Fear of Flying
By Dr. John D. Moore
Have a fear of flying? Do you suffer from serious flight anxiety – the kind that makes you panic? Does the thought of boarding an aircraft make you nervous? If so, you are not alone. Many people who seek out counseling and therapy here in Chicago and elsewhere do so because they want to get a handle on this life challenge.
I’ve written about flying fears issues in the past with one particular piece about a gentleman with an anxiety disorder who experienced a near meltdown at 31,000 feet. If you get a chance – be sure to check out the article.
And so this page is all about flying fears and will address several areas that are designed to help you gain a better understanding of a problem that is widely misunderstood and often not discussed. I’m letting you know right now that I love talking about aviation so be prepared.
Are you ready? Let’s jump right in!
Fear of Flying Phobia
If you have a fear of flying, you may have a specific condition known as a specific phobia. This is a 25-cent term used to describe a situational type dynamic where an individual, perhaps just like you, experiences strong feelings of fear that are triggered by flying or even the thought of flying.
For some people, the fear is so intense that it can bring on panic attacks. In fact, one of the main issues clients bring up in counseling and therapy for this issue is an understandable concern about experiencing a panic attack while onboard an aircraft.
On a related note, some individuals with flight phobia already struggle with a panic disorder, accompanied by agoraphobia. In simple-speak, agoraphobia means you fear being in situations where escape is difficult.
Fear of Flying Stats
While the statistical research is somewhat scattered, current estimates suggest somewhere around 20-30% of the public are somewhat apprehensive about flying.
Digging deeper, we think that 2-10% of people have a specific flying phobia. The truth is getting a firm number is difficult because a lot of folks don’t like to acknowledge this issue – particularly men – because they fear being judged. It’s just the way it is.
If you already have some form of anxiety, like OCD, PTSD or GAD, it can complicate matters by paradoxically intensifying your fears. The article mentioned at the beginning of this post is a prime example.
Fear of Flying Causes
The specific causes behind what makes afraid to fly is controversial. Some research suggests flying phobias are the product of learned behaviors. Here, we are talking about conditioned responses tied to things we see, hear, smell or even think.
Other research suggests there may be biological causes for the condition.
At its core, the development of a flight phobia in large part is connected to how you perceive threatening stimuli, such as turbulence, “strange” aircraft noises and cabin pressure changes.
Here are some other factors that may contribute to flight fears:
- A bad (scary)flight experience in the past
- Your current level of stress
- Misinformation about dangers associated with flight
- Potential biological causes
- Problems giving up control
- Medications that may amplify anxiety
Airplane Accidents & Disaster – TV & Movies
Adding to a person’s fear of flying phobia can be a fixation on television shows and movies that center on airplane disasters.
In recent years, there has been a plethora of programming about airplane crashes. What’s interesting about living with a flying phobia is the paradox that exists between being afraid to board an aircraft and an intense interest in aviation accidents. Sound familiar?
And so if you watch television shows like Air Disasters on the Smithsonian Channel or similar programing on other networks, you know exactly what I mean.
In some ways, watching these shows act to reinforce already held beliefs that something “terrible” will happen or that an accident is inevitable.
This phenomenon is called awfulizing, which is a term used in cognitive therapy that speaks to cognitive distortions.
And I am the first to admit that while these shows may not always be the healthiest thing to watch in the presence of a flying phobia, I also recognize that they can also be extremely captivating. It’s a double edged sword.
Aviation and Popular Culture
And don’t forget popular programming from the past that has helped to embed terrible thoughts about flying in to the public psyche.
An example can be found in an episode of the iconic TV series, Twilight Zone, starring a very young William Shatner. Shatner is most widely known for his role as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek the original series. See our Star Trek Captains post to learn more.
The particular episode I am speaking about was entitled: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet and aired on October 11, 1963.
I’ve posted a video from Youtube below. Be sure to check it out!
While some of what you see may be funny if not laughable, bear in mind that back in 1963, flying was just beginning to take hold with the public.
Jet service was just coming online with many airlines and a good number of carriers were still flying propeller type aircraft.
And so because of the “newness” of flying at that time, there were many unknowns about its safety. Nightmare at 20,000 did an excellent job of speaking to these fears.
A homework assignment I often give to clients is to ask them to find a copy of this episode on Netflix and then journal about it afterwards. If you decide to do this, be sure to take note of the symbolism, including the menacing gremlin hanging out on the wing. What does he represent to you?
If you already struggle with a flying phobia, there’s a good chance you know the associated symptoms. As a way of universalizing these experiences, I will list some of them anyway to help normalize the experience.
- Rapid heartbeat
- Time distortions
- Panic with intense fear
- Cold, clammy feeling
- Shaking or trembling (or both)
- Difficulty breathing
Regarding the characteristic of panic as mentioned in the list above, some people experience such intense fear that their perceptions of reality can become distorted in a phenomenon known as derealization. Be sure to read more about it by clicking on the hyperlink above.
Overcoming Flying Phobia
The good news about flying phobias is that they can be successfully treated. You may be wondering, “How”?
Well, generally speaking, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), combined with forms of exposure therapy have proven to be highly effective in helping people work through their anxiety and reduce symptoms.
Be sure to read our ultimate guide on exposure therapy to learn more about this approach to anxiety!
In addition to the above-mentioned, specific exercises can be used to help you move through flight anxiety that are concrete in nature.
Here are some examples:
- Relaxation techniques
- Cognitive rehearsals
- Mindfulness based meditation
- Guided imagery as part of relaxation hypnotherapy for flying fears
Fear of Flying and Psycho-Education
One of the most powerful things you can do to help you move past your fear of flying comes from the form of psycho-education. What’s that you say? What on earth does that term mean?
Psycho-education is a fancy way of offering meaningful information to people on a given life challenge with the goal of empowerment.
And so one resource I would like to recommend to you is the book SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying by Captain and therapist, Tom Bunn.
What’s more, the book also speaks to the physiological aspects flying phobia, including how to deal with the stimuli that cause a phobic response such as panic.
Here we are talking about:
- Aircraft noises
- Pressure changes
- Strange sensations
There’s a good chance you have been looking for help with your fear of flying because you realize it has created many roadblocks personally and professionally.
What I want you to know is that help is available. If you are reading this post, I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of the book mentioned above as a starting point.
If you feel counseling and therapy may be helpful to you that specifically addresses your fears of flying, please give us a call at 773.528.1777 or send us a confidential note using our secure contact form.
Several of our counselors have experience with this issue and want to help you figure out effective strategies for working through.
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