Planning a trip is time-consuming. Packing is tedious. Airports are a hassle. But there is perhaps nothing that compares to the emotions that many people experience when flying. Millions of people have a fear of flying, and millions more find it frequently uncomfortable and stressful.
Experts will tell you that flying is one of the safest ways the travel – that your chances of dying in a plane crash are a tiny fraction of your risk of dying in a car accident or other form of transportation. Yet the data itself often isn’t enough. Those that have a fear of flying need to find the right treatment to help them make travel an easier and more manageable experience.
Are You Afraid of Flying?
Those that are higher in other forms of anxiety are more likely to be afraid of flying. Our free 7-minute anxiety test will help you score your anxiety severity, compare it to others, and find solutions to manage it.
Why Do We Have a Fear of Flying?
Although millions of people have a fear of flying, not everyone has developed that fear for the same reasons. Indeed, those that already struggle with anxiety seem to be more likely to fear flying (if you haven’t taken our free 7 minute anxiety test yet, it’s a good place to start), and yet some people that don’t struggle with any anxiety find themselves with a severe plane phobia.
It’s very likely that each person develops this fear for different reasons related primarily to their past experiences. For example, some of the causes of fear of flying may include:
Family Member with Fear
Children and young adults tend to pick up some of their fears from their parents. There is actually a theory that severe fear can cause changes in DNA that may pass the fear along genetically. But the more likely reason is that if one of your parents was fearful on a flight, your younger self will have been sensitive to their fear and likely have picked some of it up yourself.
Cycle of Fearful Events
If you drive a car, you likely remember being a bit nervous before you drove on the freeway for the first time. But after months of driving with no adverse events, that fear dissipated.
With flying, however, there are almost always some “events” that can lead to a small amount of fear. If you had a very small amount of fear the first few times on a plane, and then you experienced turbulence or noises you didn’t understand, this can then reinforce the fear further. Thus each time you go on a plane, you’re having experiences that – while safe – reinforce the fear you had that something could go wrong.
Media plays a tremendous role in the development of flying phobia. There are 102,000 flights per day. But often we only hear about planes when something goes horribly wrong, and due to the size and speed of these aircraft, the damage that can occur can reinforce the fears we had about flying in the first place.
Keep in mind that the rate of plane crashes is very low. Of 37,000,000 flights in 2014, there were only 13 commercial aircraft crashes. That’s a rate of 0.00003%. Even more impressive, in several of those crashes, everyone survived. With private aircraft, that number is slightly higher, but still a very low rate. Many of those private aircraft crashes also had no or few fatalities.
Yet we see plane crashes on film, on TV news, in books – it is talked about often enough to seem as though it is more common than it actually is. When bombarded with that type of attention, it’s not uncommon for fears to develop.
Planes Are Uncomfortable
Emotions can feed on themselves. Planes are often very uncomfortable. You’re in a small seat in an enclosed space. Your head and ears may hurt from the change in elevation. You can’t move. There are loud noises all around you.
Although none of those are specifically related to anxiety, they do create an atmosphere that is prone to high emotion. Imagine being trapped in an elevator for 2 hours. Even though there is nothing inherently dangerous about an elevator, the inability to escape combined with the small space, discomforts, and unusual noises could easily lead to developing anxiousness. Planes are often similar.
Anxiety Without Coping
Many people that have a fear of flying also struggle with anxiety in a normal setting. Those with panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, and even social phobia may find that they are more prone to anxiety related symptoms while aboard a plane.
Yet while on that plane, there are also almost no opportunities to cope with that anxiety. Those that already have a fear of death can’t find a place to see that they are okay. Those that have generalized anxiety disorder can’t call a friend or go for a walk to cool down. Everyone has developed their own coping strategies, and on a plane, those strategies are usually not available.
Flights That Are Scary
Of course, the simplest reason that many people fear flying – they have simply been on flights that appear scary. Many people have experienced flights with terrible turbulence. Most planes are built for severe turbulence. But that is often not that reassuring to those that are experiencing what feels like an earthquake 40,000 feet above the ground.
