope."

And those sleepless nights? "No longer a problem," he says.

What Causes Fear of Flying?

News of accidents, near misses, and terrorist attacks can frighten the most seasoned traveler. When these events occur, the public's anxiety level increases, sometimes to the point that people may refuse to fly.

Other scenarios might nudge a relaxed traveler into fearfulness. Like Nigel, a once-confident flyer may encounter an upsetting in-flight experience, such as prolonged turbulence or mechanical problems. Or boarding the plane may be just one stress too many for someone already overloaded with everyday tension, resulting in an anxiety episode. Worry over a repeat panic attack during future flights could trigger an ever-worsening spiral of fear. Some flyers are just plain claustrophobic. The thought of being in an enclosed place for an extended period of time can cause anxiety and discomfort.

No matter what causes the problem, experts agree that insight alone is not treatment. Anxious flyers must take action to deal with their feelings.

There are many way to deal with your fear of flying. No matter how your fear affects you, there are ways to ease into your flying experience.

Tips for the Just Plane Scared

If the thought of flying makes you jittery or keeps you up the night before your trip, there are some simple methods that may soothe your anxiety:

  • Before you go, try to education yourself airports, airplanes, airlines, and air traffic systems. You can do this from a bookstore, library, or the Internet.
  • Try to avoid news watching a lot of news, which can add to your apprehension.
  • Bring your own snacks. Keep them as fresh and nutritious as possible.
  • Get to the airport early, since rushing can contribute to nervousness.
  • Get in some exercise by taking a long walk in the airport. This may help relax you enough to fall asleep.
  • Bring comfort items, like a small pillow or thin blanket.
  • If possible, meet your flight crew.
  • Watch the safety demonstration and study the emergency instruction in your seat pocket.
  • Drink enough water to prevent dehydration.
  • Avoid caffeine, diet pills, and over-the-counter cold/allergy medications containing decongestants. All are stimulants and may contribute to a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and nervousness.
  • Avoid alcohol and sedatives since they may contribute to feelings of loss of control. Effects are difficult to predict during flight because of changes in altitude pressure.
  • Stay busy. Listen to soothing music, watch the in-flight movie, read a great book, or work. If safety conditions allow, stand up and stretch frequently.
  • Practice deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques.

Extreme Help for Extreme Cases

If you insist on remaining on the ground when it doesn't seem logical, you may have a phobia. Phobias are very real, yet irrational fears of specific situations or objects. The best way to get over your phobias is to face them head on. You may be able to overcome your fear, or at least learn how to control it, so you can finally take that dream vacation. Common approaches include:

  • Virtual reality exposure therapy—use of digital images that slowly expose you to the entire flight experience
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy—changing your behaviors to help you better cope with your fear
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Medications—may help you relax during the exposure, but works best with other therapies to help you overcome your fear
  • Support groups with expert instruction
  • An airline-run self-help group include an airport setting, pilot-led discussions, and even a group graduation flight

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests consulting your primary care doctor to put you in touch with a professional who can help you take to the skies