Overcoming Flying Fears: Phobia Treatment

Learn Ways to Have an Enjoyable Flight

Flying phobia

Many of us are afraid of driving because we consider it too unsafe. That fear is considered legitimate because the high frequency of car accidents tells us there is a substantial risk. But the ultra-low number of airplane accidents would indicate to us the risk involved in air travel is extremely minimal. And yet the fear persists, which is why it is considered a phobia - aviophobia, an irrational fear and often times requires some type of treatment. 

Fear of flying can cause a person to suffer panic attacks, nausea and even anticipatory vomiting. The vast majority of people who have this fear successfully overcome it, but it doesn't just vanish without doing anything. Overcoming it requires an active effort. Being scared of flying is a very real thing, but it can be changed. Here are some tips: 

  1. Anatomy of the fear. Ask yourself, 'what are the aspects of flying that frighten me?' There are quite a few potential elemental fears wrapped up within this: 
    • In a small cabin with little room to move and absolutely no option to leave, it comes as no surprise that claustrophobia can play a role.
    • For others, turbulence and mechanical sounds are the sources of fear, largely because those of us who didn't go to flight school lack knowledge about the causes of these things. Without knowledge, our imaginations can run wild.
    • At more than 30,000 feet above the ground or ocean, those with acrophobia (fear of heights) suffer as well.
    • After 9/11, many have struggled with the fear of another airborne terrorist attack.
    • Your fear could also be a result of the knowledge that you are not at all in control of the situation (sort of a backseat driver's anxiety magnified exponentially). In a way, flight forces us to face our vulnerability as humans; as passengers, our lives rest in the hands of the pilots and we must put our full trust in the quality of a human-made flying machine. Of course, we put ourselves in similar situations every time we ride in a car or bus, but the sense of vulnerability is more acute in the air.

    Identifying your specific fears will allow you to overcome the fear of flying more effectively.

  2. Educate yourself. A lack of knowledge or understanding often leads us to fear. Learning about the rigors of test flight, the countless hours of training, and the many built-in safety features of aircrafts can help ease these feelings.
    • Beyond statistics. Statistics tell us that we shouldn't fear air travel, that it's one of the safest forms of travel ever devised. We have a far greater chance of getting in a car accident than experiencing an airplane accident (29 times greater, to be specific). But statistics alone often do very little to help. If you were to tell me I have a greater chance of being struck by lightning, I could remind you that people do get struck by lightning. Technically, it is possible that a terrorist could slip through all of an airport's security points with an explosive device, entering a plane with a suicidal pilot and a host of mechanical failures - even though the odds are absolutely microscopic, I could continue fearing this convergence of catastrophes in spite of the improbability.

      The best way to overcome fear of flying is to arm yourself with as much knowledge of airplanes and air travel as possible. A statistic can help you compare risks, but can do nothing more than that. Knowledge of an airplane's backup systems, the rigors of test flights, security and mechanics can help you demystify the experience and tackle fears when you're on board. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible about planes, traffic control, safety features and pilot training. You can find a wealth of educational resources online. Some of these educational websites are actually operated by the airlines themselves (as in Virgin's excellent web resource, Flying Without Fear.

    • Courses. Many of these and other websites offer courses to help. Check out the Fear of Flying Help Course, SOAR and the Fear of Flying Clinic, to name a few of the possibilities. You can also find books and videos that promise to achieve the same results, though not all are equally helpful.
  3. Desensitization and exposure. It takes lots of willpower to even approach an airport when you suffer from a fear of flying. One way to ease the anxiety is a process called desensitization. It requires you to create very elaborate descriptions of the situations in which you're afraid. Be as specific and graphic as possible. Then, once the fear is present in your mind once more, use relaxation techniques to dissolve it.  

    Once you have confronted them through desensitization, and also gathered reassuring knowledge about air travel, your final step must be to give the real thing another try. Build up your courage and take a short flight with friends or family members who can comfort you. Fortified by your new knowledge of airplanes and airports, you might be able to eradicate your fear once and for all through exposure.

  4. Support. As you try to overcome fear of flying, the experiences and wisdom of others in the community are quite a source of support and aid. Online you'll find forums devoted to those who fear air travel, and you can also find support groups through local counseling services who can help you with overcoming fears. Listen to the advice of people who have been there before. You can learn not only from those who have successfully moved beyond them, but also from those who haven't yet done so.
  5. Visit a therapist. Psychotherapy has cured many people of a variety of phobias, fear of flying among them. If you've been struggling to overcome it on your own, a therapist can provide professional assistance as well as offer recommendations regarding local support groups, courses and other resources.
  6. Medication. If no amount of knowledge, exposure or support seems to make a dent in your fear of flying, you may be prescribed medication as an additional tool to help anxiety. Otherwise - and as long as you don't have a history of alcoholism - your doctor may even prescribe that you have an alcoholic beverage before your trip. During the flight, these beverages can have unexpected consequences, but by drinking one preflight, you might take the edge off.

Air travel has become increasingly central in our pursuit of both business and pleasure. You can overcome your fear of flying! Knowledge, experience, your personal dedication and the support of peers can ultimately help.

 

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