How to keep calm during a bumpy flight


On a recent flight to Chicago, Allison Levy said she was banging her knuckles on the armrest as the plane rumbled and shook for short periods of time.

Ms. Levy, 47, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, started taking deep breaths and tried to reassure herself: It’s like a bumpy road, no big deal.

But, he added, if I knew the person next to me, I would definitely grab his thigh.

Aircraft turbulence, which is usually caused by large changes in airflow in Earth’s upper atmosphere, is generally a minor annoyance.


But this year alone there have been several cases of severe turbulence on flights that have resulted in dozens of passengers being injured. And scientists have warned that we may have more bumpy flights in years to come as high carbon dioxide emissions are warming the atmosphere, which can alter wind speed and direction.

This is unwelcome news for everyone, especially those of us who are already afraid of flying, like Ms. Levy.

Here are several ways to help calm your nerves if you’re eager to travel but fear potential turmoil.

Turbulence is usually not a cause for concern. It is much more common to encounter low to moderate turbulence than the severe type that throws trolleys of heavy drinks into the air.

While pilots can ease most turbulence, it’s still unavoidable or unexpected for some flights, but planes are designed to safely withstand impacts, the Air Line Pilots Association, a major pilot union, said in a statement.

It can also be helpful to know that, according to a 2020 study, it has never been safer to travel on a commercial airline.

Passenger injuries due to turbulence are rare. In the 13 years from 2009 to 2022, for example, a total of 34 passengers were seriously injured in the turbulence, according to Federal Aviation Administration data. And the last turbulence-related death on a major airline happened more than 25 years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a 2021 report.


Traveling by plane is much safer than traveling by car: The odds of dying on a commercial flight in the United States are too low to calculate, according to the National Safety Council. Meanwhile, the chances of dying in a car crash are 1 in 93, says the nonprofit advocacy group.

It might be tempting to grab an alcoholic beverage in hopes of calming your nerves, but remember that what you eat and drink affects your anxiety and how you feel, said Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and metabolic psychiatry in Massachusetts. General Hospital and author of This Is Your Brain on Food.

Too much alcohol is dehydrating and can also produce feelings of nausea. This is a bad combination with the turbulence, which can also leave passengers queasy.

Staying hydrated, perhaps by skipping the coffee or wine on the plane, can help create a sense of calm, Dr. Naidoo said.

If turbulence (or just the thought of it) makes your heart race, taking steps to control your breathing can be a simple and powerful way to help calm your body, Dr. Naidoo said. An example is 4-4-8 breathing: inhale for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, and then exhale for eight counts. Repeat.

Alternatively, you can also try belly breathing or controlled breathing.

With practice, they can become a regular part of your stress and anxiety response, Dr. Naidoo said.


Some travelers may find it helpful to try exposure therapy, which involves gradually addressing specific fears and anxieties until they feel less scary.

Brenda K. Wiederhold, a psychologist in San Diego, regularly sees patients who have an intense fear of flying. For more than two decades, she has used both real-life and virtual reality scenarios to help expose patients to various scenarios such as airplane turbulence.

Turbulence is similar to rolling waves, she tells her clients. Don’t you think, oh my God, this boat is going to crash! she said. Instead, you think: there are waves today.

Other patients, including some with anxiety disorders, may benefit from medications like Xanax, but such medication should only be taken under a doctor’s supervision.

Sometimes severe turbulence can appear without warning, a phenomenon known as clear air turbulence. The Federal Aviation Administration advises passengers to wear a seat belt at all times, not just when the seat belt light is on, and to secure children under the age of 2 in an FAA-approved infant car seat or device. restraint to reduce the possibility of injury during unexpected turbulence.

The greatest danger is not being protected, said Kristie Koerbel, who worked as a flight attendant for 21 years. If you’re sitting with your seat belt on, there’s no reason to fear turbulence.

Where you sit can make all the difference. Passengers in window seats are less likely to be hit by projectile objects, suitcases falling from overhead bins or falling ceiling tiles, said Sara Nelson, president of the largest union of flight attendants. Also, seats near the front and beside the wing will typically be less bumpy than at the rear of the aircraft. In severe turbulence, though, where you’re sitting won’t make a difference, Ms Nelson said.


Think about what calms you down in general and try doing some of those activities during the flight. For the trip to Chicago, Mrs. Levy brought a sketchbook for doodling, her favorite music, and some crossword puzzles. She also talked to her doctor about taking a low dose of Xanax (although she’s not convinced it helped her).

Finally, keep an eye on the weather. Thunderstorms typically develop in the warmer months of spring, summer and fall, according to the National Weather Service, and can create turbulence. If you have the flexibility to postpone your flight, you could try for a day with clearer skies in hopes of a smoother ride.

And remember, the plane won’t take off unless it’s safe, Ms. Nelson said.

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