17 Ways to Cope When Turbulence Scares the Sh*t Out of You

Passenger airplane landing on extreme weather

Some people dread flying for a number of practical reasons. I dislike it because I’m petrified of being trapped in a plane during turbulence. And, unfortunately, turbulence is expected to get worse. While there’s nothing you can do to stop it, there are a few things you can do to make being jostled around in the sky a little more tolerable.

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I realize that turbulence isn’t going to bring down a commercial aircraft, but if it gets bad enough, I’ll probably never fly again (or that’s what I tell myself). And I really don’t want to turn into former NFL announcer John Madden and have to take a bus everywhere I go. Or worse yet, not go anywhere at all.

I hate being called (or calling myself) a “nervous flyer” and I don’t feel “out of control” (even though I am a bit controlling); it’s just that my body cannot handle being strapped into a seat while a plane is violently moving up and down and gyrating from side to side. It’s why I’ve always hated carnival rides. When turbulence hits, my central nervous system freaks out. It’s like a living hell for me. I’m not sure if it’s a vestibular (inner ear) thing or what, but I’m terrified of totally losing it (literally and figuratively) on a plane.

So, pilots, please, if we are headed into turbulent skies, or an “area of weather”(pilot code for a thunderstorm), let us know how bad it’s going to be and roughly how long it will last. I know it’s hard to predict, but is it ten minutes or two hours? It helps me assess how medicated I need to be. And please don’t tell us right after the flight attendants have locked the doors that it’s going to be a bumpy flight, unless you want me running up and down the aisles screaming to get out. If it’s going to be that bad, tell us before they shut the doors, so I can gracefully exit the plane (yes, I’ve done it once before. Not proud of it, either). Or lie to us and tell us the skies look clear.

When turbulence does hit, reassure us, and do it often. My favorite words during turbulence are, “We’re going to try and find smoother air” or “We’ll be through this in a few minutes.” I will literally set a timer because it helps me know there’s an end game (most turbulence is over in 10-15 minutes). I can’t speak for everyone on the plane, but I’d rather land at another airport and drive to my destination than fly though a thunderstorm. Please don’t put us through that. The turbulence may not seem that bad to you, but I promise there are at least ten of us in the back with our rosary beads out.

I used to have this superstitious thing where I had to say hello to the pilots before the flight. They were always really cool. In fact, one time the co-pilot came back during the flight to check on me. It was super sweet, and also totally embarrassing because it’s kind of a shock to see a co-pilot walking down the aisles during the flight. I knew all the other passengers were secretly whispering, “Shouldn’t he be focused on flying the plane and not worrying about her?” Another time, on a trip to Hawaii, the pilot sent a note back (contrary to how this sounds, I’m not a total sissy) that said, “Sorry for the bumps. We’ll be through this shortly. Aloha.” I framed it.

But now, I’d be happy if they just talked to us. I’d listen to a pilot describe every single button in the cockpit during turbulence or tell a few jokes. All I ask for is a calm and reassuring voice, not like the pilot I once had on a flight from London to Los Angeles who literally screamed:

PUT YOUR SEAT BELTS ON! PUT YOUR SEAT BELTS ON! The planes ahead of us are really getting bounced around. If you have a drink on your tray table, put it away or it’s going to be all over your lap!

His hysterical warning went on four or five times. The result? I couldn’t control my limbs or speak. I was paralyzed with fear. And the turbulence was light, at best.

Pilots, for the love of God, stay calm. If you’re freaking out, how am I supposed to keep it together? So I beg of you, please try to avoid turbulence at all costs, and if we must go through moderate (pretty uncomfortable for most people) to severe (pray to sweet baby Jesus you never encounter it) turbulence, don’t go MIA.

According to aviation professionals, turbulence falls into four categories: light, moderate, severe, and extreme. Light is nothing to worry about. Moderate will spill your drink, and severe will make you pray to the heavens. But severe turbulence is extremely rare and extreme turbulence is something you’ll likely never feel on a commercial aircraft. It’s for those crazy people who like to fly into storms.

It always helps me to remember that our plane isn’t out there alone. There are other planes in front of us who can signal to the pilot if they encounter unsteady air.

In fact, before the plane even leaves the gate, the pilot has studied turbulence reports from other pilots, determined what mountain ranges and storm clouds could cause problems, and has created a flight path to avoid all of it.

And this is an active process that continues while the plane is in the air. If the pilot gets word from pilots further along the flight path that there’s turbulence, the captain will change course.

One exception is clear-air turbulence. It’s the most common and hardest to spot because it doesn’t show up on radar. Pilots will generally let each other know if they experience it.

But there’s another phenomenon that scares pilots more than turbulence. It’s called an updraft. An updraft is a pocket of warm, moist air that moves upwards during a thunderstorm. John Nance, a retired airline captain, told Reader’s Digest what it’s like to hit one.

A plane flies into a massive updraft, which you can’t see on the radar at night, and it’s like hitting a giant speed bump at 50 miles an hour. It throws everything up in the air and then down very violently. That’s not the same as turbulence, which bounces everyone around for a while. — Reader’s Digest

Fortunately, most airlines cancel flights during thunderstorms and avoid them at all costs.

If turbulence scares you, like it does me, here are a few things you can do before and during the flight to make it a little more tolerable.

1.Book an early morning flight

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Early morning flights tend to be less bumpy.

