Overcoming the Fear of Flying
WHAT CAUSES FEAR OF FLYING?
There are a lot of ways that you can become afraid of flying. You might experience strong turbulence during a flight, or experience what you consider to be a “close call”. You might have a panic attack on a plane, and thereafter fear having another one if you fly again. You might find that the continuing media emphasis on “scary flying stories” leads you to become afraid. You might experience a stressful period in your life during which flying becomes progressively more difficult for you. You might experience a traumatic event (unrelated to flying) shortly before a flight, which leads you to become afraid on the flight. Many people have developed a fear of flying in response to the 9/11 terrorism.
There are a lot of ways that people become afraid. But one way that people don’t become afraid is this: they don’t set out to discover the most dangerous activities they engage in, and then avoid those. No! A phobia is not a logical process. You become afraid for one reason or another, and then come to believe that your fear means that flying is too dangerous, even though virtually everyone regularly engages in activities which are much more dangerous than flying. Maybe you avoid flying altogether, or maybe you continue to fly with fear, but in some way you resist and struggle against your fear, and that is precisely what maintains it!
WHAT DO PEOPLE FEAR?
There are basically two kinds of fears people experience about flying: fears of crashing and dying; and claustrophobic fears of being “trapped” in the airplane once the door is shut. Some people experience only one type, in a pure form, and some experience a mixture, but in both types of fears the essential element is an overemphasis on control.
Safety statistics show, and I think probably everyone is aware of this, that flying is much safer than driving. Yet a fearful flyer who drives tends to assume that, because he/she is “at the wheel” (and therefore “in control”) that he/she will be able to avoid any accidents, or be better prepared to deal with any that may arise; will be more likely to arrive on time; will be better able to get help in the event of a medical emergency, and so on.
Even people whose fears are purely claustrophobic will strive for this sense of control. I once worked with a client who was claustrophobic, in elevators and airplanes. On our first occasion to leave my office and go to practice with elevators, we took his car – because, naturally, he wanted to drive! And he had the tiniest car I had ever seen! I mentioned to him how ironic it was, that a claustrophobic person should have such a tiny, cramped car. He replied, “It’s OK as long as I’m at the wheel!”
Fearful flyers thus try to feel better by trying to feel “in control” of various aspects of the flight experience. Since the flight is really not under their control, this striving for control makes them more afraid, not less.
What do they do? Fearful flyers I have worked with have tried to feel “in control” of the situation by doing such things as:
monitoring the weather channel during the days before a flight insisting on flying on certain types of aircraft which they regard as more safe
asking to see pictures of the pilot’s children (on the theory that if he/she has children, that’s more motivation to live!)
avoiding conversation during takeoffs and landings so they can “monitor” the procedures
wearing “lucky” clothes, avoiding “unlucky” days and flight numbers, and engaging in a variety of rituals
pretending they are not on a plane, or forcing themselves to think about something else
playing loud music on their headphones, in order to prevent themselves from thinking about the flight
tensing up their body
holding the armrest in a death grip
refusing to move from their seat during the flight trying hard to appear unafraid
sedating themselves with alcohol and/or tranquilizers and a variety of other activities, most of which maintain and increase a person’s anxiety level, rather than decrease it.
HOW DO PEOPLE GET OVER THIS FEAR?
A fearful flyer generally needs an entirely new strategy for tackling this problem, because the solutions a fearful flyer usually tries tend to make the fear worse, not better. It’s a case of “the harder I try, the worse it gets”. (If you want to learn more about this paradoxical aspect of anxiety.
In general, this means you need to get better at accepting the role of a passenger. A passenger is a person who presents himself/herself at the gate and turns over the responsiblity of flying to those who are trained and paid to do the job; who makes no effort to control that which he cannot control; and whose only job during the flight is to wait, while allowing himself/herself to be as comfortable as possible. As a passenger, you are literally “baggage that breathes”! As a passenger, you need to know how to accept and work with your emotions and fears, rather than resist them.
CAN I GET OVER THIS?
In my work with fearful flyers, I see people who haven’t flown for twenty years, or even longer; and I see people who fly more than a hundred thousand miles a year, because their work demands it. They’re all afraid, frustrated, and skeptical when they come to me. The ones who haven’t flown for a long time often can’t even imagine ever getting on a plane. The ones who are still flying wonder why all that flying doesn’t help them become less afraid, and despair of ever feeling better. I can tell you, however, that the great majority of these people make an excellent recovery and resume flying in relative comfort.
At the Anxiety Treatment Center, we offer classes for fearful flyers several times each year. In this program, we teach people a general strategy for being a passenger, and many specific coping techniques. We teach people ways to cope with their anticipatory anxiety in the days and weeks ahead of a flight, as well as the anxiety they experience during the flight.
We also meet with a pilot, who answers the group’s questions about safety, how flying works, what all those noises mean, and so on. We then fly together on a regularly scheduled commercial flight to a city about one hour away. We use this flight, and the return trip, as an opportunity for people to practice the skills they have learned in the class.