Fear of flying is classified as a phobia, which in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is defined as an anxiety disorder represented in an unreasonable or irrational fear related to a specific object or situation.
Overcoming a Fear of Flying
Fears are usually classified as either rational or irrational. Fearing predatory animals like bears, or fearing guns is considered entirely rational. Irrational fears or phobias are fears regarding things that aren’t necessarily dangerous, such as spiders or heights. A fear of flying lies in a strange middle ground, because flight is not a natural human ability, and hasn’t existed for very long. While flying is not inherently any more dangerous than driving a car, many people have an intense fear of it. People who are new to the idea of a “fear of flying” should take a look at this this Miami Helicopter article, which aims to examine the psychological aspects that contribute to a fear of flying, as well as some ways to overcome one. Here, we will be expanding on these ideas and offering helpful tips to overcoming this fear.
Situations and Triggers that Cause a Fear of Flying
Fear of flying triggers many factors can contribute to a fear of flying, some of them rational, some of them not. For example, a rational reason to fear flying would be the possibility of a plane being hijacked and used in a 9/11-style attack. The events of 9/11 affected the airline industry drastically and saw less people traveling by plane, opting instead to drive long distances to avoid flying. The general public often has the same reaction after plane crashes, although usually that has a much greater effect on the sales of an individual airline. These so-called rational responses tend to be short-lived, and eventually sales and plane travel go back to normal.
For people with a fear of flying, however, incidences like these serve as “confirmation events,” instances that validate their fears. If someone constantly reads about plane crashes (despite their relative rarity), it confirms to them that flying is indeed dangerous.
Captain Tom Bunn is a pilot who has dedicated three decades of his life testing effective methods to treat the fear of flying. He believes that many triggers can come into play to create this fear. These can range from childhood traumas to PTSD in later life. “When an upcoming flight comes to mind,” Bunn says, “we are bothered by the same things that bothered us in childhood: being alone, powerless, not responded to, and unable to escape.”
Other phobias can also affect and exacerbate a fear of flying. This means that fears related to flying or even the thought of flying can be symptoms of a wider psychological condition. Claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and acrophobia have all been cited as possible triggers of panic attacks before or during flights.
These phobias can cause a range of concerns and anxieties that make it even more difficult to overcome their fear of flying. A few of these include social anxieties brought on by crowded conditions, or a fear of strangers. Other factors include the stale, recycled air on planes, a passenger’s general lack of control, fear over turbulence, and a lack of trust in the pilot or air staff.
While flight is certainly not a “natural” state for humans, neither are other recent innovations like cars or trains. Statistically, only 1 in 45 million flights will crash, making it one of the safest ways to travel.
The fact that fear of flying remains so common speaks to the power of the human imagination. The mind can cleverly mask some of its other conditions and phobias as a fear of flying. Some people have found luck with sedatives or alcohol, but these are by no means the recommended methods of dealing with a fear of flying, because they can occasionally make the situation much worse.
For people who have a fear of flying, the causes are primarily other anxieties, and the generally victor of one’s imagination over the reality of a situation. Fortunately, this implies that the solution to overcoming a fear of flying lies within ourselves and our overall worldview.
The first goal in overcoming is to reduce the release of various stress hormones before and during flights. When we become stressed, our bodies produce excessive amounts of cortisol, adrenaline, and oxytocin, which limits proper brain function. Reducing the production of these hormones prior to getting to the airports and planes will substantially decrease your fear of flying. Here are a few useful steps to controlling flight-based anxiety:
• Look at flying statistics to try to identify flight as a non-threatening means of transportation.
• Try to convince yourself that if a situation arose, you would respond properly.
Pay special attention to the safety information given to you before your flight. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has outlined a list of potential coping strategies you can use to help overcome general fears, but many of them are specifically related to a fear of flying. The ADAA’s website is a valuable host of information regarding coping with fear. A few of the helpful tips listed there are:
• Thinking about your destination, as opposed to your means of travel
• Meditating or praying before your flight
• Thinking of rational “retorts” to your negative thoughts
• Staying well-hydrated
• Avoiding depressants and stimulants, such as alcohol and caffeine (respectively)
• Accepting that you are not in control of the plane, but that there is a competent professional who is.
• Trying to laugh or joke about your situation
While many of these methods seem more easily said than done, you may find that a specific combination works for you. There is no catch-all method to get over a fear of flying.
Some long-term solutions also exist to manage your overall fears and anxieties that may be contributing to or exacerbating your fear of flying. Some of these include:
• Identifying the “triggers” of your anxiety
• Review positive information regarding flights
• Get involved with a support group or therapy session with people who share your fears
• Trying yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques to make you feel naturally relaxed without the use of prescriptions.
• Seek counseling if the fear is persistent and you are unable to manage it effectively on your own.
Different methods work for different people–don’t be afraid to try a combination of any or all of the above methods to make you feel safe. A fear of flying doesn’t have to keep you from getting where you need to go. There are myriad ways of dealing with an individual flight, if not overcoming the fear entirely. In some cases, proper education about flight and some simple relaxation techniques may be enough to “get you off the ground,” as it were. For people with more pernicious fears that might be linked to other anxieties or psychological conditions, counseling and support groups are great options.