This is my story of coping with the anxieties of turbulence that appeared suddenly, but gradually waned. I hope it may be at least slightly encouraging for those nervous flyers!
Since September 07', I have had the priviledge of being a companion of WestJet Airlines (a good friend is an FA), based out of Calgary, Alberta (YYC).
I've always had a passion for atmospheric science, so turbulence naturally fascinates me. I never really paid attention to it until I traveled over to Europe in 2006. It was at this time that I had discovered this site, so I began to analyze the maps and make my own mental forecasts based on jetstream activity, surface winds, low pressure systems, and thunderstorms. This made me eagerly anticipate any possible turbulence, both positively and negatively, especially after hearing stories of severe turbulence - which turns out to be seldom encountered anyway.
I see a lot of folks around here tell their stories of how they encountered moderate turbulence like it wasn't a big deal, however to a white-knuckled flyer the slightest chop might be considered moderate. Let's be reminded that moderate turbulence are big bumps in which the FA's are told to immediately sit down, and you may have a handful yelp at the drops or use their airsickness bags (being near this is my personal greatest upset while flying besides screaming infants), and 'occupants feel slight strain against their seatbelts'. I have flown semi-frequently over the past 5 years or so, and before my time as a companion, if I were to give an honest account of my experiences of turbulence according to the true definition of it, I have experienced moderate once for about one minute on descent into Calgary, and light-mod once on descent into Denver, once over Lake Huron, and another time into Montreal (always due to strong surface winds or convective clouds/virga). These times were memorable experiences, with some fun (uncomfortable for some) rollercoaster-esque drops...yet bins and carts (and people) weren't being tossed about the cabin.
I live in a notably choppy airspace (similar to Denver) just east of the front ranges of the Rockies, yet my experiences of bad turbulence are seldom...as are those of my FA friends and pilots.
Since being a companion (starting last September) I flew return to YYZ twice, YUL twice, YVR once, one way from YLW once, PHX, LAX, FLL thru YYZ and back, out to YHZ, and then back to YYC via YYZ again. That's 21 one ways. Out of which probably 10 flights the seatbelt light did not come on, and the rest it came on briefly only to endure some light chop for a brief time. Keep in mind that many of these flights are 3hrs +, over a number of mountain ranges and through a variety of weather patterns. WJA operates a fleet of B737s ranging from 600-800s. The 700-800s have the wingtips which apparently improve fuel economy and reduce the bumps, although the back of the plane always experiences more yaw and chop in general.
There were two flights where I can remember any notable bumps; one was on the way down through FL 270-140 on descent into YYC from PHX because of a local phenomenon called a 'chinook', which is a strong, mild westerly breeze over the Rockies typically in winter, so you'll have lenticular clouds and mountain wave activity - yet the bumps were mostly sideways and only bordering on light-mod.
The other TB was during descent into YYC from LAX and was between FL 200-100, again coming over the Rockies through some convective clouds. These were probably the most exciting bumps, and it prompted a few yelps and others to clench their loved-one's knees and such and the FA's were told to sit where they were. I got out my camera and videoed a bit of it. At the end of the flight I was sure to ask the pilot what he would classify the bumps as, and lo and behold, they were only bordering on moderate.
As for coping mechanisms that eased the occasional anxiety, I experimented with everything. However avoidance wasn't my goal - it was dealing with the TB when it came so as to get over it. Aside from the comforts of my personal faith, I tried the old cup of water on the tray table thing (to psychologically note that driving down the road on the way to the airport is way bumpier and more dangerous than flying- although tray tables should be up if it gets rough), deciding to have a positive attitude by telling myself that there are over a million other air travellers daily, and that if bumps do occur they could be worse, realizing that life goes on as usual in the world below despite my little situation and that the whole experience will soon be a memory, distracting the mind by listening to my Ipod or watching TV (WestJet has the comfy leather seats and TVs on the seatbacks with good programming), conversing with my neighbor, and requesting window seats. Also resting well the night before and having a large nutritious meal before flying helps in having an enjoyable experience. And we must not forget to breathe.
Ultimately however, flying routinely is one of the best ways to ease anxiety, and as TB is a normal part of flying, one becomes accustomed to it. Also, I listen to ATC and have noted how pilots do their best to work with the controllers in providing a heading that delivers the smoothest ride for their patrons. And thank God for seatbelts! What an amazing invention - just being buckled in should provide comfort to the fearful flyer, especially after returning from standing in a bumpy lavatory! ;P
I am different in that there are a couple of common sources of anxiety which I actually am comforted by. One being that when it gets bumpy, I actually like to look at the wing flexing up and down (especially in larger planes), because I know that it has tremendous give...even in the heaviest turbulence. It is doing its work in stabilizing the plane and making the ride smoother. (I also find it helpful to envision the bumps for what they actually are - moving currents of air. I imagine traveling over wavy water on a speed boat, which often feels very similar.) The other is I LOVE taking off and landing. Taking off feels and sounds cool, and landing means you are either at your destination or home. Plus, turbulence feels different in the lower levels due to different sources below the CU (thermals, winds, etc) and are not augmented by high forward velocity, and I find that it is a good way to practice dealing with it because you know it is often inevitable yet short lived.
Perhaps one only needs to spend some time flying on a little Cessna in dicey weather - now those are bumps! Anything on a commercial jet would seem like peas after that. The best experience I ever had on a plane was jumping out of a C182 from 10000 AGL over the prairies and freefalling for 30 seconds before deploying my chute!
It is my philosophy that we should not attempt to run from our fears, or always rely on meds that calm us down. We should instead work towards the rewarding experience of overcoming them so we can assist others who struggle with the same things. We can't miss out on seeing this vast and beautiful planet, let alone other amazing experiences and lack of driving time because of a silly fear. Look at it positively - flying is the safest mode of transportation known to man, and if we ever do experience some moderate to severe bumps the plane will withstand them as it is designed this way...plus after we've survived we'll have bragging rights to the experience and every other after that will be mundane in comparison. It is often the anticipation that is way worse than the experience itself, which often turns out to be more fun than scary. We are reminded of the wise words of Jesus regaring the futility and unproductive nature of the emotion of worry: "Who by worrying can add a single hour to his life?"
I am beginning to love flying more and more.