On a recent flight to Chicago, Allison Levy said she was “white-knuckling” the armrest as the plane rumbled and shook for brief periods of time.
Ms. Levy, 47, who lives in Arlington, Va., started to take deep breaths and tried to reassure herself: “It’s like a bumpy road — it’s not a big deal.”
But, she added, “if I knew the person next to me, I’d definitely grip their thigh.”
Airplane turbulence, which is usually caused by large changes in airflow in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, is generally a minor nuisance.
But this year alone, there have been multiple instances of severe turbulence on flights that have led to dozens of passenger injuries. And scientists have warned that we may have bumpier flights in the years ahead because of elevated carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the atmosphere, which can alter the speed and direction of the wind.
This is unwelcome news for everyone, especially those of us who are already scared of flying, like Ms. Levy.
Here are several ways to help calm your nerves if you’re eager to travel but dreading potential turbulence.
Put things in perspective.
Turbulence is not usually a cause for concern. It’s far more common to encounter low to moderate turbulence than the severe kind that throws heavy drink carts into the air.
“While pilots can ease most turbulence, it is still unavoidable or unexpected for some flights, but planes are designed to safely withstand the impacts,” the Air Line Pilots Association, a prominent pilots’ union, said in a statement.
Passenger injuries from turbulence are rare. In the 13 years spanning 2009 to 2022, for example, a total of 34 passengers were seriously injured because of turbulence, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration. 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 during a commercial flight in the United States are too small to calculate, according to the National Safety Council. Meanwhile, the chances of dying in a motor vehicle crash are 1 in 93, the nonprofit advocacy group says.
Skip the alcohol.
It might be tempting to reach for an alcoholic beverage in the hopes of calming your nerves, but “remember that what you eat and drink impacts your anxiety and how you are feeling,” said Dr. Uma Naidoo, the director of nutritional and metabolic psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and the author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.”
Too much alcohol is dehydrating and can also produce feelings of nausea. That’s a bad combination with turbulence, which can leave passengers queasy, too.
“Staying hydrated, perhaps skipping the coffee or wine on the plane, can help create a sense of calm,” Dr. Naidoo said.
Try deep breathing.
If turbulence (or the mere thought of it) makes your heart race, taking steps to control your breathing can be a simple and powerful way to help soothe your body, Dr. Naidoo said. One example is 4-4-8 breathing: Take a breath in for four counts, hold your breath for four counts and then exhale for eight counts. Repeat.
As an alternative, you can also try belly breathing or controlled breathing.
“With practice, they can become a normal part of your response to stress and anxiety,” Dr. Naidoo said.
Some travelers might find it helpful to try exposure therapy, which involves gradually facing specific fears and anxieties until they feel less frightening.
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 scenarios and virtual reality to help expose patients to various scenarios like airplane turbulence.
Turbulence is akin to rolling waves, she tells her clients. “You don’t think, Oh my goodness, 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 medication like Xanax, but such a drug should be taken only under supervision of a doctor.
Buckle that seatbelt.
Strong turbulence can sometimes appear without warning, a phenomenon known as clear air turbulence. The Federal Aviation Administration advises passengers to wear their seatbelt at all times, not just when the seatbelt light is on, and to secure children under the age of 2 in an F.A.A.-approved car seat or restraint device to reduce the possibility of injuries during unexpected turbulence.
“The biggest danger is not being secured,” said Kristie Koerbel, who has worked as a flight attendant for 21 years. “If you are seated with your seatbelt fastened, there is no reason to fear turbulence.”
Where you sit can make a difference. Passengers in window seats are less likely to be struck by any projectile objects, suitcases falling out of overhead bins or ceiling tiles coming down, said Sara Nelson, the president of the largest flight attendant union. In addition, seats near the front and next to the wing will typically be less bumpy compared to the back of the aircraft. In severe turbulence, though, where you’re sitting won’t make a difference, Ms. Nelson said.
Think about what calms you in general and try to do some of those activities on the flight. For her trip to Chicago, Ms. Levy brought a sketchbook for doodling, her favorite music and some crossword puzzles. She also spoke to her doctor about taking a low dose of Xanax (though she isn’t convinced that it helped).
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 might try for a day with clearer skies in the hopes of a smoother ride.
And remember, “the plane is not going to take off if it’s not safe,” Ms. Nelson said.