Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
- What Causes a Fear of Flying?
- Overcoming the Fear
- Apps That Help
- How Airlines and Airports Help
- Notable People With the Phobia
- Success Stories
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Flying can be a quick and easy way to get to your destination, but many people aren’t able to get on an airplane without overcoming their fear of it. The fear of flying is also known as Aerophobia, Aviophobia, or flying phobia.
Some people consider a fear of flying as an irrational fear considering you have a 1 in 7 million chance of dying on a U.S. commercial flight, but this does not comfort those that suffer from the fear. Having a fear of flying is a serious phobia that many suffer from. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.5% of Americans have a fear of flying.
Not being able to fly because of an overwhelming fear of it can hinder people in their personal and professional lives. For example, some miss out on family events or avoid taking a job that requires travel. This article takes a deep dive of this fear, exploring what the causes and treatments are, as well as how to manage and overcome the fear.
What Causes a Fear of Flying?
In 2001 we saw an increase in those who have a fear of flying. This was due to the tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001. According to Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, the year following 9/11 saw a drop in air travel and an increase in deaths by car accidents. As more people chose to drive, more accidents occurred causing 1,595 more deaths than the previous year. More recently, the two incidents with Malaysian flights also caused more people to have a fear of flying.
However, according to experts, those who suffer from this fear aren’t always scared of the plane crashing. Seeing the news of a plane crash can intensify the fear, but it’s not always the cause of it. Airports and airplanes are full of environmental triggers for different fears and anxieties. For example, most people who are scared of flying have claustrophobia, and the thought of being enclosed in a small space on an airplane triggers their fear. Other triggers of anxiety and fear can include long lines, noticing a serious look from a flight attendant, or the possibility of an invasive security check. Others have a fear of having a panic attack while on the airplane.
Having negative experiences on an airplane can also cause some to have anxiety when flying or create a fear of flying. Experiencing turbulence, loud noises, pain from changes in air pressure, or any other negative aspects of flying can cause anxiety and lead to people associating that anxiety with a fear of flying.
Personality traits can also cause people to have a fear of flying. For example, those who like to be in control may struggle with getting on an airplane and giving up that control. Others might associate flying with a stressful life event. Being stressed about work, marriage issues or a sick family member can create anxiety and prevent people from boarding the plane. Others base their fear of flying on misinformation about the dangers of flying. Growing up with parents that have a fear of flying can also cause children to have the fear and hold on to that as adults.
Overcoming the Fear
A psychologist can help those suffering from a fear of flying overcome their fear by using cognitive-behavioral therapy. Some of the techniques involved in this therapy include exposure therapy, relaxation techniques, and cognitive restructuring. In the past, exposure therapy has been conducted on an actual airplane, but with the help of technology, this type of therapy can be done through virtual reality. Many people suffering from this fear turn to drug therapy, but this is only a temporary fix.
Hypnotherapy is another option to help overcome a fear of flying. Hypnosis can help you become calmer and more relaxed, allowing you to feel safer and more in control when on an airplane. A hypnotherapist will use relaxation techniques and the power of suggestion to help you change the reaction to your triggers. Hypnotherapy can help those suffering from this fear turn flying into a positive experience.
Here are some strategies that can help you manage your fear before and during a flight:
Know the Facts
Don’t focus on the possibility of a negative outcome. Instead, know the facts about the actual risks of flying. Understanding how planes work and what happens during turbulence can also help when keeping a fear of flying subdued.
You may be surprised to find that traveling on the road is much more dangerous:
- Traveling by car or truck is 100 times more deadly than flying
- Traveling on a motorcycle is 3,000 times more deadly than flying
Know Your Triggers
Know what triggers cause your anxiety and fear to intensify.
For example, some people aren’t able to watch the safety demonstrations at the beginning of each flight because this reminds them that a crash is possible. However, if this is not your trigger and you are not able to watch the safety demonstration, it is still important that you find a way to know what to do in case of an emergency.
