If you suffer from a fear of flying, you’re in good (white-knuckled-seat-rest-gripping) company. According to NPR, about 40% of Americans feel some fear at the thought of flying, and somewhere between 2.5% and 6.5% experience severe aviophobia. This fear creates significant angst — particularly during the holiday season — because it often comes down to the decision between facing your fears or not seeing your family.
Even if you consciously understand that flying is a safe form of travel, your body might have formed a response pattern in which airplanes have become linked with anxiety, causing you to feel the physiological symptoms regardless of your mental state. This can in turn make you anxious about being anxious, which is never a great cycle to get stuck in.
Thankfully, there are a bunch of different ways you can try to work on your fear of flying. Here’s what the experts recommend:
Identify Your Triggers
The fear of flying can actually encompass a bunch of different aspects of air travel: You could be afraid of heights, crashing, dying or catching COVID or other infectious diseases; experiencing motion sickness or claustrophobia; or even just not having control over the situation. So the first step of conquering your anxiety is understanding exactly what causes it. Once you do so, you can work on separating your fear from your sense of danger. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) explains it this way:
“It is often difficult to separate anxiety from danger because your body reacts in exactly the same way to both. Be sure to label your fear as anxiety. Tell yourself that anxiety makes your frightening thoughts feel more likely to occur, and remind yourself that feeling anxious doesn’t mean you are in danger. You are safe even when feeling intense anxiety.”
Demystify Turbulence and Other Airplane-Specific Phenomenon
It’s a universally accepted truth that we fear what we do not understand. It follows, then, that sometimes a fear of flying is due to not having a great understanding of how planes work. In an article about the subject in Travel+Leisure, pilot Korry Franke explains that “Airplanes are mystical — albeit commonplace — machines. They make strange noises and provide unique sensations. They’re complex. And they operate in a system with few parallels to what people know and understand.”
So if you’re someone whose stomach sails into their throat during turbulence, studying airplanes and how they’re designed might alleviate some of your fears. For example, it can be unnerving watching the wings bounce up and down in the air currents, but their flexibility is inherent to their strength and function. In addition, planes are designed with numerous system redundancies and procedures to withstand most emergencies, but most people don’t know enough about them to feel reassured. You can gain a sense of comfort and security simply by gaining a basic understanding of these operations.
The best way to do this is to fly sitting next to a pilot. I’ve been married to one for years now, and there has yet to be a time when he couldn’t explain a noise, or a sudden drop, or the reason why it feels like you’re (counterintuitively) speeding up as you approach the landing. Or they can regale you with stories of when their plane broke midflight, and they were able to calmly and safely handle the situation thanks to system redundancies and thousands of hours of training.
Since not everyone can marry their own pilot, the alternative is to do your own research. Look up why air travel is actually exponentially safer than traveling in cars. Look up past aviation incidents to better understand what went wrong and how they happened, and how incredibly rare they actually are. You can also find online videos like this one showing all the tests planes must undergo before being approved for flight, pulling maneuvers that they’ll (hopefully) never need to do during the course of their regular rotations.
Even better, you can seek out a local class on the topic. The Albany International Airport recently offered a fear of flying class hosted by local psychiatrist Dr. Griffan Randall, retired Army helicopter pilot and commercial airline pilot for Southwest Airlines Rick Weiss, and the airport’s head of communications Steve Smith. In his role for the seminar, Weiss helpfully elaborated on the mechanics of the aircraft(s), regaled attendees with stories about his years of piloting, and described all the redundancies and safety checklists that airline pilots perform religiously. He also took questions about everything from turbulence to lightning strikes to help alleviate some common fears. The seminar is held several times throughout the year, and attendees rave about how helpful it was.
Many experts recommend exposure therapy for people needing to confront a fear of flying. The theory is that with repeated exposure, the exaggerated and irrational thoughts surrounding the fear will be disproved. Avoidance, as you know, will only make your fears worse.
Depending on how severe your aversion to flying is, you can do most of this yourself.
The key is starting small. If you’re really, really afraid, you can start by hanging out near an airport for an afternoon and watching all the planes taking off and landing. Over time, you may be reassured when you see that it happens regularly and repeatedly without a single mishap. Then, book a short flight, and work to disprove your particular fears. Try to anticipate your triggers and make it as easy as possible for yourself. If you’re claustrophobic, for example, an aisle seat will allow you to get up and walk around, decreasing the feeling of being boxed in. And if you can afford it, buying a business- or first-class ticket will get you that extra bit of added space, as well.
It is also helpful to learn different coping strategies for stressful situations. There are dozens of apps available now (Headspace, Calm and Norbu are a few excellent examples) that can coach you through breathing or visualization methods to alleviate anxiety. Alternatively, a good therapist could be helpful in teaching you to utilize different methods based on your particular needs.
Have a Hand to Hold
Even if you have practiced mindful methods for calming yourself, you might still need some added support. You can talk to the flight attendants on your plane, who are trained to handle people with travel anxiety. Or if you can, travel with a supportive friend or family member who can help you get through your fear.