Coping with a fear of flying: the secret rituals of aviophobics

fear of flyingMy name is Laurel, and I have aviophobia. I, like millions of Americans, am scared shitless of flying. Aviophobia can manifest for a variety of reasons: a traumatic experience on a previous flight; claustrophobia; fear of heights; fear of loss of control (ding, ding, ding!), even a fear of motion sickness. After years of researching the subject, I’ve learned that I fit the classic profile of an aviophobic: female, with sudden onset in my early twenties.

In my situation, there was nothing to precipitate my phobia; I actually loved to fly as a kid. But over a period of 10 years, it progressed until I was not only having anxiety attacks on flights, but suffering frequent nightmares about crashes in the weeks before a trip, no matter how anticipated. The final straw came when, in December of 1999, I was about to embark on a five-week solo backpacking trip of Southeast Asia. It was days before my departure, and I was so terrified by the thought of 21 hours in the air, I was ready to bail on the entire thing.

Fortunately, I got a grip, called my doctor, and explained the situation. He immediately wrote me a prescription for Xanax and my life as a traveler has been the better for it ever since. Why it took me so long is a mystery, but Xanax quells (but not eliminates) my anxiety and enables me to fall into slumber that renders me drooling and pleasantly out of it during flight, but alert enough to awaken should it be necessary.

I know Xanax is a crutch, and that’s okay. I’m not advocating taking drugs to solve all of one’s problems, but in this instance, it’s what worked for me after other methods (including therapy) failed. I know people who no longer fly because of their phobia, and to me, that’s sad. The world becomes a smaller place–literally and figuratively–when you let fear control you.

I still don’t enjoy flying, although my phobia has lessened. There are even the rare flights where I don’t take Xanax. But there’s one thing I must always do before departure that’s far more important than popping a pharmaceutical. I must perform My Ritual.

[Photo credit: Flickr user runningclouds]

fear of flyingEvery aviophobic I’ve talked to (for some reason, most of my friends suffer from it) has a secret mantra they utter, or small ceremony they perform before flight that, in their minds, assures them the Gods of Aviation or whoever will ensure safe passage.

Admittedly, most of my friends are depraved lushes who drink themselves senseless before they fly (another used to rely upon “bong hits,”) but that’s not what I’m referring to. And, for the record, I strongly recommend you not get hammered before departure, especially if you’re taking sleeping pills or other prescription drugs related to your flight. I also recommend you see your doctor and get a prescription, rather than take meds or sleep aids from friends or purchase them in a foreign pharmacy.

For those of you who grapple with a fear of flying, I know you have your little pre-flight ritual. Whenever I board an aircraft I have to touch the outside of the plane with my right hand, and utter a specific phrase to myself. I’m not going to say what it is, because I don’t want to doom my next flight.

I asked my fellow Gadling contributors, AOL Huffington Post Media Group editors, and flight-phobic friends what they do for solace before taking to the skies, and they were very forthcoming. Touching the outside of the plane while boarding was by far the most common response. What a bunch of freaks.

Rebecca Dolan: “I won’t fly without a St. Christopher medal.”
fear of flying
Laurel’s friend L: “Despite not being religious, the act of saying the words to the Hail Mary and Lord’s Prayer before take-off is just something I have to do. I also can’t step on any metal on the jetway. This means I have to take a big, stretched-out step while boarding the plane.”

Annemarie Dooling: “This is all the Catholic school that was beaten into me as a child: I pray the rosary. I recite the Hail Mary and Our Father on succession; this way if I die, I’ll go to heaven, right? Right?”

Melanie Renzulli: “When I lived in India, I got into this habit of praying to Ganesha when taking off. Now I do a quick little prayer to Buddha, Ganesha, Allah, and Jesus just to cover most of my bases. Cheesy, I know. I mentioned this to a flying enthusiast friend of mine and he said, “I pray to the gods of certification, engineering, manufacturing, and most importantly physics.”

Laurel’s friend J: “I have no rituals except vigilance. Every time I try to nod off, that’s when the Captain comes on to tell us we’ve blown a tire, or that little dip was one of the engines going out, or we’re about to encounter some strong turbulence and the attendants had better strap in….so no distractions for me, just watching and waiting.” [I should add that this particular friend–a strapping fellow–has endured two emergency landings, so I applaud him for flying at all].

Kyle Ellison: “My wife has to take Xanax, pee twice, and snap her hand with a rubber band to calm down. Why? Who knows. I always touch the side of the aircraft with my right palm when walking through the front door. Done it since I was five.”

Laurel’s friend A: Her ritual is taking the train.

[Photo credits: pills, Flickr user Keturah Stickann; rosary, Flickr user miqui]

Deepak Chopra on How to Overcome Fear of Flying

Knocked up abroad: pregnant travel in the first trimester

pregnant travelFor more on pregnant travel, see parts 1 and 2 of Knocked up abroad: pregnancy in a foreign country here and here.

There’s no question that having a baby changes you: your body, your lifestyle, even your shoe size. One thing I hoped not to change altogether was traveling, as long as it was reasonably safe and comfortable for me and the baby. From the beginning of my pregnancy in Istanbul, my doctor has okayed travel, as long as I get up to stretch frequently on flights and try not to overdo it. Most doctors (and mothers) agree that the second trimester is the most comfortable time for pregnant travel but the first trimester can be a good time as well (while you can still squeeze into pre-maternity clothes and walk without waddling) with a little extra precaution and a little more babying (of the mother, of course).