Similarly, even the normal experiences on a flight do feel more frightening out of context. When a pilot decides to make a left turn or the flight moves down to a lower altitude, it can feel like you’re falling or that something is wrong with the plane even though these are normal maneuvers. This is an experience that can be terrifying to those on the plane, even though they are routine and inconsequential to the pilot.
Examining the Cause of Fear of Flying
These are only some of the issues that can lead to a fear of flying. It’s also not clear whether the cause is important. To those that have flying phobia, it’s often hard to control no matter what is causing the fear, and for some, the issue can be so pronounced that they may not even go on a plane at all.
The good news is that there are many ways to treat the fear of flying. Indeed, even some of the more broad anxiety reduction solutions, like those that you can learn from taking our free 7-minute anxiety test can often be highly effective at helping you control your more severe anxiety symptoms.
But for those that are looking for more specific ways to get over their fear of flying, consider the following tips and strategies. Also note: rarely does the fear of flying go away overnight, simply because most people do not have that many opportunities to go on flights to reduce their fear. So be prepared to commit to these changes, and don’t be upset if it takes several flights to feel comfortable.
Step 1: Education Yourself on Planes and Plane Safety
Most people with a fear of airplanes have already been told numerous times that being on an airplane is safe. They may even have researched the numbers. Often these alone do not work.
But what you may not have done is educate yourself on WHY airplanes are so safe. For example:
- Airplanes are specifically designed to be struck by lightning without any damage. Nearly every commercial plane is struck by lightning at least once per year, and yet the last crash attributed to lightning was in 1967 before planes were built to withstand lightning strikes. The technology to prevent any lightning damage is extensive and remarkable, and reading up on it can help you feel more confident in storms.
- Airplanes are designed to “extreme” turbulence without issue, and few pilots have ever encountered turbulence that severe. The materials used to build the plane are fastened together and tested in the most powerful turbulence conditions – a level of shaking that doesn’t occur in most natural turbulence. Indeed, if the turbulence is terribly severe, all the plane does is lose or gain altitude – it doesn’t affect the makeup of the plane. Only 20 passengers per year are injured from turbulence, and most were injured from being in a bathroom when turbulence occurs. No plane crashes have been the result of turbulence in at least 10 years.
- Airplanes are built to handle all types of engine issues. Airplanes can operate with only one engine safely. Airplanes can be safely landed if both engines fail because they are capable of gliding for as long as 120 miles. Airplanes have fire extinguishers built inside of the engine to prevent flames. Airplanes have four different backup systems – a backup of a backup of a backup – if anything goes wrong.
These are only some of the many safety features that are built into today’s modern aircraft, and these aren’t even the most impressive.
In addition, educate yourself on sounds and “normal” issues that arise before, during, and after the flight. For example, there is a barking noise on Airbus jets that make it sound like the engine is failing, but are perfectly normal. Lights may flicker on and off. When landing, some planes give off a loud thud or low-level gunshot noise that comes from wind resistant against landing gear.
Again, this is by no means extensive. But if you know what every sound is, understand what safety features the plane has, and more, then when these occur during flight it will be less likely to experience a rush of anxiety that confirms your fears.
Step 2: Give Yourself a Coping Strategy
There isn’t much to do when you’re up in the air, so you should find at least one strategy that helps calm you during flight. Some examples:
- Looking Outside – Some people find that seeing the plane wing helps keep them calm.
- Monitoring Flight Staff – Flight attendants are people too. If they’re not worried, you shouldn’t be.
- Listening to Music – Some people find music is incredibly calming and soothing for them.
You’ll want to find the strategy that works best for you. If there is something that keeps you calm, use that to your advantage.
Step 3: Use Self-Exposure Therapy
Fear of flying is a phobia. One of the most effective ways to cure phobias is to use a technique known as “exposure therapy.” With exposure therapy, you slowly expose yourself to the issue that you fear until you get used to it, and then once you get used to it you push yourself a little bit further. You can find a more in-depth primer for exposure therapy here.
