Q: Reading your column on snakebites brings to mind my own summer travel plans. Though I'm a classic New York neurotic, snakes are one of the few things I don't fear. (I loved that Bronx Zoo cobra escape!) However, air travel fills me with terrible anxiety.

I'm loath to take any sort of medication, but are there any sort of natural remedies to combat this fear? Lotions or herbal supplements or scents? Green products to calm my nerves in the jumpy skies? I've read about these buckwheat neck pillows, but do you have any other suggestions?


Dorothy, Yonkers, N.Y.


Hey Dorothy,

Well, here’s the obvious solution: Don’t fly as much. But as someone who is in the same claustrophobic, terror-filled aluminum tube (I mean boat) as you when it comes to air travel-related anxiety, sometimes this is simply not an option. We’ve all got vacations to take, family and friends to see, business to attend to. Hell, in the past, I’ve made my own travel arrangements more expensive, more complicated, more time-consuming and perhaps even more carbon-intensive simply to minimize the time I’d have to spend in the air.

You mention you’d like to avoid taking medication to calm your in-flight jitters. If your fear of flying is that debilitating, I wouldn’t completely rule out the idea of receiving a little prescription assistance. I’d talk to my doctor to see what’s available. He or she may suggest cognitive therapy or systematic desensitization before prescribing you anything. I’ve taken meds in the past and while they didn’t leave me super excited to board my next six-hour flight, they did ease the white-knuckling a bit. And I’m positive that my seatmates at 40,000 feet were appreciative that I wasn’t fidgeting, mumbling to myself, getting up to pee every 25 minutes because of my out-of-whack in-flight metabolism and jumping in my seat/hanging on for dear life every time that the aircraft hit even the slightest bump. 

Before I get to natural anxiety-taming remedies, I’ll share with you some things I do before and during a flight. First off, right after taking my assigned seat I simply have a flight attendant to hit me over the head with a brick. This usually does the trick.

OK, in all seriousness, I try to busy myself as much as possible. This might seem obvious but it keeps you from thinking about what could, and most likely won’t, happen during a flight. Fill your carry-on with plenty of tabloids (I get so nervous that I usually can’t concentrate on books or “serious” magazines) that you wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead with. Take advantage of in-flight television if your plane is equipped with it and load your iPod with new tunes. I also make a habit of committing serious time to the SkyMall catalog. If I’m flying with friends, I usually insist on playing the “pick out your favorite items from the SkyMall catalog” game. You’d be surprised how quickly time passes when you’re gawking at a Hypnotic Jellyfish Aquarium or a King Tut CD-ROM cabinet. Or you could scour the aircraft’s SkyMall supply for inappropriate graffiti. That’s always a hoot.

Other suggestions that I swear by that don’t involve popping a pill: Practice deep breathing, tense your muscles, think positive (although my overactive imagination sometimes overrules), eat healthy snacks, avoid alcohol (the calming effect of booze works for some but makes things worse for me), and for the love of God, don’t check online turbulence trackers or watch certain movies before boarding. Once, the night before a flight, I made the mistake of watching a Nicolas Cage film called “The Knowing” that involves a horrifyingly realistic plane crash scene. Needless to say, that was a really poor idea.

There are numerous natural and non-addictive homeopathic remedies on the market — EasyAirTravel, Hyland’s Calm Forté and Rescue Remedy are three popular ones — that could help alleviate your aerophobia. I’ve tried a couple in the past and while they didn’t provide me with desired effect that prescription sedatives/anti-anxiety pills have, results vary from person to person, and I know that some folks wouldn’t fly without ‘em. So they’re certainly worth looking into. Kava Kava supplements have also become increasingly popular with anxiety-prone fliers in recent years. Just be sure to check with your doctor before you start taking anything, homeopathic or not.

And, yes, there are numerous calming scents that you could surround yourself with during a flight, although I wouldn’t, for the sake of those sitting around you, recommend practicing serious aromatherapy on a plane. Besides, I don’t think a case filled with essential oils and shoved into your carry-on would get through security all that easily — or at all. Before you head to the airport, simply dab a bit of lavender, sandalwood, chamomile or clary sage on your wrists. Or, apply a body/hand lotion containing one of these calming scents and take a small amount with you in a TSA-approved bottle.

In addition to scents, supplements and plenty of distractions, I also recommend talking to someone about your fear of flying. And I don’t mean the poor woman sitting next to you. I mean a therapist. Since fear of flying is such a common phobia, there are numerous support groups out there that you could look into. Taking Flight and SOAR are great online resources for finding means of support that work for you. Additionally, the Fear of Flying Clinic offers a helpful list of programs and seminars, some even held at airports, worth investigating. In fact, many major airlines used to offer special courses that helped passengers combat jittery nerves.

I hope this helps, Dorothy, and that the next time you board a plane you feel more grounded. Although somewhat cheesy, it’s perhaps most important to keep in mind that you aren’t alone. Now conquer those friendly skies, lady.

— Matt

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