Traveling with aviophobia

Life is full of little ironies, although some are bigger and more aggravating than others. I enjoy laughing at most of them–except the one where my dad is a pilot, my mom worked for the airlines, and I have a deep fear of flying. And I’m not exactly sure why. I mean, my grandmother suffered from it too, and avoided flying whenever she could. So my propensity to have this fear could be genetic. I haven’t been in any kind of plane accident or traumatic event related to flying. My Nana suggested that it could be because of 9/11, especially since my fear (as far as I can remember) started around that time. But my fear isn’t necessarily that the plane will suffer a terrorist attack.

Let’s clear something up: having a phobia isn’t the same as not liking something, finding it to be slightly uncomfortable or a little scary. A phobia is defined as an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something. A person with a phobia will avoid their trigger, even when it’s extremely inconvenient. And the irrationality is also an important aspect to understand–because only then will one understand that facts, statistics, science, and “talking some sense into them” will not cure the fear.

“The problem with statistics is that they do not stop people
from being afraid of flying. Statistics do not help because the fear of flying actually has little to do with risk as such. If the fear of flying were actually caused by the potential for an accident, then everyone who fears to fly would be even more afraid—29 times more afraid, to be statistically exact—to drive or ride in an automobile. But that is clearly not the case.”

Aviophobia, or a fear of flying, can be considered its own phobia, or can be associated with other phobias such as a fear of heights or a fear of confined spaces. For me, it stems from a fear of not being in control, and being in an unsafe place that I cannot escape from (agoraphobia). I’m not afraid of heights…I don’t think someone afraid of heights would be able to stomach traveling up on an aerial ladder. (Yeah, I was lucky enough to get a test ride last month!)

Okay, I was a little scared, but the control was there. The firefighter even let me “drive” it back down.
Don’t look down


My fear of flying may seem even more weird to people when they find out that I’ve enjoyed swimming with sharks, riding on motorcycles, and working with wolves (including handling them). I consider myself an adventurous person.

Loading a wolf into a crate for an exam

I didn’t really realize that I had the fear until I was about 13 years old, when someone told me that no, not everyone dreads getting on a plane and has sweaty palms and heart palpitations before even boarding, then cries during turbulence. We tried therapy, systematic desensitization to be exact. It worked well in the office, but all bets were off once I actually got on a plane. I would like to try a different type of therapy, but money is a limiting factor, so I’m waiting until I have a better insurance that would cover something like that. For now, I have a prescription anti-anxiety medication that I take that helps me a lot. The downside is that it has side effects–short term memory loss, nausea, and dizziness, among others. But the alternative is a fun mixture of heart palpitations, panic attacks, sweaty palms, hyperventilation, crying, and just a general feeling that I am going to die. It’s a force inside of me that feels so out of control, and I really, truly wish that I didn’t have this problem. It seems obvious that no one would want it, but sometimes when people get annoyed with me because of the fear, I feel like they think I don’t care or that I’m not trying hard enough to “get over it”. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I flew to St. Louis for a zookeeping conference

I wish others would try to understand the problem and empathize. Believe me, I hate my fear of flying because it affects my life to a great extent. I love to travel, and I wish I loved flying, too.

The best things anyone can do if they find themselves flying with or talking to me about it are to listen, lend a shoulder to hug or cry on, be patient, understand that I hate it too, and forgive me for my ways.

Flying is the only way I can see a lot of my family

So how does someone who loves travel, deal with a fear of flying? Well like I said before, I have the medication to help calm me down. Not only does it help me right before and during the flight, but it helps me before I even take it. Just knowing that I have it, helps to reassure me about a future flight. I don’t have to worry as much about the fear itself. I still get scared. Right after booking a flight, I feel a rush of anxiety. Then a day or two before the flight, I start to get anxious again, and the anxiety rises on the way to the airport, and peaks during takeoff. Hopefully by then the medicine is helping, but my fear is never completely subdued. I still wake up during turbulence and get scared. I still have to look out the window to make sure the wing is okay and the engines aren’t on fire. I still have to check the faces of other passengers and flight attendants to calm me down.

What I look like post-flight: tired, yet relieved and very happy.
I’ve traveled to, from, and back again to Spain for love. It takes a toll, as you can see here, but I’m happy in the end.

In 2 weeks, we are flying to Switzerland. I’m really excited for the trip, but also anxious about the flights. I know I will be okay, but deep down my mind tells me that I might not. It’s a constant struggle, but I don’t let it stop me from traveling anymore. Despite my fear, I’ve managed to travel to some amazing places recently.

Fuente Dé, Spain

Here are my strategies when traveling by plane:

  1. When possible, I try to fly during the middle of the day as I like to be able to see outside clearly and there is generally less turbulence.
  2. I try to build in extra time after arriving in the destination to rest and let the medicine wear off (another bad thing about it is that it lasts a long time).
  3. Avoid multiple layovers, as they add in more take offs (the scariest part to me) and more margin for error when I’m trying to find my connecting flight while sedated!
  4. Check what type of plane the flight(s) will be in, and avoid regional jets or smaller because they are more affected by turbulence.
  5. I like to travel with someone I know to help me find my way if there is a connection, and also just to be there for moral support.
  6. I try to get a window seat if traveling alone, as I like to be able to look outside when there’s turbulence. If someone I know is with me, I let them have the window and I take the middle since I’ll be sleeping anyway, and I know they’ll let me look outside if I need to.
  7. Always double check what I’ve packed a day before the trip (or earlier) and get to the airport early (2 hours before takeoff or earlier) even when it’s not an international flight. This saves me a lot of stress.
  8. Right after boarding the plane, I hunker down in my hoodie, put my earbuds in and try to fall asleep right away. The faster I fall asleep, the less time I’ll be awake and anxious.
  9. I have a playlist of songs that help to calm me down, and I play them during takeoff and until I fall asleep.

I hope that I’ve been able to help someone else that has this fear, as I know it is a relatively common one to have, and also extremely inconvenient and uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t suffer in silence.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Lisa Wieman says:

    Eric is afraid of heights yet is a pilot, so you are correct is stating that one has nothing to do with the other. I am also afraid of heights (you would never, ever get me up that aerial ladder!) yet I love to fly. Enjoy your time in Switzerland! It is just beautiful. That is where we went on our honeymoon!


    1. Wow, I didn’t know that! And thanks, I am excited for the trip!


  2. Mark Pankratz says:

    There is nothing irrational about a fear of flying, or any other activity that has risk. Guess I’m surprised the train isn’t an alternative you have used more often.


    1. The problem is that the train is always more expensive and takes a lot more time than a plane. I wish it were the opposite! I do want to take the fast train here at least once though for the experience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s