Overcoming Fear of Flying

“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. We are experiencing some unexpected turbulence. Please return to your seats at this time and keep your seat belts fastened. Thank you.”

This is a common airline script that can leave many passengers feeling uneasy, holding the armrest in a death grip.

Are you afraid to fly? Several studies have shown that up to 40 percent of people experience some degree of anxiety about flying. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.5 percent of the population, or 20 million people, experience such an intense fear of flying that it qualifies as a phobia.

Many people will avoid flying altogether. This can be problematic if flying is required for work, if you want to visit family on the opposite coast, or if you want to go on that amazing trip to Italy.

First let’s focus on why so many people are afraid of flying. According to Dr. David Burns, we all experience cognitive distortions, meaning our mind can convince us of things that are untrue. In the case of fear of flying, we are committing emotional reasoning. We believe that what we feel must automatically be true. So if we feel the plane is unsafe, then that must be true.

Emotional reasoning leads us to overestimate the probability of a bad outcome instead of examining the facts. Additionally, people believe that they could not cope with the worst-case scenario. Therefore, even if their fears are unlikely, they avoid the situation at all costs. In order to overcome these fears, it is important to correct any misconceptions.

  • Separate fears from real danger. Feeling anxious does not mean that you are in any real danger, regardless of how it feels.
  • Know the facts. The chance of being in a fatal plane crash is 1 in 7 million. Flying is the safest form of transportation. The most dangerous part is the drive to the airport. You are more likely to die from a lightning strike, shark attack or fall off a ladder. Commercial aircraft averages 12 hours of maintenance for every hour in the air.
  • Learn about aviation or ask your flight attendant. A lot of what we fear with flying is the unknown. One time I was on a flight from Los Angeles to New York City and I noticed smoke coming from the air conditioning ducts on the lower wall next to the seat. I started to panic. Immediately, I flagged down a flight attendant to explain what was going on. She calmly explained that this was condensation when the cold air from the A/C system circulates into the hot, humid cabin. I later learned that this is a very common experience. Asking questions can help ease anxiety.
  • Avoidance keeps our fears alive. The more that we avoid flying, the more we reinforce the idea that flying is dangerous. Several experiences of flying safely can help correct these thoughts. Exposure helps retrain our brain to stop sending fear signals when there isn’t a likely danger. One great exposure exercise that I prescribe to clients is to head to the local airport and count the number of flights that safely take off and land.
  • What will you be giving up if you do not overcome your fear of flying? Your ability to see your family? Your freedom to see the world and experience new cultures? A great job opportunity that requires travel? Are these things you are willing to give up?
  • Practice relaxation techniques. When we are faced with a perceived threat our body reacts in the “fight or flight” response. Physiological changes such as accelerated heart rate, sweating, tunnel vision and muscle tension take place to prepare us to run or fight the threat. From an evolutionary perspective, this quick activation system is necessary to react to immediate life or death situations. The problem is we continue to experience these same physiological changes in non-emergency situations such as flying. It is important to practice calming techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, positive visualization and others to counteract the fight or flight response.
  • Therapy can help! If a fear of flying is interfering with you ability to live your life, ask for help.