Before you reach for those tiny bottles of whiskey or prescription drugs to calm yourself on an airplane ride, consider some alternatives. Non-medical alternatives to relieve air travel anxiety may actually work for you.
Xanax has box warnings. These are the most serious warnings from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Box warnings alert doctors and patients about drug effects that may be dangerous.
Using benzodiazepines, even as prescribed, can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal if you stop taking the drug suddenly. Withdrawal can be life threatening.
Using benzodiazepines can also lead to misuse and addiction. Misuse of benzodiazepines increases your risk of overdose and death.
Only take these drugs as your doctor prescribes. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns about safely taking a benzodiazepine.
Air travel can be stressful. From facing delayed flights, turbulence, and a lot of personalities crammed together in a tight space to sailing through the sky at 30,000 feet, flying can, rightfully, make you feel out of control.
If one or a combination of these things makes you feel on edge, you’re not alone. Some older estimates say around 40 percent of people have some degree of flying-related anxiety, with 6.5 percent having a diagnosable phobia of flying.
Many of us have come up with our own self-prescribed antidotes to combat the stress that comes with air travel. But it turns out, we might be doing more harm than good. Here’s a look at your in-flight anti-anxiety tricks and what experts really thinks of them.
“Whether or not these pills help depends on the underlying cause of the anxiety that’s occurring,” Tania Elliott, MD, tells Healthline.
“Ambien has been shown to increase people’s chances of sleepwalking, so I would avoid that on the airplane. Xanax would be the one to help quell anxiety, but again, it depends on whether or not the anxiety comes from flying itself or is related to another area. I recommend neither Xanax or Ambien for flying.”
That said, there are people out there with legitimate anxiety disorders that inhibit them from leading their best lives.
“It’s important to have a good primary care physician who is willing to prescribe an anti-anxiety medication just prior to travel, which might be helpful for those with true anxiety disorders. Find a provider who is willing to listen to where the anxiety is coming from and diagnose appropriately,” Elliot recommends.
Melatonin is a good alternative for these prescription pills, Elliott says. She also recommends adjusting to the time zone you’re flying to in advance by taking melatonin a few days beforehand. Doing so will help supplement be most effective in-flight. It also allows you to adjust more quickly once you land.
Having a drink to calm your nerves is a behavior we extend to more than just flight jitters. (There’s a reason they call it happy hour.) But while it might be easy (and tasty) to have a cocktail to calm down before or during your flight, it’s actually one of the worst things we can do to our bodies.
“Even though it makes people relaxed, it’s never a solution,” Elliott says. “It doesn’t stimulate REM sleep, and it’s a depressant that will make you groggy and tired. The other downstream effect is the hangover. Drinking is dehydrating, and that’s the last thing you want to happen on the plane.”
Over time, alcohol can even make anxiety worse.
Magnesium may promote muscle relaxation. Since bananas contain a ton, Elliott recommends steeping a
banana peel in hot water for eight minutes to allow the magnesium to absorb into the water. Then add your favorite tea and enjoy.
While smoking medical marijuana on an airplane is definitely not allowed, many travelers have found a way around that. Edible medical marijuana (cookies, brownies, gummies, lollipops, etc.) are a fan favorite for soothing anxiety because of its super Zen, chilled-out effects.
But it turns out, this might not be what you need when it comes to relieving anxiety in the air.
“Some types of medical marijuana stimulate dreaming, while others cause you to be more creative, while others promote relaxation. But as much as they say they can do each of those things, these aren’t FDA-approved, so travelers might not know what they’re getting,” Elliot says.
“You don’t want to wind up with a strain that will cause you to feel stimulated if you’re looking to relax. Also, a lot of people can experience paranoia from marijuana, and I’d want to avoid any first-timers experiencing that,” she says.
For many travelers, flight anxiety has a lot to do with being stuck in stagnant air with dozens of other strangers.
And it’s true: Air travel is an easy way for communicable diseases to spread. Common ones include respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses like the flu or norovirus. But there can be risks for other diseases as well, like tuberculosis and measles.
Before flying, many travelers will overdose on alleged cure-alls like Airborne and Emergen-C to help amp up their immune system before a flight.
“There is no convincing information that either Airborne or Emergen-C will prevent acquisition of infectious diseases,” says Mary Anne Jackson, MD, director of infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy Kansas City.
Jackson recommends staying up-to-date on all immunizations before you take off. But to deal with anxiety the day of your flight, stocking up on hand sanitizer and staying hydrated are more effective than downing Emergen-C. Also, book a window seat. As passengers file on and off the plane (or back from the bathroom), they grab the back of aisle seats for support. This makes them hotbeds for spreading germs.
Travelers love their gadgets. None is more recognizable than the mega noise-canceling headphones that seem to take up a ton of airspace. But are these expensive contraptions worth it in terms of relaxation, other than enjoying your music in surround sound?
“Noise-canceling headphones can cancel out any jolting sounds that cause anxiety, but I recommend using them in combination with a blackout mask,” Elliott says.
Blackout masks in combination with noise-canceling headphones can reduce anxiety and promote sleep. Darkness also
produces melatonin, a part of the sleep process.
“If you’re super anxious and you want something to do that is repetitive or something to make you laugh, you can divert your attention to the airplane’s entertainment options,” Elliot mentions. “But if you want to truly relax your muscles and body, then going pitch black with deep breaths is the way to go.”
Meagan Drillinger is a travel and wellness writer. Her focus is on making the most out of experiential travel while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Her writing has appeared in Thrillist, Men’s Health, Travel Weekly, and Time Out New York, among others. Visit her blog or Instagram.
- Elliot T. (2018). Personal interview.
- Grimson P. (2020). Medical marijuana. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/medical-marijuana-2018011513085
- Jackson MA. (2018). Personal interview.
- Kirking HL, et al. (2010). Likely transmission of norovirus on an airplane, October 2008. https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/50/9/1216/314935
- Masters A, et al. (2014). Melatonin, the hormone of darkness: From sleep promotion to Ebola treatment. https://www.walshmedicalmedia.com/open-access/melatonin-the-hormone-of-darkness-from-sleep-promotion-to-ebola-treatment-2168-975X.1000151.pdf
- Specific phobia. (n.d).