Imagine two people sat on a plane traveling together. One is having a panic attack, and the other turns to them and says: “Come on now…calm down. It will all be OK. Don’t you worry, it will all be alright”
The person having the panic attack says: “Stop telling me to calm down. I can’t calm down. Can’t you see I’m stressed? Leave me alone!”
Perhaps this sounds a little bit familiar? Perhaps you are the panicked individual suffering from a lifelong fear of flying? And perhaps you feel that other people don’t really understand?
The good news is that you are not alone! In fact, Boeing and other well respected organizations have carried out many surveys over the past 30 years with a focus on mental reactions to flying, and they estimate that one in every six people have some form of a fear of flying, referred to in the studies as flight anxiety .
Other studies show that approximately 40% of the general population experience some degree of aviophobia, an anxiety disorder associated with fear of flying . And an estimated 2.5% to 6.5% of those fearful flyers qualify for a clinical diagnosis of the phobia, one in which a person avoids flying or does so with significant distress .
Like with most fears/phobias, the fear of flying is disproportionate to the danger posed (despite what recent Netflix specials like Downfall: The case against Boeing will have you believe). Commercial air travel, within the United States particularly, is extremely safe. A person who took a 500-mile flight every day for a year would have a fatality risk of 1 in 85,000, according to an analysis by Ian Savage, associate chair of the Economics Department at Northwestern University . As a point of comparison: highway travel accounts for 94.4% of national transportation fatalities in the US.
But, of course, statistics are not enough to quell phobias and lifelong fears around flying for a lot of people. In fact, a common reaction to a fear of flying is just to avoid flying as much as possible. There are many high profile celebrities who go out of their way to arrange their personal and professional lives such that they can avoid flying.
But is there a better solution? Can a fear of flying be overcome and/or managed?
In this article we are going to look at several over-the-counter flight anxiety medications, as well as some natural alternatives to OTC flight medications and some popular mental techniques that have proven to help others overcome their fear of flying.
Symptoms of Flying Phobia (Aviophobia)
Aviophobia, the clinical term for “flying phobia” or the fear of flight, is a crippling form of anxiety that is classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific phobia, characterized by a marked aversion towards flying on airplanes or any type of aircraft in general .
While the cause of Aviophobia can be varied, people experiencing the phobia may develop any/multiple of the below-mentioned symptoms either before or during an air flight :
- Shaking or shivering
- Increased heart rate or heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Clouded thinking or confusion
For some, even the idea of traveling or booking a ticket for flight travel may induce these symptoms. As there are various causes and triggering factors for developing this phobia, we will discuss the treatment options for Aviophobia below.
Why we suffer from a Fear of Flying in the first place
There are various factors that may contribute to the eventual development of aviophobia. Some of the most common, I would say, are news/media coverage of flying accidents & tragedies and other pre-existing phobias.
News/Media Coverage of Plane Crashes, Hijackings, Malfunctions, etc.
Rory Kennedy, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, stated in an interview that she made the NetFlix documentary film “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” due to her ‘primal fear of flying‘.
Kennedy closely tracked the unfolding news story of two back-to-back airplane crashes that took the lives of a total 346 passengers in 2018 .
On October 29, 2018, the sky was clear at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport as Lion Air Flight 610 took off and then, 13 minutes later, fell from the sky. Pilot error was the suspected cause — until five months later when another brand-new Boeing 737 MAX, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, met the same fate.
It’s clear to see from Kennedy’s honing in on these crashes (even if her radar for a good story did lead to a surprising exposé around Boeing airlines) that there is an alarming effect that follows media coverage of plane crashes, malfunctions, hijackings, etc.
This is a strange, yet perfectly natural, human reaction to events that are by all metrics, quite rare! It can be argued that increased fear of flying following increased media coverage of an aerial accident is a case of availability bias (also called the availability heuristic).
The availability bias says that our brains tend to make decisions based on two kinds of information:
- A recent memory
- A vivid memory
Our brain thinks things that have happened recently or stand out in our minds are more likely to happen again. This is because things that have just happened are top of mind, so it comes to mind quickly and easily. When an event is easier to remember, it becomes easier to imagine it happening again .
So, naturally, if somebody isn’t that knowledgeable about the actual risk involved or has little to no experience with flying, and they have recently seen media coverage of crashes or accidents, then it may form preconceived notions about airplanes in their mind.
Other Phobias (acrophobia, claustrophobia, enocholophobia, etc.)
Some people have different pre-existing phobias that may intertwine with aviophobia (a fear of flying). For example, claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), or the fear of terrorism and hijacking .
Previous Negative Experiences
Sometimes, a fear of flying can simply be the result of a bad experience in the past, which may have solidified one’s prior fear or may have caused it in the first place. Examples include a previous flight with severe air turbulence, plane controls going haywire, or a forced landing that was jarring (physically and emotionally).
While any one of the listed points could be valid reasons for a fear of flying, every person is different so it’s worth attempting to get to the root of your phobia.
Yuko Nippoda, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), explained in an interview how a fear of flying often stems from a lack of control .