The heating of the ground later causes bumpier air, and it’s much more likely to thunderstorm in the afternoon.—Jerry Johnson, airplane pilot, Los Angeles, Reader’s Digest

2. Get a seat over the wing

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The bumpiest place to sit is in the back of the airplane.

A plane is like a seesaw. If you’re in the middle, you don’t move as much. — Patrick Smith, airplane pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, Reader’s Digest

And if you have a choice, fly in the largest plane possible. They fly higher where the air is generally smoother and they tend to handle turbulence better than smaller planes.

 3. Monitor turbulence before you leave and during your flight
If it’s helpful to know what the weather situation looks like before you fly, TurbulenceForcast.com provides several maps you can check to see if your flight path has turbulence. I love the “Pilots Reports” map. Download the MyRadar app to track weather that could cause turbulence during your flight. But don’t look if it’s going to make you nervous. Pilots have this information and they do everything they can to avoid turbulence.

4. Write your name
If you’re unfortunate enough to be stuck in a bad patch of air, some pilots swear writing your name over and over again with your less dominant hand is an effective distraction.

5. Raise your feet off the ground
It may lessen the amount of vibration you feel.

6. Try progressive muscle relaxation
Start by tightening the muscles in your toes and then relaxing them. Work your way slowly up your entire body.

Not only will this release some of the adrenaline but drawing your attention to your body shifts your focus away from the panic. — Curtis Reisinger, a clinical psychologist and at Hofstra’s Zucker School of Medicine, speaking to Tonic

7. Try the rubber band technique
Put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it when you’re feeling scared. The pain will help take your mind off the turbulence. If you’re traveling with your spouse, they may be happy to do it for you.

8. Take advice from a pilot

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Here’s some advice from a pilot who overcame his fear of turbulence (he might have been the one on my flight from London to LA).

I was still freaked out by turbulence after I became a commercial pilot [How is that even possible?]. Here’s what eventually worked for me. Whenever turbulence started bouncing the airplane, I bounced along with it and made a point of bouncing even more than the turbulence. I kind of exaggerated it, like I was having some kind of fit. After I’d done it a few times, it just became a game I played and the turbulence just magically stopped bothering me. The fear literally left my mind and body and it never came back. The best thing about it is that it also worked on other nervous passengers around me. They seemed to pick up on my confidence and calm. – Traveler

I did something similar when I was a professional dancer. When the bumps started, I put on my headphones, closed my eyes, and started doing choreography in my seat. It worked. My body couldn’t tell the difference between dancing and turbulence. Of course I looked like an idiot, but who cares? It was better than a panic attack.

9. Find distractions
My favorite is listening  to music, but working or watching a Netflix series or movie can help, too.

10. Take medication

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I’m not a pill popper, but Dramamine has changed flying for me. It makes the motion a lot more tolerable. It can make you a little drowsy, but that might be a good thing on a long flight. It comes in a non-drowsy and chewable formula, too. I take it 30 minutes before the flight.

Anti-anxiety medication can take the edge off, especially if you think you might panic. I’ve never tried taking a sleeping pill on a flight, but I love the idea of sleeping through turbulence. If they develop a pill that safely renders you unconscious in ten seconds or less, I’d take it during turbulence. But seriously, talk to your doctor about what medication might be right for you.

11. Use natural remedies
Try motion sickness bracelets or massaging your pressure points, if you’re uncomfortable taking medication.

12. Eat ginger

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Some studies have shown that ginger is an effective treatment for nausea and vomiting, but it may not work for everyone. If you’re taking medication, let your doctor know before eating ginger.

13. Reassure yourself
Tell yourself that the turbulence will end and that you will get to your destination safely. Try to keep yourself calm and stay positive.

14. Learn more about what causes turbulence and how it affects the plane
Sometimes it just helps to be more informed about what’s happening. This animated video from Business Insider explains turbulence well, or read Patrick Smith’s Ask the Pilot: Turbulence: Everything You Need To Know or Flight Deck Friend’s Ask  A Pilot.

15. Breathe
If things get rough and you fear you might hyperventilate, breathe through a straw or into the air sickness bag.

16. Look at the flight attendants

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Almost everyone who flies regularly knows that when the captain comes on the PA and says, “Flight attendants, take your seats,” it’s going to get rocky. Conversely, if the captain puts on the seatbelt sign, but hasn’t instructed the flight attendants to take their seats, it’s most likely light turbulence. If you’re starting to get a little uncomfortable during turbulence, take a look at the flight attendants. If they’re anxious, it’s a cue that you should be, too. But chances are, they’ll look bored. Sometimes, it’s reassuring to know that they’ve been through this a thousand times and it’s nothing to worry about. If you’re really afraid of turbulence, let me know. They are more than happy to help you if things get rough.

17. Try hypnosis or a fear of flying class
If you’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work, try hypnosis or a fear of flying course. If you live in the Los Angeles area, Air Hollywood offers a Fearless Flying 101 class that includes turbulence simulation.

I know that flying is safe. I know that turbulence won’t take down a plane. My fear is not an irrational fear. As a child, I went on a kiddie roller coaster at the fair and it was so traumatizing, I never went on another ride again. I wouldn’t get on a roller coaster for a million dollars. If you’re afraid of turbulence and you still get on planes, don’t label yourself “a nervous flyer,” call yourself brave. How many people face their greatest fear at 30,000 feet with no escape?

Wishing you clear skies and safe travels.


Feature image credit of airplane with lightning behind taken by Guvendemir and available on iStock.

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