Other triggers can include security checks, which remind those with a fear of flying that terrorism does exist and is a possibility on their flight.
Fear Does Not Mean Danger
If you are feeling anxious before or during your flight, remind yourself that the fear you are feeling does not mean you are in danger.
It’s important to be able to separate your anxiety from danger in these circumstances since your body reacts to both of them the same.
When you feel your anxiety coming on, stop and breathe.
Slow, deep breaths in through the mouth and out through the nose can help keep you calm. Repeating a soothing mantra while doing this can also be helpful.
Don’t allow yourself to cave to your anxieties. Your anxiety can make you think you are in danger when you really aren’t. By ignoring what your anxiety is telling you to do, you can fight the anxiety and overcome it.
When Turbulence Occurs
When turbulence begins, don’t focus on how long it will last or how severe it is. Instead, focus on staying calm and not letting your anxiety take over.
Remind yourself that flying is safe and the turbulence is temporary. Think of the turbulence like a speed bump. Fight the urge to tense up and allow yourself to move with the plane’s movements during turbulence.
Let those around you know that you have a fear of flying. This can include those you are traveling with, the person or people you are sitting next to, and a flight attendant.
Inform these people of what your triggers are and how to help calm you down should you need help.
Learn From Each Flight
Each flight that you successfully complete is one step closer to helping you overcome your fear of flying. The more exposure you have, the more opportunities you have to overcome your fear.
If possible, get a seat at the front of the plane where there is less turbulence. Take shorter flights instead of one long one.
Keep yourself distracted with calm and soothing music, movies, magazines, books, crossword puzzles, or anything that will keep your mind from focusing on your anxiety and fear and the fact that you’re on a plane.
Being dehydrated can intensify your fears and anxieties. Avoid caffeine — having too much energy can also help make your anxiety worse. Some prefer drinking alcohol to calm their nerves, but it’s important not to drink too much.
Wear a Rubber Band
When you are feeling anxious, snap the rubber band on your wrist. It should bring you back to reality and distract you from your triggers and anxiety.
Apps That Help
Now that phones can be used in airplane mode during takeoff, apps can be used to help users manage their fear of flying during takeoff and throughout the flight. Here are some apps that will help calm users’ nerves when they are feeling anxious about flying.
This app created by ANA is meant to distract and calm users during takeoff with the help of a distracting game and calming music. They recommend turning the app on while on the runway. The app is free for iOS and Android users.
This free app takes a more informative approach and aims to help users have a full understanding of the take off process, turbulence, and airplane maintenance. Users can get current turbulence forecasts, and look at a G-force meter that shows how safe their plane is. With an in-app purchase, users can also watch video courses to help them manage their fears.
VALK, also known as the “in-flight therapist” provides flight safety statistics, turbulence forecasts, weather forecasts, and stress-reducing techniques. Users can hit the app’s panic button for immediate stress-reducing techniques to help them overcome their anxiety. Once the app is downloaded it does not need to connect to Wi-Fi. VALK is available for $3.99 to iOS users and $4.88 on Android.
The creators of this app wanted to make those with a fear of flying feel more comfortable before and during their flight. Those suffering from this fear don’t always feel better just hearing that planes are safe. By showing them the turbulence forecasts this app can help calm some fears. Users can monitor turbulence in real time and better prepare for it. The app is available to iOS users for $1.99.
Flight Without Fear
This app is meant to reassure passengers that they are safe. The app uses audio relaxation techniques to help keep users calm. It also provides other information that is meant to ensure passengers, like who their pilots are and flight information. The app is available to iOS users for $4.99.
How Airlines and Airports Help
Airports all over the country are doing their part to help people overcome their fear of flying. Phoenix Sky Harbor International offers a monthly class for people suffering from this phobia. Their advanced course even allows students to go on an actual flight to test out what they’ve learned in the class. Other airports with classes include the General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, San Francisco International Airport, and London Stansted Airport.
