Fear of Flying!

It’s no secret that all of us have a phobia or an unexplained fear of something. For me it’s snakes. I’m ok with the larger pythons and boas, but the little, slim ones just gives me the shivers. Being an aviation nut, I want everyone to enjoy flying like I do, but the truth is some people just can’t because of their fear of flying. In this article, I’ll explore this complex psychological condition and hope to find ways to help people overcome their fear. Before we get into details about the fear of flying, let’s have a quick science lesson.

What is a phobia?

A phobia is an intense fear or anxiety response to a particular stimuli. The stimuli, known as phobic stimulus, can be objects (e.g., Anthophobia – fear of flowers) or situations (e.g., crowded places – agoraphobia, or in our case fear of flying). A person with a phobia will actively try to avoid the phobic stimulus (at all costs!). So basically the fear of flying (or flying phobia or flight phobia or aviophobia or even aerophobia) is well… an intense fear of flying and flying objects. The person will actively try to avoid flying by taking road trips or the train. If the fear of flying is severe enough, the person may even avoid aviation-related activities.

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Some phobias can be avoided with no consequences. For example, if a person has a fear of snakes and lives in the city, the person can avoid situations – like not visiting the reptile section in the zoo – with no consequences in this day to day life. But certain phobias could have severe consequences. Let’s take the fear of flying for example, the person won’t be able to visit their friends living in another country, travel for business or even take their kids to the air show.

How do we develop phobias?

In general, there are many ways a phobia can be developed.

  1. After experiencing a traumatic event

A person may develop a fear of flying if they experience a potentially traumatic event like say… surviving an air accident. Other examples can include experiencing their plane being hijacked or even severe turbulence. Although turbulence is normal, if the person happens to encounter the rare ‘violent’ version of the turbulence, the feeling of a ‘lack of control’ over these siuations could lead to the development of the fear of flying.

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  1. Watching other people going through a traumatic event

I think the this one is pretty self-explanatory. A perfect example for this is, after the 9/11 attacks on World Trade Center, there was a nationwide spread of the fear of flying. People avoided flying and preferred driving or taking the train to travel within the country.

  1. After experiencing a panic attack in a feared situation

Well, let’s say the person has other phobias such as claustrophobia (fear of being in a confined place) or agoraphobia (fear of being in a public place) and acrophobia (the fear of heights). Flying on an airplane involves all three phobic stimuli and this could trigger a panic attack. In fact, the anticipation of a panic attack could cause a panic attack which could motivate a person to avoid flying and that could in turn lead to developing a fear of flying.

  1. Through media

I think the key here is transmission of false information and exaggerated (i.e. unnecessarily dramatic) information . After a plane crash, there seems to be extensive media coverage on the crash looking at similar crashes from the past and multiple discussions on the potential reasons as to why the crash occurred. This continuous flooding of negativity and half-baked information in the media could result in the person developing a fear of flying.

Why do we develop Phobias?

In the section above, we saw how a person can develop phobias. Now the next question is why? The answer is that it’s most probably due to classical conditioning.

All of us interact with the enviornment by responding to various stimuli. For example, you quickly withdraw your hand when you touch a hot object. Classical conditioning is a kind of learning where a person learns to respond to neural stimuli (i.e. stimuli a person doesn’t respond to) by associating the neutral stimuli with a negative emotional response like anxiety, fear or a panic attack. The association occurs when the neutral stimuli is repeatedly presented in conjuction to stimuli that causes the negative emotional response.

One common theme you might have noticed from the previous section is that – the traumatic event, the panic attack, listening to your friend’s ordeal and watching the news channel – are simuli that elicited a negative emotional reponse. The repetitive presentation of such stimuli in the context of flying (a neutral stimuli) can cause a person to associate flying with a negative emotion. Hence, any future presentation of flight would elicit a negative emotional response.

How can I overcome my fear of flying?

There are many treatments for phobias in general, let’s take a look at them;

  1. Behavioural treatments

These treatments help in extinguishing fear by exposing the person to the phobic stimulus. The behavioural techniques include systematic desensitization , modelling and flooding.

In systematic desensitization, also known as graduated exposure therapy, the therapist would first identify the phobic stimulus (phobic stimuli if applicable) and try to rank it on the basis of the anxiety the stimuli induces. The therapist would then teach a coping technique like a meditation in order to reduce anxiety when facing a phobic stimulus. Finally, the therapist would present the phobic stimuli – starting with the stimuli that causes least anxiety and slowly moving up to the stimuli that causes the most anxiety. At each level, the therapist would encourage the person to practice the relaxation strategy.

In Modelling, the therapist would show how to behave (model the behaviour…get it?) when faced with a phobic stimulus.

In flooding the person will be made to face their phobia at its worst. For example a person scared of heights would be made to go skydiving or taken on top of a tall building until the anxiety passes.

  1. Cognitive Behavioural therapy

In these treatments, a person with phobia will be asked to recall and identify the negative and catastrophizing thoughts about their phobia of flying. The therapist will then challenge these thoughts with questions and try to help the person to look at the situation differently…more positively

  1. Drug therapies

There are drug therapies to overcome the fear of flying, but the drugs do not ‘cure’ your fear per say. Instead, the drugs just reduce the symptoms of phobias (like anxiety). So, if you’re thinking, in extreme cases a person could be prescribed anti-anxiety drugs…you are correct. Well, I’m not going to go into details or give you names or classes of drugs here because I don’t want readers to start self-medicating based on this article.

Conclusion

 

Well, fear of flying is a complex psychological condition. Although therapies are designed to help people overcome their fear of flying, the severity of the fear response and more importantly the commitment from the person to overcome their fear will determine it’s success.

Now of course visiting a counseller or a therapist may not be the best option considering where you live or if their rates per session are too high. In such cases there are alternatives, for starters, there are programs like the ‘Fly with Confidence’ program by British Airways (UK) or the ‘Overcome your Fear of Flying’ program by iPilot (Dubai) that are affordable and usually a day long (the links to these courses are posted below for your convinience). These programs will typically have a presentation by pilots on how an airplane functions and a presentation by psychologists who will answer all your questions on aerophobia and give you tips on how to face your fears through relaxation techniques.

There you have it folks, a quick look at the fear of flying. I hope I managed to answer your questions or better encouraged you to face your fears. Remember the science lessons in this blog are simplified to give you the general idea. These are in no way the full story. Until my next post… Happy Landings.

Related Links

  1. ‘Fly with Confidence’ by British Airways (U.K.) – http://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/information/travel-assistance/flying-with-confidence
  2. ‘Overcome your Fear of Flying’ by iPilot (U.A.E.) – http://flyipilot.ae/fear-of-flying/

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