TRAVEL TIPS 7: Fear of Flying? How to Overcome It!

“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. We are experiencing some unexpected turbulence. Please return to your seats at this time and keep your seat belts fastened. Thank you.”

This is a common airline script that can leave some passengers feeling uneasy, holding the armrest in a death grip. If you have a fear of flying, you might fear crashing. Or you might have claustrophobia, and fear being “trapped” in the airplane during a long flight. You might fear having a panic attack on the airplane. Whichever type of phobia you have, you can overcome aviophobia. The key to success is to understand what maintains your fear, and learn how to roll it back.

Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias. 1 of every 6 human being has a flying phobia and avoids flying altogether due to fear and anxiety. Millions more fly in various degrees of misery, often resorting to the use of alcohol or tranquilizers to “get through” a flight. Yet this is a very treatable problem. If you want to fly in comfort again, you can!

A) What Causes Fear of Flying? Know what to expect.

A large part of being scared is not knowing what will happen next. Why is the plane going so fast? Why do my ears feel funny? Why does the wing look weird? Why are we hitting turbulence? Why are we being asked to keep our seat belts on? When presented with an unusual circumstance, your first instinct is to assume the worst. To minimize this, learn everything you can about flying and how a plane works. The more you know, the less uncertainly there will be for you to worry about. Here are some things you should know:

1) The plane needs to reach a certain speed so that it can take off. That’s why you may feel like the plane is going super-sonically fast. It is.

2) Your ears pop when the plane moves up or down because of a change in pressure.

3) Certain parts of the wing are supposed to move during the flight. That’s perfectly normal.

4) Turbulence occurs when a plane flies through an area of low pressure to high pressure, which will make you feel a “bump” in the ride. Turbulence has never taken down a commercial airliner, and 99% of people who are injured during turbulence feel it because they aren’t wearing seat belts or were hurt by falling overhead luggage. Turbulence is just like driving on a rocky road.

Understanding what causes fear of flying can point you to the best path to recovery. Here’s a brief explanation of the cause of fear of flying.

1) Experiencing a “Bad Flight”
You might have experienced a “bad flight” which caused fear of flying. This might have been strong turbulence during a flight, or some other experience you considered to be a “close call”, like an emergency landing or change in planes due to mechanical problems.

If your fear of flying has more to do with claustrophobia and panic attacks on the airplane, your fear of flying might have been caused by a day of long delays and uncomfortable waits on board the plane prior to taking off.

2) Hearing about Bad Events
It isn’t always an actual flight experience that causes fear of flying. You might not have actually experienced a bad flight yourself, but were troubled by hearing about such events.

The heavy media coverage of an airplane crash often causes people to become afraid. Crashes are extremely rare, and so they usually get an enormous amount of media coverage. Many people developed a fear of flying, at least temporarily, in response to the terrorism of September, 2001.

Some people fear losing control of themselves while on a plane, in response to a panic attack. In this case, the occasional media report of a passenger said to have had a “panic attack” who became unruly and had to be subdued is what causes fear of flying. This is usually the result of sloppy reporting, because these aren’t people with Panic Disorder. They’re typically drunk, in addition to other problems. Panic Disorder is a difficult problem, but it doesn’t lead people to run amok on airplanes!

3) It’s Not Always About Flying
People also become afraid of flying for reasons which don’t directly relate to flying. If you have Panic Disorder or Claustrophobia, you might have experienced a panic attack on an airplane, and thereafter feared “being trapped” on a plane should you have another attack there.

Sometimes it’s a challenging life event, typically in one’s twenties or thirties, which causes fear of flying. You might have experienced a stressful period in your life, one marked by job change, relocation, getting married, and having children. People often are shocked to find themselves getting panicky on an airplane during this time of their lives, and become phobic for flying as a result.

Traumatic events unrelated to flying can cause fear of flying, particularly when they occur shortly before a flight. This might be an auto accident or a physical assault, or even a sudden, unexpected layoff. A person may seem to respond to the trauma satisfactorily, but then become very afraid on the flight, and thereafter develop a phobia.

4) The Way People DON’T Become Afraid
There are a lot of causes for fear of flying. The one way people don’t become afraid is this: people don’t set out to discover the most dangerous activities they engage in, and then avoid those.

5) Fueled by the Anxiety Trick
Instead, you become afraid, for one of the reasons mentioned above, and come to believe that your fear is an accurate sign of danger. You get tricked by the assumption, “If I feel afraid, then I’m in danger.” You come to believe that your fear means that flying is too dangerous, even though you almost certainly engage in activities, every day, which are much more dangerous than flying.

Maybe you develop a phobia and stop flying altogether, or maybe you continue to fly with fear. Either way, you resist and struggle against your flying anxiety. You try really hard “not to be afraid”.

When you struggle against your fear, you’re literally “putting out fires with gasoline”. This is how the Panic Trick works. The growth of your fear is fueled by your efforts to oppose it.

B) How do People Respond to their Fear?

Many people respond to their fear by not flying. If that were satisfactory to them, that would be the end of the story. But it’s usually not. Most people with a flying phobia still want to overcome it. They see that they miss out on a lot in life, and they keep trying to find ways to be unafraid, figuring they’ll fly again once they lose their fear.