Unfortunately, there are not many airlines that offer programs to help those suffering from a fear of flying. As of 2017, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways are the only two airlines that offer programs to passengers dealing with this fear.
Notable People With the Phobia
Most celebrities have to fly all over the world so you wouldn’t expect for them to have a fear of flying, but many are open about suffering from this phobia including Megan Fox, Gary Barlow, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Aniston, Holly Willoughby and Aretha Franklin.
The late David Bowie preferred to travel via trains and boats after having a bad experience on an airplane in the 70s. He flew again in the 80s, but it after having a heart attack and a daughter, he went back to trains and boats. Wes Anderson (movie director), opts for a boat trip to Europe. Kate Winslet and her husband never fly on the same plane together. They want to make sure that they aren’t both killed in a plane crash leaving their children parentless.
A woman by the name of Shenan suffered from a fear of flying and had all of the usual symptoms including a racing heart and difficulty breathing when on a flight. After working with Dr. Luann Linquist she was able to successfully overcome her fear and even flew overseas to Europe.
Nick took a course through fearofflying.net and was able to overcome his fear and make it through a flight. As the plane began to land Nick used what he learned in the class and thought about what was happening in the cockpit and was able to reassure himself. He also used music as a distraction. Once they landed he even had a few tears of joy, proud that he had a successful flight.
During flights from Hawaii to the East Coast and back Kaela was able to make it through all of her flights. She used the techniques she learned in therapy including visualizing each segment of the trip when preparing for it, practicing deep relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. She also steered clear of junk food and caffeine.
The following questions and answers can help passengers have a better understanding of the airplane and flight, which can ease anxieties.
Is turbulence safe?
Yes. According to experts, it is uncomfortable, but not dangerous.
What is the safest seat on a plane?
All of the seats on an airplane are equally safe. However, turbulence is usually felt more near the back of the plane. If you want a smoother and quieter ride then you should sit over the wings.
If passengers have heavier bags, does that make the flight unsafe?
No. The weight of passengers and their luggage only makes up 5-10% of the plane’s total weight, a buffer is also factored in. Airlines use averages to find out the weight of passengers and they also know the weight of every item on their planes.
What if the landing gear fails?
If this does occur during a flight the pilots and crew have a series of backup steps to take to ensure that the plane still lands safely. If all of their attempts do not work they can extend the landing gear with a hand crank.
What happens if a window breaks?
The windows in the cabin of an airplane are not going to break. It’s actually two windows. One layer plexiglass and the other one is there so passengers cannot touch the plexiglass window. The cockpit windows are not made of plexiglass, but the glass is still very strong.
Is flying through a thunderstorm dangerous?
It’s safe to fly through a thunderstorm, but it is not safe to land during a thunderstorm because of something called a downburst. A downburst dumps air from the storm straight down, causing the potential for an unsafe landing.
The fear of flying is definitely a serious phobia, but with the right help and methods, it can be overcome. If you are suffering from this fear, take control of your life and take the steps to overcome your fear and open yourself up to be able to travel again.
Featured Image Courtesy of: Bernal Saborio
Featured Image Credit: dizfoto1973 via Adobe Stock
Frequently Asked Questions
What are some apps that help people with a fear of flying?
If you have a fear of flying, we recommend using apps like:
Takeoff Mode: This app created by ANA is meant to distract and calm users during takeoff with the help of a distracting game and calming music.
SOAR: This free app aims to help users have a full understanding of the take off process, turbulence, and airplane maintenance. Users can get current turbulence forecasts, and look at a G-force meter that shows how safe their plane is.
VALK: also known as the “in-flight therapist” provides flight safety statistics, turbulence forecasts, weather forecasts, and stress-reducing techniques. Users can hit the app’s panic button for immediate stress-reducing techniques to help them overcome their anxiety.
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