Fear of Flying
Despite numerous technological advancements to improve the safety and accessibility of traveling by airplane, 6.5% of Americans today live with a fear of flying. Even celebrities and athletes admit to flying woes!
This phobia—also known as pteromerhanophobia or aviophobia—may wreak havoc in people’s lives by causing anxiety around planning vacations, family visits, long-distance relationships, or work-related travel.
Coping with a Fear of Flying
Those with a fear of flying may have strong negative reactions before and during a flight, or they may simply avoid traveling by air. For people who continue to fly despite their fears, strategies are often employed that work reasonably well—in the short-term.
Many short-term solutions include engaging in distractions like playing games, watching a movie, or checking social media. Others include using sleeping aids or anti-anxiety medication; ordering overpriced alcohol to ease anxiety; or simply gripping the armrest with eyes tightly shut to avoid scary thoughts and feelings. These techniques may help a person “survive” the flight, but they don’t do much to chip away at the actual fear of flying.
Thankfully, this phobia can be treated effectively so air travel is much more pleasant and manageable. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), in particular, is effective for phobias including fear of flying. (More on this below.)
Understanding the Fear
It is important to understand what is triggering the fear of flying before considering how to treat the fear. For some people, anxiety about flying might be related to a fear of closed spaces (claustrophobia) or a fear of heights (acrophobia). Others might be afraid of having a panic attack or losing control of themselves while on board the aircraft. For some, the fear of flying is really about the fear of crashing or fear of experiencing terrorism, or extreme anxiety around take-off and landing.
The Role of Thoughts
Whatever the underlying trigger may be, there is most likely some erroneous and faulty thinking that plays a significant role in maintaining such fears. Identifying these thoughts is the first step toward overcoming the phobia.
After pinpointing the inaccurate thoughts, it’s helpful to “poke holes” in these thoughts and replace them with more rational beliefs. This challenges the fears that arise when thinking about flying. This may seem like a daunting task because most people know that their fears are irrational and that, logically, flying is safe. However, remembering what is rational in the moment is the key to combating these fears.
Treatment for Fear of Flying
Let’s say that someone has an irrational fear of the plane malfunctioning, and crashing. Learning about how planes operate, routine plane maintenance, and what is considered normal regarding plane noises or turbulence may help allay fears of flying. Another strategy is to examine the statistics of plane crashes and the evidence from that person’s previous flights. These strategies are often part of cognitive-behavioral therapy for fear of flying. Working with a CBT therapist one these strategies is typically much more effective than doing them on your own. These strategies typically help one come to realize that the chances of being in a crash due to a malfunctioning plane are much smaller than originally believed.
A CBT therapist will often work with people to create rational statements such as, “Flying is the safest way to get from point A to point B.” Systematically integrating such new thought patterns into one’s inner monologue can help limit the impact of anxious thoughts as they arise. This strategy often helps kick-start the development of a new helpful travel routine.
For those who avoid airplane travel all together, it may be useful to utilize a method of treatment called “systematic desensitization.”
First, a therapist may help the person build a “fear hierarchy” of scary situations or environments — ranked from the least anxiety-provoking to the most anxiety-provoking — often with the goal of boarding a plane at the top of this hierarchy. Using systematic desensitization, the CBT therapist gradually exposes the phobic person to each of these feared situations until they no longer feel as frightening. Eventually the goal of boarding a plane is reached.
For example, someone who has an extreme fear of takeoff might first watch videos of planes taking off. She might listen to prerecorded airplane noises to get used to the various sounds that occur during takeoff. Then, she might find a virtual reality program or computer simulator to expose herself to the physical conditions of the airplane. She would continue working her way up the fear hierarchy until she was ready to purchase a plane ticket and board the plane.
How to Get Help for Fear of Flying
Remember that facing any fear takes courage and time. Seeking professional help from a cognitive-behavioral therapist may expedite recovery from a fear of flying.
Contact us here if you’d like to talk with someone about your fear of flying. With some work, traveling by plane can become just as enjoyable as the rest of your trip.