“If you are on a train and you need to get off, you can do so at the next stop. If you’re in a car, you can get out almost anywhere. But once you get on an aeroplane, you cannot leave. This sense of losing all authority over your actions can be very frightening.”
Nippoda added that people are used to feeling their feet on solid ground. Therefore, the idea of floating in the sky can lead to imagining worst-case scenarios.
“If catastrophic situations, such as engine failure, bad turbulence or a hijacking occur, the plane could crash. This fear of death can cause major flight anxiety, even if someone knows deep down those things are extremely unlikely. Their mind can go into overdrive.”
If you can understand that a simple of lack of control, rational or not, can lead to a severe fear of flying, then you can understand that the psychology of our fears can go very deep.
The point is that the start of your journey towards overcoming your fear of flying begins with questioning yourself, delving as deep as possible into your own psyche and understanding what the root of the fear is. Once you understand the root, you can properly address/solve it.
Available Over The Counter Medications to Take for Fear of Flying
It is quite common for people to ask their doctor or nurse to prescribe diazepam, or similar benzodiazepine drugs like lorazepam, temazepam or clonazepam, for their fear of flying symptoms or, alternatively, to help sleep during flights.
Ambien For Flying Anxiety
Ambien is the brand (trade) name for Zolpidem, a medication that is commonly prescribed for anxiety-related insomnia and other sleeping difficulties.
In addition to initiating sleep, Ambien has been shown in studies & common usage to help with anxiety. It is a powerful sedative that initiates sleep and alters brain chemistry. The medication works by increasing the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger in the brain .
The responsibilities of GABA include slowing nerve firing, reducing anxiety levels and muscle tension and helping to initiate sleep. The neurotransmitter also diminishes the impact of brain chemicals which permit a person to fall asleep.
Dramamine For Flying Anxiety
Dramamine, an over-the-counter medication typically used to fight motion sickness, can perform double-duty as an anxiety relief solution for air travel .
In a magazine interview the aerospace expert Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot who now teaches flight classes and covers air travel for multiple publications, explained that “many people think the OTC drug Dramamine is only taken to combat nausea, but it’s actually quite effective at inducing drowsiness and reducing anxiety in nervous flyers. I recommend it to passengers as an alternative to that pre-takeoff or in-flight martini. Besides, alcohol dehydrates the body on a cellular level, and the last thing anyone needs while traveling in the ultra-dry air of an airline cabin is more dehydration.”
Dramamine is an antihistamine that reduces the effects of natural chemical histamine in the body. It is typically used to treat or prevent nausea, vomiting, and dizziness associated with motion sickness, but the motion sickness drug provides relaxation benefits as well.
Benzodiazepines For Flying Anxiety
Benzodiazepines like Xanax work by decreasing abnormal excitement within the brain. They act on the brain and central nervous system (CNS) to produce a calming effect .
Xanax, specifically, slows down the movement of brain chemicals that may have become unbalanced, resulting in a reduction in nervous tension and anxiety. Much like Ambien, Xanax does this by boosting the effects of a natural chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is made in the brain .
The Case Against Anxiety Medications For Fear of Flying
More recently, several prominent medical sources have spoken out against the use of anxiety medications like benzodiazepines to help with individuals fear of flying issues, with the primary negative points being :
- Diazepam & Benzodiazepine drugs reduces awareness and reaction times, so in the rare case of an emergency you risk not being able to react to save your life if you have to escape quickly. You may also put other people in danger by getting in their way or making them help you.
- The use of benzodiazepine drugs can make you sleep in an unnaturally deep sleep. This means you won’t move around as much as during natural sleep so you have a bigger risk of getting a blood clot (Deep Vein Thrombosis or DVT) in the leg or lungs. Blood clots are very dangerous and can kill. This risk is bigger if your flight is longer than 4 hours.
- Benzodiazepines and similar prescription drugs have short term negative effects on memory, co-ordination, concentration and reaction times, and are (extremely) addictive if used for a long time, with withdrawal leading to fits, hallucinations, agitation and confusion. These drugs have also become widely used drugs of abuse since they first came on the market. Diazepam in the UK & US, for example, is a controlled drug. The prescribing guidelines doctors have to follow say that use to treat short-term “mild” anxiety is inappropriate. They are only to be used short term for a ‘crisis in generalized anxiety’. But if you are having such a crisis you are not likely to be fit to fly. Fear of flying in isolation is not a generalized anxiety disorder.
- Diazepam, Benzodiazepine and similar controlled drugs are illegal in a number of countries. They may be confiscated or you may find yourself in trouble with law enforcement in some places.
Natural Flying Anxiety Medication Alternatives
Instead of recommending prescription anxiety medications for flight anxiety, experts in the aviation industry have started to recommend more natural, and ideally non-addictive, alternatives to help people with flight anxiety. We personally recommend looking further into Melatonin (although more suited to restful sleep and jetlag symptom reduction), GABA supplements and natural calming solutions.
Melatonin For Flying Anxiety
Overnight flights can prove particularly stressful for the anxiety-prone, due to the potential for sleep disruption. In these circumstances, the use of melatonin, a natural supplement that can be purchased over-the-counter, may prove useful.
