Are you Afraid of Flying?

By Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog.

Are you afraid of flying? If so, you’re not alone. According to a study by Boeing, up to 40% of the U.S. population experiences some anxiety when they fly. Some people avoid their fear and stay on the ground. However, not being able to get on a plane makes the world much smaller and deprives people of amazing experiences. Anxiety in general makes our world smaller, and only by confronting the things we fear can we conquer them.

So why is flying such a common phobia? If you look at the facts flying is actually very safe. The chances of dying in a plane crash is one in 11 million. This means you are more likely to die from a bee sting than a plane crash. And the chance of dying in a car or traffic accident is one in 5,000. Even though driving is much more dangerous, most people who fear flying do not have the same fear of driving.

Since the data is undeniable that flying is much safer than driving, the fear of flying isn’t directly related to the safety risks. Phobia is a fear that persists despite concrete evidence that the feared object or situation is not dangerous. If you have a friend or family member who’s afraid of flying you’ve probably tried quoting safety statistics to your loved one with no success.

When I ask clients what the scariest thing is about flying, I tend to always get the same answer: “loss of control.” When we are at the wheel of the car, even though it’s more dangerous, our destiny is in our own hands. Despite the increased probability of danger, we feel in control and that’s comforting. However, when we are flying there is nothing we can do to change the outcome of the flight for good or bad. Some people engage in what’s called magical thinking. The idea is that by worrying throughout the flight, they are keeping the plane and everyone on it safe. Even though the person is suffering throughout the flight, this panic is easier for them to grasp than the realization that they have no control. Combine the lack of control with all of the scary images and stories we hear on the nightly news about plane crashes and terrorism, and it’s no wonder why the fear of flying is an epidemic.

The majority of the clients I work with have decided not to deprive themselves of the experiences and memories that come along with air travel, but they still suffer mightily each time their plane takes off. So we work together to find ways to feel safer and more in control while on the plane. Here are some techniques that people find helpful.

Expose yourself. The most tried and tested way to overcome a phobia is facing it head-on. By exposing yourself to a feared situation you can disprove your negative predictions (such as the plane crashing). You can then use this contradictory evidence to take the power away from your negative thoughts. There are two ways to do this. You can gradually expose yourself to the thing you fear, or you can “flood” yourself and jump into the scariest possible scenario. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. If you used gradual exposure to work on a fear of flying, you might start by going on a very short flight and then work yourself up to longer and more feared journeys. If you “flooded” yourself you would go straight for that 12 hour flight to Hong Kong and skip the shorter journeys. The main advantage of flooding is that it works faster. However, it’s impossible to know if the experience will be the light bulb someone needs to get over their fear forever, or end up being deeply traumatizing. In my experience the gradual exposure is the best approach.

Make a plan. If you know flights are difficult for you, make a plan in advance. What are the hardest parts of the flight? Takeoff, landing, turbulence? Figure out what makes you the most scared and then you can prepare for each individual situation.

Distract yourself. When facing a feared situation it will be important to have strategies to distract yourself from negative thoughts. What are some things that you enjoy and could do during takeoff? Some people listen to podcasts, read, chew gum, talk to a friend or do a crossword puzzle. Try to come up with a list of activities that work for you.

Challenge your negative thoughts before they happen. Use the time before your flight to write down and challenge the negative thoughts you’re having about flying. You can use questions like, “what’s the evidence for this thought,” “what’s the evidence against this thought,” “what’s the worst thing that could happen” and “what’s the most likely thing that could happen” to start challenging these thoughts. This intellectual strategy often isn’t enough, but it’s a start and is essential in the process of overcoming your fear.

Just cope with it. Once you’ve written down your negative thoughts about flying and challenged them, come up with coping statements. A coping statement acknowledges the fear but also comes up with an alternate explanation or solution. For example, “being in a plane and not having control is really scary but everyone else on the plane is calm which shows I’m not in danger.” The key to a good coping statement is that you believe it not only rationally, but also on a gut and emotional level.

Repetition is key. Once you’ve come up with your coping statements review them daily leading up to your flight. The key is to repeat and internalize these thoughts before you get on the plane. If you only use them once, when you’re in the situation they won’t be nearly as helpful. Find a foolproof way to remind yourself to review the coping statements. Some people like writing them down on notecards or putting them on their cell phones. Other people like recording them and listening periodically.

Enlist a loved one. If you’re traveling with someone enlist them to help when you’re feeling panicked. If they understand what you’re going through they’re more likely to be able to help.

Getting over a fear of flying isn’t easy, but with enough preparation you can regain control and feel safe again. To get more information about overcoming a fear of flying visit fearofflying.com to learn more about specialized treatment programs for this phobia. 

Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW is a therapist in private practice in NYC with office locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. If you are looking for support, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn how therapy might be able to help.