Fear of Flying: Sun, Sea and Sand?…. Maybe not



We’re all going on a summer holiday, or not?

If fear of flying is holding you back from booking that summertime escape from British weather, or anxiety on the flight is ruining your holiday, keep reading…

Everyone has boarded, you are surrounded by the happy chattering of fellow holiday goers. The door closes. But here comes that familiar tightness in the chest, and you find yourself gripping onto the arm of your seat. As the take-off procedures get underway and the plane starts to line up on the runway, your level of anxiety increases tenfold. Heart pounding, your mind is filled with the roar of the engines, the lurch as the wheels leave the runway… you’re sure you just felt the engine misfire…

Does this sound all too familiar? If so, don’t worry. You’re among the 10-25% of the world’s population who fear flying. You are also among a rather exclusive club of A-listers who don’t enjoy flying, including Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell and David Bowie.   Mohammed Ali was so fearful he could not fly at all, and would take days and weeks to get to international engagements.

So what happens when you get on a plane?

Fear flying takes two main forms:

  1. Fear of loss of internal control: panicking, sickness, fainting and the resulting embarrassment, being separated from family/friends, homesickness
  2. Fear of loss of external control: heights, turbulence, bad weather, and other things leading up to the plane crashing.

Once your anxiety becomes heightened, terrifying thoughts spiral out of control and rationality disappears – leading to more and more anxiety and catastrophic thinking.

Why do we experience fear?

Anxiety and fear in actually dangerous situations are highly beneficial for us – keeping us more alert, aware, increasing our readiness to act. Being in a war zone, climbing a precipitous mountain path, or being confronted by a dangerous animal are all situations in which fear can help us survive. BUT unlike these survival situations, aeroplane travel is not very dangerous.

According to one statistic, you are more likely to die at the hands (or hoofs) of a donkey than you are in a plane. Interesting, isn’t it?

So what can you do?

Firstly, realising that you’re not crazy or foolish but instead suffer from a common phobia is an essential first step.

Next, challenge your faulty thinking – that your journey will end in disaster. The aim is to reprogram your automatic response to flying.

Here are some tips for managing your fear response:

  • RELAX: Use muscle relaxation techniques, deep breathing and visualisation to keep you calm. Most importantly – release your grip on the arms of your seat! Let your hands rest loosely in your lap, and let the pilot drive the plane – just as you would let a bus driver drive the bus.
  • Think of your destination: where are you going? Why are you going there? What will it look like? Imagine yourself sitting on the beach, or enjoying a long drink by the pool: whatever you need to keep your mind on why you are flying.
  • Talk to fellow passengers, read a book, listen to you iPod – distract your mind from catastrophic thoughts.
  • Bring familiar items with you on the flight to remind yourself of your everyday, ordinary routine of life.
  • Ask the steward to keep an eye on you – they have been trained to deal with anxious passengers, so tell them about your fear and ask them to keep you updated with the flight’s progress, if that helps.
  • Plan your journey step-by-step and set achievable goals – get to the airport, check in, etc.

By learning how to relax and other techniques before your flight, you will be able to access what you’ve learnt much quicker when you are actually on the plane.

Do not avoid flying. Not enough can be said about this. The more you put off facing your fear, the worse it will become.

If your fear of flying is overwhelming and not responsive to these techniques, or preventing you even from considering going on a plane, you may benefit from additional help. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the recommended treatment for phobias, including fear of flying. At CBT Networks, our Clinical Psychologist – Dr Sian Thrasher – is fully trained and able to help you deal and overcome your fear. In addition, you might try one of the airlines’ Fear of Flying training days. Try Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear or British Airways Flying With Confidence courses, or Virtual Aviation, which provides practical courses using flight simulators.

Happy holidays everyone!

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