How I (Sort of) Overcame My Fear of Flying

"AAAAAH! GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!" (photo: Shutterstock image)

Every time I travel by air, there comes a point in the flight when I decide that I am never, ever flying again. It invariably occurs when the plane is woefully far from the earth and we hit turbulence. I can deal with some bumps during takeoff and landing, since something about being close to the ground gives me an irrational sense of security, but when things get bad at 30,000 feet, I freak. I resolve that this will be my last flight, one way or the other; on the off chance that I survive until landing, I will never make the terrible mistake of getting onto an aircraft again. Then, inevitably, the memories fade (or perhaps I block them out), and when the next trip comes up, I do not in fact insist on driving three thousand miles across the country, as I had promised myself on the last plane ride that I would.

At some point it occurred to me that I should probably work on this from a spiritual perspective, and so I started thinking and praying about how to be a more relaxed airline passenger. I've tried out different techniques on the various flights I've taken over the past couple of years, and here are a few that actually helped:

1. Trust the pilot

If I had it my way, at the first sign of turbulence I would be escorted up to the cockpit so that I could stand over the pilot's shoulder and shriek, "Why did you press that button?! Did you hear that beep?! Seems like the turbulence is getting worse -- maybe we should descend a few thousand feet. Don't you think we should avoid that cloud up there?! WHY DID YOU TURN THAT DIAL?!?!" In other words: I am a huge control freak, and that is likely at the root of my plane phobia. I can't see where we're going, I have zero input into how the flight is handled, and those feelings of utter powerlessness put me on edge. On a recent rough flight I realized at one point that, in a way, it was uncharitable that I would be so freaked out by a little bad weather: Our pilot and co-pilot undoubtedly had thousands of hours of flight time under their belts, and had received top-notch training for situations far worse than this one. Rather than fixating on my lack of control, I channeled my angst into positive thoughts about the skill levels of the pilots, as well as prayers for their efforts.

2. Think of the other passengers on your plane

Being on the brink of a panic attack is an incredibly isolating experience. You feel imprisoned in your own world of fear and stress -- and, the more you focus on it, the worse it gets. Another "ah-hah" moment I had on a tough flight came while I was praying one of my frantic prayers in which I basically told God over and over again how much I wanted off this plane. My manic thoughts were interrupted by a sudden awareness that there may be other people on the flight who were struggling as much as I was, maybe even more. My panicked state of mind had led me to a completely self-centered way of thinking. When I broke that thought pattern and began wondering about how everyone else on the plane was doing, praying for all those who were unsettled, it helped me focus less on my fears and more on how I might be able to be of service to those around me.

3. Think of the other passengers on planes all over the world

It's helpful to remember that there are thousands of other planes in the air all over the world at any given time: Thus, no matter how bad it gets, it's likely that passengers on some other flight, in the air at that same moment, have it a lot worse than you do. I've found it helpful to spend some time praying specifically for all the passengers all over the world who find themselves on difficult flights. As with the point above, it gives me a sense of kinship with others to remember that I'm not alone, and it's comforting to know that my prayers may be helping others who are are in similar situations.

4. Know the facts

Remembering all the other people on flights at the same time helps me fight my fears from a logical perspective, when I consider the sheer unlikliness that anything would go wrong with this particular flight. This cool Live Flight Tracker website shows the number of flights in the air at any given time (as of this writing there have been a staggering 69,000 flights in the past 24 hours!) Even if you knew for sure that some plane somewhere in the world was going have a major problem at this minute, with a couple thousand other planes in the air all across the globe, it would still be highly unlikely that it would be yours. The odds of a crash during a one-hour flight on a major airline are literally 1 in 1,000,000. You'd be more likely to be struck by lightning (1 in 576,000) or die from being bitten by a dog (1 in 700,000).

5. Recognize fear based on lack of familiarity

A thought exercise that helped me prepare for my last flight was to spend some time imagining that I went everywhere by airplane every day: A highly trained pilot picked me up in a plane to take me to the grocery store, to go to Mass, to take the kids to the park -- in this scenario, I almost never traveled by car. Then, I imagined how unsafe it would feel under these circumstances to get into a vehicle: It would strike me as strange to be traveling at high speeds when the driver wasn't even a trained professional; traffic would feel especially dangerous, as it would seem so easy to be hit by another car. When I used to travel more regularly, back in my pre-kid days, I did indeed find that flying got easier once I got used to it. I try to remember that when I'm feeling nervous on flights, and keep in mind that a lot of my fear simply comes down to lack of familiarity.

6. Offer it up

This is basic advice that every Catholic has probably heard hundreds of time, but it is helpful to pick a specific intention that is close to your heart, and plan to offer up your suffering for it. I always worry a little bit about this one -- I can just imagine telling God that I'll offer up any suffering on the flight for the conversion of a certain prominent atheist, only to have the captain announce right afterward that we'll be flying through a Category 5 hurricane -- but it is helpful to know that I'm putting my psychological suffering to good use by uniting it with the Lord's for the good of others.

7. Pray the Rosary

I find the Rosary uniquely helpful for dealing with my airplane panic. When we hit choppy air, being able to recite memorized prayers is helpful since the only prayers I would be able to come up with on my own would be something like "GAAAAAAAH! GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!" (Which I’m sure God wouldn’t mind, but it isn't very comforting for me.) Second, it's strengthening to have something to hold on to -- literally. I wrap my hands around the cord of my twine rosary, and think of it as being like a rope that tethers me to God.

One of the most powerful moments I've had on a plane came one time when I was meditating on the Agony in the Garden. We were bouncing around in high winds at 32,000 feet, and I was just about ready to fashion a parachute out of my sweater and take my chances outside this metal box o' doom. I finally managed to turn some of my attention to the life of Christ, it occurred to me that I had a unique opportunity here to relate to a certain aspect of his earthly experience. When the Lord allowed himself to be subject to human hands, he must have felt the pain of powerlessness, that unique type of agony when your circumstances are causing you pain, but someone else is in control of the situation. I realized that I had an opportunity on this flight to share in some minuscule way in that experience, if I would embrace this moment of having no personal control, and trust that our Father is ultimately in control of it all.

The flight that afternoon got worse before it got better, and I'd be lying if I said that praying the Rosary made all my fears disappear instantly. But losing myself in the Agony in the Garden did bring me a strong sense of peace that wasn't there before, and though I was still afraid, as the plane lurched around the sky I felt a little closer to Christ with every jolt.