How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying (Part 1)

About 40% of all Americans have a fear of flying. That's more than 120 million people! If you're one of them, the Savvy Psychologist has 5 tips to get you in the air without a pit stop at the terminal bar.  You’ll never love the middle seat, but you may not mind getting on the plane.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #11

A full 40% of Americans don’t like to fly.  It makes sense if you think about it: hurtling across time zones in a metal tube at the height of Everest isn’t something our ancestors evolved to face.  We get by on white knuckles, a Xanax, or a pre-flight pit stop at the terminal bar.  But about 3% of us are grounded, refusing to fly at all, even if it means being left out of family vacations, spending multiple days on interstate freeways, or never seeing Paris in the springtime.

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Fear of flying can grow from many different roots—particularly harrowing turbulence, knowing someone who was in a plane crash, learning to be afraid as a child from a fearful parent, or media images of crashes, hijackings, or terrorist attacks.

So what to do to keep fear at bay?  Here are 5 tips to deliver you safely and sanely from jetway to jetway:

Tip #1: Learn About the Physics of Flight

Learning accurate information is the quickest way to calm your fears.  There are a number of extensively detailed and very reassuring websites available explaining how airplanes work, so I won’t reinvent the wheel—an online search will land you on an explanation that works for you.  But here’s a quick primer on some common fears:

  • Falling out of the sky, The plane cannot fall out of the sky any more than you could fall out of a swimming pool of water.  Air has mass, just like water.  It is also continuous and secure, just like water.  Indeed, you’ve never walked down the street into an “air pocket” where you suddenly couldn’t breathe.  Such it is at higher altitudes as well.  Therefore, picture the airplane “swimming” through supportive, continuous air, much as you would swim through water. 

  • Engines failing,  First of all, planes are well-maintained and checked regularly—much more often than you would ever think of checking your car engine.  Second, there are multiple engines, and even if one goes out, pilots can often re-start it, just as you might restart a car engine.  Third, in a worst-case scenario, even a commercial jetliner can glide—inelegantly, but glide nonetheless—to an emergency landing.

  • Turbulence,  Turbulence isn’t a problem for planes any more than bumps in the road are a problem for cars.  Think of the last time you drifted onto the rumble strip on the highway—those bumps are no more than tiny striations in the concrete, but they cause a major vibration that says “wake up!”  Likewise, little ups and downs in the air can have a deceptively big effect.  Turbulence is so routine that the plane can often handle it on autopilot, much like cruise control is sufficient for normal bumps in a road.  It feels scary, but the biggest danger with routine turbulence is getting coffee on your laptop.

  • Some crazy guy trying to open the door during flight.  Even if the doors weren’t locked (which they are), opening the door during flight is physically impossible due to the difference in air pressure inside versus outside the plane.  So let the crazy guy go to town on that door.  At least he’s not telling you about his conspiracy theories while you’re trying to sleep. 

*Many thanks to aeronautics expert Ryan Kagey for his assistance with the facts in this tip.

Tip #2: Keep the Movie Rolling

You may have a preconceived flight tragedy movie in your mind that plays over and over when you have to get on a plane.  I’d be willing to bet it ends at the most terrifying moment. 

For example, let’s say you’re frightened of the plane crashing into the ocean.  You picture it happening and freeze frame at the most horrifying image. Instead, keep the movie going until you’re safe.  Picture the flight attendants deploying those yellow slides, then sliding into a raft.  Then picture a helicopter or rescue boat arriving, heading to land or a military carrier, and getting checked out at a hospital, if necessary.  And then?  And then you’d go home.  Keep your imaginary movie rolling until you picture yourself safe.  You’ll feel better knowing that even in the unlikely event your fear comes true, it doesn’t end with the scariest moment.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.