Travel

How to Get Over Travel Anxiety and Bliss Out on Your Next Flight

Because sometimes the friendly skies don't feel so friendly.

Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines

It’s time to stow your tray tables and secure your luggage in the overhead bins-travel is back in full swing. Introducing Return Ticket, a collection of first-person stories, thoughtful guides, and clever hacks designed to help aspiring globetrotters navigate our new normal as safely and smoothly as possible. Buckle up and prepare for liftoff.

I distinctly remember the moment when my fear of flying first started. I was eight and my mom was having a panic attack on our flight to Puerto Rico. While my mother felt as if she couldn’t breathe and the world was closing in around her, my dad calmly sat back, nibbling on a cookie. Watching someone with authority, like a parent, have this type of reaction was enough to cause my own fear of flying.

I’m far from alone, though. Aerophobia, or fear of flying, is pretty common-more than 25 million adults in the U.S. share my pain. But why are so many of us terrified of the safest form of travel? The chances of dying in a car crash are 1 in 5,000, whereas the likelihood that you’ll die in a plane crash is 1 in a measly 11 million.

No matter how rare plane crashes or emergency landings may be, it’s the scary stuff that we fixate on most. But there are active steps you can take to ease the anxiety and make airline travel somewhat enjoyable (or at least bearable). While travel journalists have made it work sans flying, try a few of these helpful remedies before you write off air travel and deny yourself the chance to see some of the most incredible places on Earth.

Taking drugs before a flight: yay or nay?

Before a flight to Berlin in 2016, I asked around for over-the-counter solutions. “Take two Dramamine,” said a fellow anxious person. “You’ll knock right out.” But I believe I created symptoms in my mind that replicated motion sickness, and this is why I personally do not take drugs.

To the people clinging to their pill bottles: There’s nothing wrong with drugs if that’s what works best for you. Talk to your doctor, or seek out a plane phobia therapist that can refer you to a psychiatrist. I talked to a coworker about her experience with Xanax on a plane, and she told me it will make you dazed, your heart rate will slow, and you’ll get sleepy. Overall, she recommends it (and so do many other fliers). I consider her a mid-level anxious person, no more or less fight-or-flighty than your average New Yorker, so take that with a grain of salt-or water and a meal, if you go that route.

Give holistic options a shot

But before you put anything into your body, be aware of how the substances you’re already consuming might affect your anxiety levels. Skip the coffee. Maybe even skip the sugary drinks and snack foods. Same goes for alcohol. If you feel frantic before the flight and you have some time at home to exercise, it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of cardio or yoga. Endorphins help fix your life for a little while, IMO.

Once you’ve eliminated chaos from your diet, try CBD oil. It has less than .3% THC, the happy compound found in marijuana, which means you’re not going to Cloud Nine on the stuff, but CBD can potentially chill you out, as well as reduce anxiety and pain.

You can also try a dash of lavender oil, chamomile tea, calming supplements (kava, vitamin B, 5-HTP), or melatonin, if you’re on a red-eye or long-haul and want to be knocked out the natural way.

Thaspol Sangsee/Shutterstock
Thaspol Sangsee/Shutterstock
Thaspol Sangsee/Shutterstock

Engage in some trusty breathing exercises

It’s kind of crazy how much breath exercise can affect the mind and body. Psychologists have debated this phenomenon for a while; do our physiological symptoms inform our thought processes or visa versa? Download a meditation app for a guided approach to clearing your mind and slowing your heart rate through breathwork. One of the breathing techniques that most helps me when I wake up in the middle of the night with a rapidly beating heart: Breathe in from your diaphragm for a count of four, and then breathe out for a count of six or eight. Repeat as needed.

Look at the wings during turbulence-and repeat a mantra

Let’s get this out of the way: It’s unlikely that turbulence will ever bring down a flight; when we asked a pilot, he could recall only one recorded crash caused by strong jet streams. The passengers were sightseeing near Mount Fuji, a favourite pastime of anxious fliers everywhere.

During rough patches, it helps to look out at the wing and see how gently it’s actually moving. I asked Dr. Julia Vigna Bosson from Union Square Practice in New York how she usually treats patients with plane phobias. In addition to breathing exercises and exposure treatment (more on that later), she works with the patient to create coping cards that they can bring on the plane if they feel their mind is not rational enough in stressful moments to think anything but DEATH, DEATH, DEATH. I recommend “Death is inevitable,” but she recommends keeping the glass half full with mantras like, “Turbulence is uncomfortable but it is NOT dangerous.”

If you choose a seat near the front of the plane or the wings, you’ll also feel less turbulence.

Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines

Choose your playlist carefully

There are tons of resources online for calm- and sleep-inducing playlists; personally, I’ve found that they work, so it’s worth trying. To get you started on the right track, I even made you a playlist of the songs I most often listen to when I’m taking off and landing.

Watch something moving yet unrelated to death

I’ve found inspiring documentaries to be particularly helpful because they root me in a reality I might theoretically one day get involved with. Tear-jerkers are also helpful because it’s tough to be anxious and sad simultaneously.

Tell your seat mate that you’re a nervous flier

This one is hit or miss, as any overshare usually is. They probably won’t longterm care about you (or even short term), but saying something out loud to a person who isn’t sharing your same anxious narrative might at least pump some silliness into your reservoir of dread. During heavy turbulence, I’ve had frequent travellers tell me about their worst experiences-they always beat the current situation, especially the time a man claimed the plane landed and had to go back up because it “wasn’t ready.”

If all else fails, try therapy

Plane phobias can be difficult to treat. Exposure therapy, the method most people are familiar with, requires the gradual introduction of “triggering” stimuli that build into the main event. For example, with arachnophobia, you’d first think about a spider or talk about its qualities with a professional, and then one day the professional might bring in a contained tarantula. But with flying, therapists have to get a bit more creative.

Virtual reality is one approach to phobia busting. More than allowing you to enter a cartoon world and play baseball against Jackie Robinson, VR has been shown to combat PTSD through exposure therapies that are otherwise difficult to mimic in an office environment. But there are a few disclaimers, as Dr. Bosson politely pointed out:

  • If you’re a gamer, you might not be impressed with this technology.
  • Not all practices, including hers, have the full chair-swivel-and-vibration situation going on. Just goggles.
  • Too much anticipation is never good, whether or not it’s filled with weeks of repeating positive affirmations with your therapist. In other words, it helps to already have a flight booked for a time in the near future.

VR sets often take you through the entire travel day, from hopping in the taxi to landing in Bermuda (subtracting, of course, the hours when complimentary pretzels are your only source of joy.) If you haven’t flown for, say, a decade, Dr. Bosson suggests taking a trip to an airport before the day of your departure to familiarize yourself with an otherwise intimidating environment.

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Ruby Anderson must admit that travelling alone is still particularly stressful for her because she imagines that, if the plane ever did crash, she’d be third-wheeling lifelong partners, the D seat to their nuclear F&G, left to die alone because they wouldn’t even hold her hand and would choose instead to turn towards each other in quiet desperation. Follow her on twitter @rubycarmela

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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