How to deal with turbulence anxiety, according to experts

If turbulence makes you nervous, you’re certainly not alone. It is one of the many triggers of aviophobia, or the fear of flying. Aviophobia is not particularly well studied, but in 2015 EconomistA YouGov poll found that 40 percent of Americans are “slightly bothered” by flying, while 15 percent fear it.

“I’ve never met anyone who likes turbulence, and surprise turbulence is even worse for those who are worried about it,” says David Rimmer, CEO of AB Aviation Group Travel + Free time. Rimmer is not only an advocate for airplane safety, but he also survived a mid-air collision. While turbulence is usually a concern for nervous flyers, it poses very little threat to the safety of modern aircraft.

Here’s everything you need to know to help manage turbulence anxiety.

Meet the expert

David Rimmer is the CEO of AB Aviation Group, an aviation safety advocate and a survivor of the 2006 mid-air crash.

Mark Debus is a licensed clinical social worker and clinical manager of behavioral health services at Sedgwick.

Understanding turbulence

Turbulence, sometimes called “rough air” by pilots, is simply air moving in an unusual, unexpected, or chaotic manner. This can be caused by a variety of phenomena, from thunderstorms to changes in air pressure to air moving up and around mountains, and it can happen when conditions look completely clear.

According to the National Weather Service, turbulence is usually categorized according to four degrees of severity: light, moderate, severe and extreme. Light turbulence is the most common, and in a commercial aircraft it is only felt as a light bump or sway. Moderate turbulence is much less common, and this type of turbulence can be a little more severe, to the point where your drink might spill.

Serious turbulence is very rare, but when it does occur, it can injure passengers or crew who are not restrained in their seats. This is the kind of turbulence that often makes the rounds on social media. Extreme turbulence is almost never experienced, but when it is, it causes violent movement inside the cabin and loss of control of the aircraft. However, severe turbulence is most often encountered around severe thunderstorms, which aircraft now avoid thanks to advanced weather forecasting technology.

While turbulence can occur unexpectedly, pilots are in communication with each other in the air. If one experiences turbulence, the message is relayed to anyone flying behind them, allowing other planes to change course to find smoother air, often at a slightly different altitude. If turbulence is unavoidable, the captain will ask passengers and flight attendants to buckle up.

Of course, that method isn’t necessarily foolproof, which is why pilots (and air traffic controllers) also analyze weather reports and radar data during flight. In addition, more advanced detection systems are under development. NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Wisconsin, for example, are developing a program that uses satellite data, computer weather models and artificial intelligence to better predict areas of turbulence.

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Turbulence and security

Turbulence has never been the only factor in plane crashes, although in the earlier days of aviation it was a much greater threat than it is today. Aircraft are designed to handle light and even moderate turbulence with ease, just as a car is designed to handle rough roads or a boat is designed to handle rough seas.

Although you do not need to worry about the structural components of the aircraft, you should be concerned about your own safety inside the aircraft during turbulence. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 163 people were seriously injured in turbulence between 2009 and 2022, of which 129 were crew members. “The most common and severe in-flight injuries are suffered by flight attendants because they spend the least amount of time seated and buckled up,” says Rimmer. He advises passengers to “stay seated as long as you can, always fasten your seat belt and never stand when the seat belt sign is on” to prevent turbulence-related injuries.

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Strategies for coping with turbulence anxiety

If the thought of turbulence makes you anxious, here are some steps you can take before and during the flight to ease your anxiety.

Choose your seat wisely.

Avoid sitting in the back of the plane. “The turbulence will be much more extreme in the back, including kicks and side or yaw,” says Rimmer.

Listen to your pilots.

Most pilots will give passengers a weather overview before take-off, so listen to any announcements made over the PA as they board. Once in flight, always heed flight crew warnings about turbulence, remain seated and buckled when advised.

Practice grounding techniques.

“Grounding techniques are some of the most helpful tactics for anxiety relief because they allow you to focus on your body and less on the thoughts in your head,” says Mark Debus, clinical manager of behavioral health services and a licensed clinical social worker. T+L. “For this you’ll want to engage as many senses as possible: sight, touch, smell and hearing.” He advises focusing on an object in front of you, such as a curtain or an exit sign, and then gently touching something solid, such as an armrest. As you do this, see if you can smell anything around you, from snacks to the perfume of passengers. Then listen to any conversation around you, paying attention to the tone more than the words.

You can also use repetitive breathing to ground yourself. “In addition to serving as a reminder to breathe, rhythmic breathing can have a calming effect on the body, where a person will usually begin to feel calmer within 30 seconds of starting the exercise,” says Debus. He advocates the 3-3-3 method: “First inhale slowly through your nose for three seconds, hold your breath for a count of three, exhale through your mouth for a count of three, wait for a count of three.” , then repeat.”

If you have a nervous friend, start a light conversation with them.

Chatting with your neighbor can help distract you both from the turbulence. “One of the benefits of helping someone else is that it also helps in the immediate vicinity of your own anxiety,” says Debus. If your teammate is a stranger, introduce yourself in a soothing voice. “Maybe talk about your travel destination. Ask them what they plan to do upon arrival. Ask if they have pets or children,” says Debus. “If you find that they are not ready to talk, tell them about yourself and your plans.” This allows them to focus on your voice and pay attention to something other than the turbulence.”

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