There are different ways to approach exposure therapy for flight anxiety, but there one strategy you can use is the following:
First, find a quiet place, close your eyes, and just think about what it’s like to be on a plane. Walk yourself slowly through the airport, imagine going through checkpoints, think back to how it felt when you took off, were in the air, hit turbulence, etc. Exposing yourself like this may seem silly, but the more you get used to the experience mentally the better you will be. If you feel anxiety, do this activity over and over again until it is completely anxiety free.
The next step is to do something visually. You can try to watch YouTube videos on flying, for example, or drive to the airport and find a place that causes you anxiety to just sit. Since you’re not physically getting on a plane, it is unlikely to feel that scary. But you may have a bit of anxiety, and sitting for a few hours can help you get used to the experience.
Optional: If possible, see if there is a way you can see or even get on a plane without flying in it. Some places have aircraft museums or private jet areas that will allow you to see the inside. It’s not a perfect solution, but it gives you the experience of genuinely being on a plane. Sometimes there are also virtual reality strategies you can use to “be on a plane” even though you’re not really there. Some cities also have anti-flight anxiety programs that allow you to walk onto a plane and may even turn it on so that you get an idea of what it feels like. Find ways to expose yourself to the experience.
Go On Planes – The final step is the most difficult one, but you have to travel. If that means buying numerous cheap flights to nearby destinations, then that’s what you may need to do. Being physically on a plane often enough to get used to what planes feel like is the final step in any form of exposure therapy.
There is no denying that exposure therapy for planes is more difficult than it is for other phobias, simply because not everyone has access to planes in order to experience the fear. But the more you expose yourself to sensations that are similar to planes, the more you can treat your fear of flying.
Turn Your Phobia Into a Game
Expectation can also help you control your fear of flying. It’s never a good idea to be surprised. But the more you’re prepared for the fears that you know you are going to experience, the easier a time you’ll have while you travel.
One strategy that works well is creating a BINGO card with all of the different fears and issues you expect to have. Some could be events, like a “turbulence,” and others can be your fear, like “fear the plane crashing into another plane” (which never happens, but if that fear pops into your mind, then you count it). Cross off each problem as they occur.
Then, plan to treat yourself to something for each Bingo or a full blackout. That way the anxiety you experience can actually benefit you. You can choose clothes, ice cream – whatever will make you happy about your experience so that the fear of flying isn’t as terrible as it could be.
Other Fear of Flying Treatment Strategies
As mentioned earlier, many companies offer fear of flying treatments, though some are very expensive. If your anxiety is so severe that you cannot even get onto a plane, you may want to consider these options. If you’re simply very anxious while on planes but otherwise can travel, they may not be worth the investment as many other treatment strategies work.
Some people experience more anticipatory anxiety, where the person experiences more fear waiting to be on the plane than they do on the plane itself. Others can handle waiting for the plane, but once the plane starts to take off the fear starts. Depending on your type of fear, it may be a good idea to consider giving yourself plenty of time to get used to the airport and calm down before your flight, that way your anxiety levels are lower by the time you board the aircraft.
Controlling all of your anxiety and learning anxiety reduction strategies is also more beneficial. Anxiety is cumulative, so if you have any anxiety in your life – even if it is unrelated to flying – then reducing your anxiety means that you’ll experience less anxiety while up in the air.
As anyone that has dealt with plane anxiety will attest to, even a small decrease in your overall anxiety is helpful.
It is always possible to treat fear of flying anxiety. It just takes time, and sometimes the greatest difficulty is simply finding opportunities to expose yourself to the fear. If you’re someone that also struggles with other forms of anxiety, it may be a good idea to treat that first and worry about your fear of flying second. You may find that your fear of flying goes away when you reduce your other types of anxiety.
If you haven’t done so yet, consider taking our free 7 minute anxiety test, where you can score the severity of your anxiety and receive recommendations for how to treat it successfully.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Mar 27, 2018.