Jumbo jet

How to conquer your fear of flying

Jetting off somewhere warm this year? If so, you may be apprehensive about the flight. Fear of flying, also known as aerophobia, is a common concern. Estimates suggest it affects around 10% of the population: you are not alone.

That is nice to know, but the real question is "what can I do about it?" In this article, we will look at some strategies.

Take a cognitive approach

When thinking objectively, it is easy to tell ourselves that flying is incredibly safe. It is. Flying is the safest way you can travel anywhere.

Almost nothing goes wrong. The only reason that we hear about plane crashes on the news is precisely because they are so rare. You do not hear about all the people who died in a car crash because there are too many of them: around 3,000 people per day will die on the road. In comparison, less than 500 people per year die in aviation accidents1 across the entire world.

Of course, it is one thing to tell yourself that, and another to get the feeling in the pit of your stomach to believe it.

This is why it is important to remind ourselves that humans are products of evolution. We were created in a hunter-gatherer environment in which we adapted to forage, catch a few animals, and use advanced technology like sharpened sticks and fire.

The human brain has not changed much since then. It has adapted to modern life remarkably, but it is still roughly the same hardware underneath.

Therefore, when you are sitting on the tarmac waiting for the jet engines to kick in, it is no wonder your fight or flight response goes into overdrive.

There is simply no way that evolution could have prepared you for sitting in a metal box that is about to accelerate to over 100 miles an hour and then sore into the sky, cruising along at 10km above the ground.

As the jet engines kick in, I find that a gentle reminder is no bad thing. Flying is super-safe. I am feeling anxious because evolution could not prepare the brain for this experience, not because there is any danger.

Use exposure therapy

With most forms of anxiety, the best way to reduce it is to use exposure therapy. For example, if you are afraid of tomatoes, you should pick up a tomato every day until you feel less anxious.

However, there is a clear flaw in this plan when it comes to flying: we cannot go jump on a plane every day. Flying is not something you can easily desensitise yourself to.

However, it is possible we can use proxy experiences to help reduce some of the worries.

Worried about being trapped in a vehicle you cannot get off? Take a train. Worried about heights? Use a tall building or high bridge. Worried about the crowds? Try the bus station at rush hour, busy pubs or nightclubs.

While we cannot directly expose ourselves to flying, if there is a specific phobia of part of their experience, we can use a proxy to help re-create that feeling and exposure ourselves to it in advance.

Use distraction

Distraction will not help you feel better, but it will make the experience more tolerable. Make sure you have something to distract you before and during the flight.

The key to good distraction is mental engagement. Watching a film is unlikely to be helpful because you can just ignore the film and keep worrying. Instead, you want to use a puzzle book or a video game: something that requires you to focus on the game and not on the worry.

Use medication

Medication can reduce your anxiety in the short term and make it easier to get on the plane. Once you have flown with medication several times, you may find that you can then do it without the pills.

Your doctor may be willing to prescribe a type of drug called benzodiazepines. These are short-term sedatives that should be taken an hour or so before the flight. Common benzodiazepines, colloquially known as benzos, include diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), and alprazolam (Xanax).

You can also self-medicate with alcohol. Obviously, I am hesitant to recommend you start the day by downing shots of vodka. However, the reality is that many people do use alcohol to ease their fear of flying.

Take a course

You may be able to find a local course that is designed to help with fear of flying. In the UK, Virgin's Flying Without Fear is excellent. You spend the morning looking at aeroplane safety and tackling anxious thoughts, and then take a 20-minute flight in the afternoon.

British Airways also run a course named Flying With Confidence. This consists of a one-day course that ends with a flight. They also offer one-to-one sessions and dedicated courses for children.

Promotional video for Flying With Confidence.

Conclusion

Many people find flying unpleasant: evolution never prepared our brains for the experience. However, there are things you can do to ease your symptoms and conquer your fear, including cognitive behavioural therapy, exposure, courses and medication.

Metadata

Published 20 March 2017. Written by Chris Worfolk.

Want more content like this?

Subscribe to our newsletter to get more great content emailed to you directly. Plus, we'll send you some chapters from our books for free. We never share your details and you can unsubscribe at any time.

References

  1. Casey Tolan. Is 2014 the deadliest year for flights? Not even close. CNN. 28 July 2014. http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2014/07/travel/aviation-data/ ↩︎