The benefits of anxiety while flying


For the past few years, I’ve flown over 25,000 miles each year, a respectable distance. With such a experience, you would think that I would have no problems with anxiety while flying.

You would be wrong. But I consider the anxiety a kind of blessing, or at least useful.

Fun with turbulence

When I was a kid, on a family trip to Disney World, I remember hitting major turbulence on the flight. For a period of maybe an hour or so, the plane decided to do an impression of a bouncy castle.

I thought it was hilarious. Every time the plane would sink a few thousand feet, my older brother (sitting next to me) would make these funny faces, and I would bust up laughing. (I’m not sure if my brother was just hamming for me, or if that was an expression of real terror. I suspect it was a combination of both.)

Fast forward to a few years ago. I was flying home from Europe and sitting in the back of the plane. The turbulence was incredible, and as it was daylight and I was sitting in the back of the plane, I watched the wings wobble and bounce like they were actually flapping.

This made me deeply unwell. It looked like the wings were one big gust away from snapping off, leading us to do a nose dive into the North Atlantic in the manner of a space capsule reentry.

What changed? I don’t know, but these days whenever I board a small plane, it doesn’t take much for me to grip the hand rest, and sometimes even the person’s hand next to me (yes, this actually happened once, but it was okay since I knew she was as frightened as I was).

Letting go

It’s weird when you think about it, how when we travel, we entrust our life to strangers, who catapult us tens of thousands of feet in the air and could easily kill us by a wrong flick of the joystick (or whatever controls they have up there). Who in their right mind would subject themselves to this kind of experience? But we all do, largely. When we are flying, we have zero control over the course of our lives.

No wonder we’re anxious.

But I think this is a good thing. By relinquishing control, it forces us to learn to trust in others and in the universe. This isn’t a naturally comfortable position for most of us, as we tend to want to believe that we are completely in control of our lives. But not only is that a kind of illusion, but it also brings an isolating I-am-a-rock attitude, which can cause us to cut ourselves off, and close off our hearts from others.

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Flying puts us face-to-face with the realization that there are many aspects of our lives that we have no control over. And it also forces us to not run away from it, as acceptance of this reality is very important. It is when strapped in to our seats, unable to escape, that we are forced to confront this head-on and try to become at peace.

So whenever the flight gets especially jumpy and my stomach responds accordingly, I close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and as best I can realize that I must relinquish my control of my situation, to trust in the universethat whatever people and/or forces are at work in my life, all most likely have some kind of vested interest in my well-being (or at least, in our shared well-being). And moreover, all this anxiety is doing me absolutely zero good.

I can’t say that when I get in this mindset I’m able to become totally serene, but at least I have a regular reminder to try to let go. And after a while of being present, it tends to work, at least enough to get me through the flight, and on to the next adventure.

But enough about me: how do you handle anxieties when flying?


  1. The Brother

    I was not hamming you. I was terrified. But this is a great post.

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