Fear of Flying
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Flying phobia, flight phobia, aviophobia is estimated to affect as many as 25% of Americans1 which equates to 20 million people and in 2014 The Observer mentioned an even higher figure of 30% for the UK . This crippling condition is also sometimes called Aerophobia; an abnormal and persistent fear of flying although confusingly Aerophobia also means an irrational fear of fresh air or drafts of air.
One of the most difficult aspects for people who do not have this phobia is that even the sufferers themselves can understand its irrationality. They experience severe anxiety even though they usually realise that the flying does not pose a threat commensurate with their fear. So simply stating that the oft-mentioned adage that flying is safer than crossing the road does nothing to alleviate the fear.
It is also worth mentioning that some people also suffer from hodophobia - the fear of traveling, claustrophobia – the fear of enclosed spaces such as inside a plane or even agoraphobia – the fear of open space such as at airports. It is safe to say that the act of travel can expose travellers to many fears so in this article we are going to confine ourselves to the fear of flying, as well as covering some tips on reducing general anxiety too.
Am I afraid of flying?
Established to promote the relief and rehabilitation of persons suffering from agoraphobia and associated anxiety disorders, phobias and conditions, Anxiety UK has some suggestions for people trying to self -diagnose their fear of flying. Their DIY approach involves asking yourself the following questions:
- Do you have high levels of anticipatory anxiety prior to a flight?
- Do you experience bodily symptoms prior and during flying, such as hyperventilating, sweating, churning stomach and dizziness?
- Do you avoid flying wherever possible, and if able to only fly under duress?
- Do you picture catastrophic scenes while flying that cause you significant distress?
- Is your fear impacting on your relationships or work due to an inability to attend holidays or meetings?
- Do you worry that you might lose control when flying and spontaneously open the aeroplane door or draw attention to yourself?
If you answer yes to most of these questions, it is likely that you have a fear of flying.
Unsurprisingly for a term which was coined during World War Two, and since abbreviated to FOF, the military has been interested in investigating this phobia. An article by Dr Catherine Joseph in 2003 stated FOF is an unreasonable fear that develops in trained aviators (although even as early as in the 1940s it was estimated that between 10% and 40% of the general population also suffer from it) who are free of other emotional symptoms and which can result in neuropsychiatric disorder, psychological dysfunction and inadequate professional behaviour.
It is now generally accepted theory that individuals with anxiety disorders display a preoccupation with danger and the overestimation of threat of benign stimuli, accompanied by a perception that they will be unable to cope with this potential danger. In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association defined fear of flying as a Specific Phobia.
Whilst this helped with people looking to overcome their fear, including some studies of the brain at Harvard University using MRI scanners, there are large numbers of sufferers who recognise their phobia but do not seek treatment, preferring instead to avoid flying.
Airlines have tried to provide assistance by offering courses for fear of flying, such as easyJet, Virgin Atlantic and the most well-known, British Airways Fly with Confidence. Over the last thirty years, over 50,000 people have attended the British Airways courses to overcome their fear of flying.
These one-day courses are popular with a technical session and a psychological session followed by a short flight, although the course content can be adapted for teenagers or younger children, revised to include ground only content or conducted in private. Prices start from £2792 including expert course leaders such as technical engineers and pilots and does include the cost of the short flight but that might be prohibitively expensive for just a nervous flyer.
The first drug that many nervous flyers might think to use is alcohol which is readily available at the airport, conveniently just before take-off. Airlines, however, can refuse to carry passengers who are drunk and in November 2018 the Home Office announced a three-month call for evidence on whether licensing laws should apply to bars, restaurants and shops that are airside at UK airports.
Additionally, medical experts agree that using alcohol to combat any anxiety is not a sustainable cure and can lead to significant health problems. So, what would these medical professionals recommend for fear of flying sufferers? A visit to the doctor prior to travel can provide reassurance about general fitness for air travel and if they think it will help, they may prescribe a tranquiliser to calm your nerves during flight. It is much more likely they will suggest some Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Recent research has indicated that cognitive behaviour therapy can be helpful for more severe cases and your GP may be able to refer you to a suitable therapist.
Self-help books and apps
There are plenty of self-help books available. An initial Google search revealed over 67 million results for the query ‘fear of flying self-help books’ which might seem daunting but self-proclaimed ex-fearful flyer Mary Renner identified the five top books in her blog.
You can also use your phone – the app SkyGuru (developed by a pilot) uses your phone’s sensors to give you technical information, usually only available to pilots. By downloading key flight information before take-off, the app can give a real-time explanation of what is happening, even when in-flight mode. The idea is that the app makes you feel like you’re sitting next to a pilot who is talking you through your “ups and downs” as the flight progresses, preventing a nervous mind from running through everything that could conceivably go wrong. You can see a list of the top apps here.
If you want to take a mindful approach you could adopt some of the coping strategies which many professionals and self-help gurus recommend, by running through these four stages3:
- Rumination—expand your awareness beyond the unpleasant situation:
- I’m thinking about the flight again, and it’s still two days away. Let it go. Take a deep breath. Come on, get back to work.
- It’s a nice view. Sitting here paralyzed won’t make the plane any safer.
- Self-blame—remind yourself that you are doing the best you can and that progress takes time:
- Yes, I was very nervous the last flight. But since then I have learned some new techniques for coping with anxiety.
- I did the best I could. I’ll get better with practice.
- Resignation—give yourself credit for your own good sense:
- I’m not really helpless. I can take slow, deep breaths. I can practice progressive muscle relaxation.
- Catastrophizing—acknowledge your fear, and then challenge it:
- I will be afraid as I’m boarding. But have I ever run away from other problems before? No.
- Maybe I will feel nervous. But I do have things I can do to relax. All things will pass.
- Yes, I can imagine a lot of awful things that could happen. But the reality is that none of these things is likely to happen.
Whilst there have been many radical suggestions for fear of flying sufferers such as learning to fly (which seems to take aversion therapy too far) or using support animals (According to Assistance Dogs UK, emotional support dogs don’t have the same public access rights in the UK that apply to assistance dogs and the organisation says this includes airline travel) and in 2014 a support pig was taken off a flight in the US for disruptive behaviour.
One alternative therapy which will not offend or upset any fellow passengers is the use of mediation. It is easy to see how the practice of resting quietly in a gentle awareness of the present moment, usually employing an anchor such as breath, sound, mantra or progressive body relaxation to keep focus, could help anyone with anxiety.
It is interesting that for one of the modern-day travel problems we turn to a method which has been practised for over 5000 years. As recently as 2015 the Washington Post published an article where Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar explained that four regions of meditators’ brains associated with healthy brain function became more substantial, while one of the areas associated with undesirable behaviour actually shrunk.
Meditation has even taken hold in the ultra-focussed technology area of Silicon Valley with the San Francisco Chronicle claiming that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google co-founder Sergey Brin meditate.
Closer to home, here in the UK there is growing trend for using crystal jewellery to assist in meditation. One such proponent is Peaceful Soul who explain that their custom-made bracelets and necklaces are inspired by the Mala beads used in Buddhist meditation to count mantras, and can be used to support your meditation practice and affirm positive intentions, by giving an anchor to focus your awareness.
We tried it and it helped.
With over three decades of seeing first-hand how stressed some travellers are on their way to a flight and with several nervous flyers in our senior management team, we fully appreciate how debilitating such a phobia can be. We tried a bracelet from Peaceful Soul before and during a recent long-haul flight and we can attest to its ability to be an excellent anchor for anyone who anxious about flying.
Notes and references:
2.Prices correct as at 09/01/19 from British Airways
3.Guide to Psychology