Fearful fliers who continue to fly despite their fear usually try hard to not feel afraid. They hope that by opposing their fear, they can make it go away. This sounds like a reasonable idea, but it usually doesn’t work that way. As the Panic Trick suggests, it’s the things people do in an effort to overcome the fear that usually maintain and strengthen it.

In general, fearful fliers usually resist the role of passenger and try to feel as though they have more control of the activity than they actually do. This actually strengthens and maintains the fear. It will probably be very useful for you to clarify your role as a passenger, and become more accepting of that role.

A good review of how you respond to your fear of flying is another key step in overcoming flying anxiety.

C) What People Usually Do?

In their efforts to overcome flying fears, some people have tried such things as:

1) Monitoring the weather channel during the days before a flight

2) Pretending they are not on a plane, or forcing themselves to think about something else

3) Playing loud music on their headphones, in order to prevent themselves from thinking about the flight

4) Snapping a rubber band on their wrist

5) Tensing up their body, and holding the armrest in a death grip

6) Trying hard to appear unafraid

7) Watching faces of the flight attendants for signs of fear

8) Sedating themselves with alcohol and/or tranquilizers

9) wearing “lucky” clothes, avoiding “unlucky” days and flight numbers, and engaging in a variety of rituals

In each case, their efforts to rid themselves of fear of flying, and to feel “in control” of the situation, made their fears stronger and more persistent.

Smoking is not allowed on the airplane, but feeling afraid is. It’s uncomfortable, but okay, to feel afraid. Flying is a come as you are experience. People get more upset when they try to control their fear of flying, and feel more peace as they allow themselves to accept whatever feelings they happen to have at the time.

D) What Maintains the Fear of Flying?

There are three main factors that maintain the fear. These are the factors that need to be addressed to overcome aviophobia.

1) Anticipation
People who fear flying typically experience a lot of anticipation and dread in the days, weeks, and even months ahead of a scheduled flight.

The experience a lot of “what if” worry whenever the flight crosses their mind. They picture fiery catastrophes whenever they see a plane above them, or picture themselves “freaking out” during the flight. They constantly think about how to get around, or away from, this problem.

All too often, this anticipation causes them to worry, lose sleep, and cancel their plans to fly.

Relieving the negative influence of this anticipation is a key step in overcoming the fear of flying.

2) Avoidance
The more fear people feel, the more likely they are to stop flying altogether, or fly only when it’s practically unavoidable.

Each time they cancel a flight, or decide instead to schedule another driving vacation, they experience some relief from that avoidance.

This avoidance is addictive. They come to feel the avoidance has protected them in some way, and find that they become more and more phobic over time.

Reversing the avoidance, and getting some practice with what you fear, is another key step in overcoming the fear of flying.

3) Fighting the Fear
People who fear flying and yet manage to continue to fly often find it a baffling problem. I remember a businessman who said to me “I flew 100,000 miles last year. The last mile was scarier than the first. How is practice going to help?”

The key is that that man, and many others, fight against the experience of fear, every mile. Grabbing the armrest. Asking God to have mercy and spare the flight. Self medicating with alcohol. Wearing good luck charms, and so on.

If you fly in a white knuckle manner, struggling against the fear, this is not the kind of practice that will help you. You get where you want to go, that time, but that kind of flying strengthens and maintains your fear.

You need practice working with, rather than against, the fear.

E) The Best Ways to Conquer Your Fear

It’s a bit of a cop-out to tell someone with a phobia to simply change their mindset or to go out and buy a meditation book. For someone drastically scared of flying, breathing techniques and happy thoughts simply won’t cut it. Here is more reliable option:

– Fear of Flying Courses

If your fear of flying developed from a media misconception, the best way to overcome that fear is with education. We fear the unknown but if you learn the sights and sounds of an airplane you can begin to rationalize what is actually happening on board.

To overcome flying fears, start with a good look at what you’ve been doing when you respond to your fear.

People who want to overcome flying fears also try to help themselves by striving to feel “in control” of various aspects of the flight experience. Since, as a passenger, you don’t control anything about the flight, this striving for control will make you more afraid, not less.

1) Avoidance keeps our fears alive. The more that we avoid flying, the more we reinforce the idea that flying is dangerous. Several experiences of flying safely can help correct these thoughts. Exposure helps retrain our brain to stop sending fear signals when there isn’t a likely danger. One great exposure exercise that I prescribe to clients is to head to the local airport and count the number of flights that safely take off and land.

2) What will you be giving up if you do not overcome your fear of flying? Your ability to see your family? Your freedom to see the world and experience new cultures? A great job opportunity that requires travel? Are these things you are willing to give up?

3) Practice relaxation techniques. When we are faced with a perceived threat our body reacts in the “fight or flight” response. Physiological changes such as accelerated heart rate, sweating, tunnel vision and muscle tension take place to prepare us to run or fight the threat. From an evolutionary perspective, this quick activation system is necessary to react to immediate life or death situations. The problem is we continue to experience these same physiological changes in non-emergency situations such as flying. It is important to practice calming techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, positive visualization and others to counteract the fight or flight response.

4) Therapy can help! If a fear of flying is interfering with you ability to live your life, ask for help.


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