The first trimester of pregnancy is a tricky time for many women: the risk of miscarriage is highest up to 10 weeks, morning sickness is common, and hormones are running wild. It’s too early to tell anyone outside family or close friends and without a visible belly, it’s impossible for strangers to tell as well. At later points in your pregnancy, a baby bump acts as the international symbol for pregnancy and can make it much easier to express your condition when traveling abroad. If you travel in the early months before showing, you may want to learn the local language words for “I’m pregnant” to avoid a Bridget Jones-esque “mit kinder” scene if you need extra help while traveling.


Over this past December, my husband and I were looking for a good trip to take over the holidays, when I was around 10 weeks pregnant. Our location in Istanbul changes the list of short-haul destinations considerably from what we would have considered from New York, and we debated between a warm-weather beach destination (husband) or a snowy and “Christmassy” European city (me). We ruled out Egypt (not warm enough and not Christmassy), New Zealand (even less convenient to get to than from New York), and Sri Lanka (not enough time to plan properly and some risks of disease I couldn’t be vaccinated against). In the end, we chose…Russia.
Going to Russia in winter while pregnant may seem crazy to some, but for me it made sense: Moscow and St. Petersburg are a few hours from Istanbul by direct flight, my husband speaks fluent Russian in case of any problems, and there was no risk of malaria or eating any food that had spoiled in the sun. While it was cold and snowing during our trip and I couldn’t take advantage of some of Russia’s cold-weather remedies like vodka and saunas, a week in Moscow and St. Petersburg was a perfect mix of exotic and comfortable.

Nearly every cafe had a variety of non-alcoholic and caffeine-free beverages for me to choose from, I even had non-alcoholic sangria, mojitos, and mulled wine in addition to fresh juices and herbal teas. Both cities are beautiful to explore in the snow, with plenty of museums and cafes to warm up in, and the New Year holiday displays made it festive.

If you are planning a trip to a foreign country while pregnant, it makes sense to keep in mind the following guidelines. Always discuss plans with your doctor before booking and err on the side of caution when choosing a destination.

Check airline restrictions – Most airlines allow pregnant women to fly internationally up to 28 weeks, after which you must provide a doctor’s note issued within a week or so of departure. 35 weeks (earlier for women carrying multiples) is the cutoff for nearly all airlines to prevent women from giving birth on board. Most US domestic carriers will allow pregnant women to fly up to the final month; hilariously, Continental will not let women board if “physical signs of labor are present” though they don’t specify what.

Consider travel insurance – If your medical insurance doesn’t cover you overseas, you may want to look into supplementary medical travel insurance, but be sure it covers pregnancy as many policies do not. Additionally, if you are traveling to a country where English is not spoken, you may want to research the name of a clinic or doctor in case of emergency as well.

Be prepared for jet lag – Before pregnancy, I had little issues with jet lag, trying to get on local time as soon as possible. I discovered when flying back from the US to Turkey that it hits you much harder as a pregnant traveler, especially as you can’t use sleeping pills or alcohol to help you sleep. Factor this into your schedule and give yourself plenty of time to acclimate and adjust to time changes.

Realize your limits have changed – On a usual trip, I’d be up early to walk around a city all day, have a late lunch (or maybe just a big afternoon beer) followed by more museums and exploration, and still be up for checking out the local nightlife. Once pregnant, I required more sleep and three solid meals a day (plus maybe some snacks, I am eating for two!), tired after walking short distances, and was ready to call it a night long before last call. If you have an itinerary, pare it down to the must-sees and double the time to see everything; better to take it easy and enjoy your trip than feel exhausted and sick.

Look for destinations that don’t require vaccinations – One of the first tests your doctor will give you after confirming pregnancy will be for immunizations to hepatitis and rubella. If you haven’t had the vaccines, they will have to wait until after the baby is born as they are not safe for pregnant women. I have not had the hepatitis vaccine yet, and thus have a greater risk of contracting it, which rules out much of Africa and southeast Asia for travel, but also means I must avoid raw vegetables including salad in Istanbul. Most other medications and vaccines commonly given to travelers before going to an area prone to Malaria, Typhoid or Yellow Fever are not advised for pregnant women. But there’s still a big world out there, check the CDC for destination-specific information.

Be extra aware of food and water safety – Pregnant women are more susceptible to food poisoning the average person, as the immune system is suppressed so it doesn’t reject the fetus. This is the reason most pregnant women are told to avoid sushi and food that is not prepared in sanitized conditions. Even adventurous eaters should play it safe while pregnant and drink bottled water when in doubt. I recently had an opportunity to visit Mumbai, India but after consulting with a few friends who had lived there, I worried I’d spend the trip inside my hotel room eating pre-packaged food. Again,

check the CDC and use the same common sense you’d use anytime while traveling: stick with food that is freshly prepared in restaurants full of people.


Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, travelling in the second trimester, where to do pre-baby shopping, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

[Photo courtesy Mike Barish from the Istanbul tram]

Don’t take sleep aids until you’re in the air – Airplane tip

Though it may seem appealing to sleep through those long waits on the tarmac, avoid the temptation to take a sleep aid until you’re up in the air.

You may miss important announcements, or, worse yet, you may be asked to disembark and wait for a later plane.

If you plan to take a sleep aid, be sure to take a seat where you are less likely to block in other passengers, like a window seat or a middle seat. Your fellow passengers don’t want to climb over your dead weight in the middle of the night.

[Photo: Flickr | mirjoran]