Scared of flying? This clever technique will help to curb your fear of take-off and turbulence

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Anna Brech
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One in six of us suffers from a fear of flying and, like any anxiety, it can be debilitating.

Depending on its severity, this phobia can make holiday plans problematic, or even put people off travelling altogether. 

Symptoms typically include sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat and a general feeling of dread as the flight gets underway.

If this sounds familiar, rest assured that there are ways of tackling what probably feels like an enormous challenge. And US Captain Ron Nielsen, who has spent the past 25 years helping anxious fliers overcome their fears, is here to help.

“Fear of flying is NOT about flying or airplanes,” the pilot says. “It is, however, uniquely triggered by experiences related to both. The problem lies in the limbic system; the fight, flight or freeze response in the body. Success comes through changing the quality and content of one’s thinking about flying.”

Captain Nielson recently appeared on the Today Show on NBC, where he demonstrated his go-to techniques for easing tension during take-off and turbulence – two major flash points for nervous flyers.

One of the programme’s producers, Giovanna – who is genuinely scared of getting on a plane – put Captain Nielson’s tips to the test on-board a flight simulator.

The first anti-anxiety routine involves take-off. As the plane is rolling down the runway with its engines revving, Capt. Nielson suggests tensing every muscle in your body, as much as possible.

Hunch your shoulders, ball your fists, cross your legs and clench your jaw. Hold this pose for around 30 seconds. 

Then, when you relax the pose, you automatically release some of the stress chemicals – namely, cortisol and adrenaline – that have built up within you. You will naturally feel a fraction calmer, and will be loosened up enough to concentrate on breathing steadily.

According to Capt. Nielson, the next step is to tackle your fear of turbulence.

These air pockets can strike at any time, and can be particularly unnerving for someone who’s scared of flying.

But the pilot has a very specific method for overcoming anxiety when turbulence hits: grab a pen and paper, and start writing your name with your wrong hand, over and over again as the plane bounces.

This seemingly inane task achieves two purposes: firstly, it will distract you. You don’t normally write with that hand, so you have to focus extra hard on the activity, rather than concentrating on the turbulence.

The second outcome of the task is that it crosses the motor function in your brain; and in doing so, it forces a disruption of negative thoughts.

“It’s crazy, I never thought this would help,” says Giovanna. “But it’s actually pulling my attention away from the turbulence completely.”

Still can’t calm down? Grab a drinking straw and start breathing through it. This will prevent you from hyperventilating and becoming light-headed.

See the techniques in action with the NBC video, below.

We wish you a pleasant journey...

Images: iStock


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.