Afraid of Flying? You’re Not Alone

If the idea of flying fills you with anxiety and fear, you are not alone. Aviophobia, an extreme fear of flying, is one of the most common phobias in the United States, affecting as many as 40% of people! Thankfully, the fear of flying can be treated successfully through therapy.

Most travelers have a healthy concern about the safety of airplane travel. They want to know that planes are routinely serviced, that pilots and air traffic controllers are well trained, that weather conditions are safe before they fly, and that security is tight. This normal concern is rational, and the traveler feels comforted if everything seems satisfactory.

People with a phobia about flying are not likely to be comforted by any of this evidence about the safety of a flight. Instead, they feel that there is an exception to every rule. Where a non-phobic person will realize that they are safer on a plane than in any other common type of transportation, a person with flight anxiety will not be able to get beyond thinking about the negative possibilities, no matter how remote. When I tell clients with flight anxiety that the chances of being in a serious commercial plane crash are one in twenty million, all they focus on is “one.”

Many have theorized that the fear of flying has its roots in a combination of two inborn fears: the fear of not having control and the fear of falling. This is exemplified by the fact that those with flight anxiety will list both the feeling of being suspended high in the air and of trusting a piece of machinery to keep them there as their two primary sources of unease. In fact, most aviophobics do not fear driving at all, despite the much higher risk of that choice, because in a car, they feel they are in complete control. Many also have no fears of trains, which are at least on the ground. Interestingly, many people find through therapy that the reasons for their fears are much more profound than their actual worries about the plane.

Symptoms of Aviophobia

The symptoms of this phobia vary from person to person but often start with severe anticipation anxiety that can lead to insomnia, obsessive thinking, and even some physical symptoms like shortness of breath. Once on the airplane, the symptoms can often be similar to panic attacks, including extreme fearfulness, nausea, dizziness, dry mouth, sweating, shortness of breath, and shaking. For many, these symptoms subside a lot once the plane is safely in the air, though for some, the symptoms persist to some degree for the entire flight.

People who suffer from a fear of flying are often aware that their fear is irrational. However, despite this knowledge and supportive encouragement from friends and family, they are still afflicted with their intense fears. Unfortunately, the effects of flight anxiety are not limited to the distress it causes to those who suffer from it. It can affect a person’s family life and job prospects. Each year, many people who suddenly cannot fly because of this phobia are let go from businesses that require travel. It can also inhibit people from taking vacations and seeing family living far away.

The good news is that successful therapeutic treatments are available for people with phobias about flying. Usually, this type of therapy involves three general steps:

1. Challenging Irrational Thoughts

The therapist will work with you to notice each automatic and irrational thought about flying and help you learn to challenge them. Reviewing these thoughts can sometimes lead to a better understanding of why these fears came on in the first place. One young mother came to me with a fear of flying, and the content of her irrational thoughts helped her realize that having kids generated a greater sense of responsibility and more awareness of her mortality. Knowing that the cause isn’t actually about the plane can help!

2. Desensitization

The next step is “systematic desensitization,” which describes a gradual progression that starts with safe and quick visualization and eventually leads to going on an airplane. At first, the therapist might ask you to go to the airport, watch planes safely landing and taking off, and see passengers calmly walking onto airplanes. They might refer you to a website that shows all the planes in the air at the moment, which can help you see how safe things are.

3. Designing a plan for the flight itself

In therapy, you’ll learn to practice deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques to help manage anxiety during the flight. You might use visualization techniques while focusing on feelings of relaxation and comfort. The plan may include engaging in activities that divert your attention during the flight. You’ll also learn how to inform the flight attendants about your flight anxiety. They are trained to handle anxious passengers and may be able to provide reassurance or guidance during the flight. Even saying “hello” to the pilots when you board can bring relief.

If you suffer from flight anxiety, there are a variety of resources available to you, including support groups, educational books and internet sites, internet chat rooms, and self-help protocols. Your therapist can help you weave all of that together in combination with their work with you to help you overcome your fears. You are not alone in having flight anxiety, and you won’t be alone in joining the considerable number of people who were able to overcome it!

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