Health

This Is How to Calm Down if You’re Freaking Out on a Turbulent Flight

Five tips from a psychologist.

by Rajul Punjabi
Apr 23 2018, 7:01pm

guvendemir / Getty

Thirty minutes into a flight from Chicago to New York last weekend, just as the flight attendant was about to pour my Woodford Reserve, winds started jerking the 100-seater around like a dollar-store umbrella. We were apparently “having weather,” reported a static-y voice over the intercom. The flight attendant put the breaks on the beverage cart and knelt down in front of it—protocol for flight attendants during turbulence, she later told me—as I held one side of it steady with both hands (the cart’s breaks also appeared to be from the dollar store).

The turbulence continued for an hour, and for that hour, my body went into distress. See, a little planercoastering might not be a huge deal for people who travel every week for work, or for people who aren’t a hot ball of anxiety like I am. But both my body and mind were bugging out.

Ten minutes after the beverage-cart incident, the captain asked the flight attendants to sit down and strap in. I was sweating but also cold. My hands were trembling, and then my entire body began to follow suit. My stomach was cramping. I closed my eyes and attempted a breathing exercise my therapist taught me to calm myself during anxious episodes, but I couldn’t focus. I had never done this exercise in an earthquake-like environment. I hadn’t even had the a chance to get the bourbon into my system. Why god? Why before the bourbon?

About 25 percent of people, otherwise anxious or not, have some degree of nerves about flying. So when the shakies hit I know I’m not completely nuts—or at least not alone in my nuts-ness when I freak out. Regardless, I decided that, in my quest to adult functionally, I needed some coping mechanisms. And just in case you do too, here are five things you can do to calm down if you ever find yourself panicking during a bout of turbulence.

Get your adrenaline out.

The stress you’re experiencing is sending buckets of adrenaline through your body, hence the shaking, says Curtis Reisinger, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Hofstra's Zucker School of Medicine. He reminds me of people who have lifted cars to free someone underneath—that’s how powerful this adrenaline is. Since you can’t exactly take a jog around the plane to let the energy out, he suggests progressive muscle relaxation: Tense and relax each and every part of your body, starting with your toes. Isolate each muscle group and focus as much as possible on tightening, breathing, and then relaxing a few seconds later. “Not only will this release some of the adrenaline, but drawing your attention to your body shifts your focus away from the panic,” he says.

Distract your mind.

"Listen to music on your headphones.” Reisinger says. “Maybe do some mental gymnastics like a crossword or a game on your phone if possible.” I had several episodes of Black Mirror downloaded onto my phone. Looking back, watching something that makes the world around me irrelevant because the plot is so suspenseful could have helped. (Disclaimer: A show that terrifying may not necessarily help everyone in this situation.)

Don’t drink (heavily).

This one sounds batshit to me since I’d want to be as sedated a possible while my airplane wings are out here doing the Harlem shake, but Reisinger says that there’s usually a “rebound” after you’ve had a few drinks where you bounce back to reality. That may feel jarring. Keep this in mind if you’re on a longer flight. Also, he reminds us that some people’s existing emotions get magnified when they’re intoxicated. “You’ve seen not very happy drunks on the plane,” he says. “Sometimes looking for that calming effect can backfire.”

Admit you’re freaking out and seek support.

Sometimes, hiding your fear and anxiety can actually add to it. He says that if you’re flying with someone you trust, tell them how you’re feeling and even hold their hand. It helps. “People are social creatures and can be comforted by the physical presence of others—particularly in settings of perceived threat or dangerousness,” Reisinger says. Even if you’re sitting next to a stranger, “read the cues you’re getting from them,” he says. If they seem cool, tell them you’re freaking out. For many nervous flyers, being completely transparent alleviates at least a little bit of pressure.

Pop a chill pill if you really need to.

The general consensus when I spoke to a few therapists about this is that there’s no harm in taking a Xannie, but you don’t want this to become a habit or dependance issue. Aside from that risk of addiction, “you don’t want to convince yourself that you’re not able to handle a situation like a turbulent flight without a pill,” Reisinger tells me. Plus, pills like Xanax generally take around 15 minutes for their effect to be felt, he adds, and by then the turbulence might have abated. He says that a dialogue in your head can have a much quicker effect.

Try to rationalize what’s going on.

I put this hardest one—the dialogue Reisinger mentions—last, because really, who can do this? Still, it’s worth a try. Think about how commercial flying is one of the safest means of traveling in 2018, he says. There are thousands of flights a day and the plane shaking around does not mean it’s going to crash. I googled a few stats that, for my next turbulent flight, might help me imagine a crash as a rare possibility rather than a probability (e.g.: the odds of death by commercial plane crash are one in 7 million). “Talk yourself down,” he says. “This is the foundation of modern therapy treatments—apply your logic in order to rationalize.”

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