For some, the thought of being trapped in a metal bird hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour is simply too much to handle.
You start to feel panicked, and your heart starts to race. You can’t seem to calm down no matter how hard you try. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The fear of flying (aerophobia) is one of the most common phobias affecting nearly 25 million adults in the United States.
While some people can overcome their fear by learning more about aviation or by taking a few flights, others find that the anxiety is too much to handle. And in severe cases, people with a fear of flying may be unable to take vacations or visit family and friends who live far away. As a result, their quality of life can suffer greatly.
But there is hope: with proper treatment, many people have been able to conquer their fear and take to the skies. Here’s what you need to know.
What Causes Fear of Flying?
The idea of being thousands of feet in the air, with no hope of escape, if something goes wrong, is simply too much for some people to bear. And yet, despite the risks, flying is still one of the safest forms of transportation. In fact, you are more likely to be injured in a car accident than in a plane crash. So why are so many people afraid to fly?
“Fear of flying is often the result of a combination of different factors, such as past traumatic experiences, anxiety around crowds or being in an enclosed space, fear of heights, and unfamiliarity with the technology involved in flight,” explains Heather Wilson, LCSW and Executive Director at Epiphany Wellness.
Another explanation for fear of flying is that it’s simply a case of bad experiences magnified by media coverage. Every year, there are a handful of high-profile plane crashes, and these incidents receive a disproportionate amount of attention from the media. As a result, people who have never even been on a plane can develop a deep-seated fear of flying.
The fear of flying is rooted in the fear of losing control. When we are on an airplane, we do not control our destiny. “Your feet are not on the ground, you are thousands of feet in the air, and once the cabin door shuts you cannot just walk outside for fresh air. This can make people feel out of control, anxious, and terrified of the unknown,” says Melissa Gentry, a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist.
“All of these fears have one thing in common– the perception or meaning we place on the event,” says Steven Sultanoff, a Clinical Psychologist. “It is the meaning of being out of control, being enclosed or trapped, being in crowds, etc. That is the true and underlying cause of fear of flying and the anxiety that most people experience.”
Why Am I Suddenly Afraid to Fly?
There are many reasons for someone to suffer from a sudden onset of aerophobia. Maybe you’ve watched a movie where a plane goes down. Or perhaps you’ve been through a traumatic experience such as bad turbulence or an emergency landing. All of these things can heighten your awareness surrounding the risks of flying.
“It’s not uncommon for someone to develop a fear of flying suddenly, often due to a traumatic event or some other negative experience. While it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause, such sudden fears can often be triggered by media coverage of plane crashes, stories from friends and family about a bad flight experience, or even reading too much online about the potential risks of flying,” Wilson explains.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the fear of flying is more prevalent in people between the ages of 17 and 34. During this age range, significant life events occur. Your children are graduating, loved ones are getting married, and new lives are joining the family. Some people may fear that the risks of flying are greater than missing out on these important milestones.
Is Fear of Flying Irrational?
The fear of flying is very real and can be highly distressing. For some, the thought of getting on an airplane is enough to cause a panic attack. It’s estimated that around 20% of people are afraid of flying. However, despite its ubiquity, the fear of flying is often dismissed as irrational.
“The fear of flying may seem irrational to some people, but it is a very real and valid emotion for many. While certain risks come with flying, the statistics show that flying is still one of the safest forms of transportation. It’s important to remember that if you fear flying, it doesn’t make you weak or irrational; it just means your brain responds to perceived threats in a way that feels out of control,” says Wilson.
Camille Humes, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, says, “The fear of flying is not irrational, as people’s emotions are real (and true to them). Often the simple acknowledgment by a mental health professional that the fear is real helps people move forward in treatment.”
Can the Fear of Flying Be Cured?
Sultanoff, who has treated the fear of flying for over thirty years, believes it’s possible. “Absolutely. Some concern about flying will always be present for all of us as there is always a possibility that the plane will crash, just as there is a possibility that one will die in a car accident or other life-threatening event.”
There are many ways to overcome aerophobia, such as exposure therapy, where you gradually desensitize yourself to the sensation of flying; cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps you to change your negative thoughts about flying; and medication, which can help to ease flight anxiety.
Treatment Options For Fear of Flying
Exposure therapy is a type of treatment that gradually exposes a person to the thing they are afraid of, in this case, flying. The goal is to help the person confront their fear and eventually learn to manage it in a healthy way. The therapist will typically start by teaching the person relaxation techniques to help them deal with the anxiety that comes with flying. Once the person is able to relax, they will begin to expose them to situations related to flying. The exposure will become more intense over time until the person is eventually able to fly without feeling anxious.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
“While medication (anti-anxiety medication in particular) may help somewhat in the short term, the best treatment for fear of flying is probably Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This type of therapy addresses the link between our thinking process and the emotions that are generated by that thinking. It places the power of change within the individual. Note that flying does not cause one to be fearful. It is the thought process associated with flying that generates being afraid (and anxious),” explains Sultanoff.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)
Vanessa Williams, a licensed therapist based in NYC, believes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is effective for those who develop a fear of flying after a traumatic experience. “EMDR treatment has been proven very effective by many empirical studies. EMDR reduces symptoms of trauma by changing how our memories are stored in the brain. The EMDR therapist leads the client in a series of bilateral (side-to-side) eye movements as you bring up a traumatic memory in short segments until the memory is desensitized and no longer disturbing.”
The best course of action will vary from person to person. Some people may benefit from medication to help reduce anxiety, while others may prefer therapy. In some cases, a combination of treatments may be necessary in order to achieve the desired results.
If you’re one of those people who get anxious at the mere thought of flying, you may wonder how you’ll ever overcome your fear:
- It’s important to understand that you’re not alone. Many people suffer from anxiety when flying, and plenty of resources are available to help them cope.
- Stay positive and focus on the fact that flying is one of the safest forms of travel.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for help from a professional if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Fortunately, many techniques can help people to overcome their fear. With some effort and patience, it is possible to take to the skies confidently.
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This article originally appeared on Wander With Alex. Photo Credit: [@mikdam/DepositPhotos]
Alexandrea Sumuel is a travel writer and the founder of the Wander With Alex travel blog, where she provides vacationers with trip ideas, travel guides, news, and itineraries. She travels to experience, eat, explore, and escape! Alex’s mission is to help peopl find the perfect vacation destination.