Dr. Khalid Saeed, a Tampa Bay Concierge Doctor, stated in an interview that he :
“Recommend[s] melatonin as a natural supplement to my patients with flight-related anxiety. Melatonin induces sleep and adjusts your circadian clock to help you function better when you reach your destination. I suggest taking melatonin a few days before your trip so that you’re ready to sleep thirty minutes to an hour earlier than normal. It will decrease jet lag if taken close to your target bedtime at your destination, and there are no major side effects to worry about. Plus, your flight will be over before you know it!”
Melatonin is a hormone that your brain typically produces in response to darkness. It helps with the timing of your circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock) and with sleep. Being exposed to light at night can block melatonin production .
Research suggests that melatonin plays other important roles in the body beyond sleep, and study is constantly being carried out on its other benefits. One of the known side-benefits of melatonin is its ability to help with jet lag.
Jet lag affects people when they travel by air across multiple time zones. With jet lag, you may not feel well overall and you may have disturbed sleep, daytime tiredness, impaired functioning, and digestive problems.
Medium-sized reviews from 2010 and 2014 showed that melatonin supplements can have a positive effect on jetlag. Four studies in particular that included a total of 142 travelers, showed that melatonin may be better than a placebo (an inactive substance) in reducing overall symptoms of jet lag after eastward flights. Another study of 234 travelers on eastward flights looked at only sleep quality and found evidence that melatonin may be better than placebo for improving sleep quality .
GABA For Flying Anxiety
Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, shortened to GABA, is a naturally-occurring amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter within the body. GABA has been shown in numerous studies to have a calming effect, and GABA deficiency is believed to play a part in several anxiety disorders .
Studies that used GABA supplementation have found it may have a positive effect on stress and anxiety , which would help block the symptoms associated with flying anxiety in a similar way to benzodiazepines like xanax without the associated addiction risk, drowsiness or other side-effects.
Natural Supplements For Flying Anxiety
Some dietary supplements contain a mix of ingredients that support calm and clear, east thinking, which may counteract the negative effects of a fear of flying.
One example that I personally like and have recommended to several clients is PerformZen, which contains GABA, L-theanine and Magnesium, as well as cognitive-enhancing ingredients Ginkgo Biloba, Vitamin B6 and Theacrine. These ingredients have been shown to help induce a calming effect on the body, as well as keeping the brain as sharp as it needs to be during the more taxing parts of your travel. I even interviewed the founder of PerformZen and secured a limited-time discount for PerformanceAnxiety.com readers. Check that out here.
Note From The Author: I reached out to PerformZen, creators of the Calm Performance Formula supplement that I use and have recomended to many of my clients who struggle with anxiety, and they agreed to offer PerformanceAnxiety.com readers an exclusive discount of $7 off your first order!
Simply use the discount code PERFORMANCEANXIETY7 during checkout to claim your discount. This is valid until 31 Dec 2022 and is limited to the first 110 customers, so you should act fast:
Final Thoughts on Flying Anxiety Medications
If you’ve suffered from a lifelong (or recently developed) fear of flying, know that you are not alone with your fear. One in six people have a fear of flying, according to recent studies . If you are part of this group, suffering from flight anxiety, then you may be considering using benzodiazepines like Xanax, Dramamine, or Ambien to help with your symptoms.
Before you consider using any prescription medications, particularly highly addictive and problematic medications like Xanax, we recommend trying a natural alternative like melatonin, GABA or natural anxiety supplements like PerformZen.
Before starting any new medication, ensure that you speak with a licensed medical professional to ensure that there will be no negative interactions with other medications you take, or any unexpected side effects.
- ^ https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/004728758202100104
- ^ https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/lots-of-americans-have-a-fear-of-flying-there-are-way-to-overcome-the-anxiety-disorder/2019/10/11/d4746d84-d338-11e9-86ac-0f250cc91758_story.html
- ^ https://time.com/5330978/fear-of-flying-aviophobia/
- ^ https://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/ipsavage/436.pdf
- ^ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27313550/
- ^ https://www.icliniq.com/articles/emotional-and-mental-health/aviophobia
- ^ https://www.indiewire.com/2022/02/netflix-downfall-the-case-against-boeing-scared-to-fly-1234701078/
- ^ https://medium.com/choice-hacking/what-is-availability-bias-8e7509408577
- ^ https://patient.info/news-and-features/how-to-manage-flight-anxiety
- ^ https://treeton.gpsurgery.net/tablets-for-fear-of-flying-why-we-dont-prescribe-them-any-more/
- ^ https://performzen.com/non-addictive-anxiety-medication/
- ^ https://performanceanxiety.com/propranolol-vs-xanax/
- ^ https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/263490#dosage
- ^ https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/ambien-addiction/ambien-and-anxiety/
- ^ https://www.insider.com/getting-over-fear-of-flying-2019-1#xanax-and-ativan-are-fast-acting-prescription-options-for-combating-anxiety-2
- ^ https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/melatonin-what-you-need-to-know
- ^ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12662130/
- ^ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16971751/