Chapter 2 : Fear of flying

If you are scared of flying

There are many thousands of people all over the world who are terrified of flying. And whilst some are scared because of a previous bad experience, probably the majority of these aviophobics have had no previous adverse flying experience at all. They are just scared of flying, it is as simple as that.

However, if you are to have any chance of dealing with the problem, you have to be able to answer the question of why people are frightened of flying in the first place.

For some people, it will undoubtedly have something to do with the fact that almost all major catastrophes that involve aircraft are widely reported in the newspapers and on TV.

After all, because major aircraft incidents sometimes involve several hundred fatalities, it’s big news. On the other hand, the average automobile accident is unlikely to cause any more than one or two fatalities at worst (although it is far more likely that there will be no fatalities whatsoever) and perhaps regrettably for those involved, there is no ‘news’ in this.

Thus, many people get on a planes focusing on the fact that planes crash because that is all they ever read in the newspaper or see on TV. But the fact is that for every plane that crashes, there are millions – literally, millions – of flights that begin and end with no drama whatsoever, no more exciting or scary than a bus ride down town or a quick two stops on the subway.

And equally obviously, successful flights never hit the news because given the safety statistics associated with flying, every daily newspaper would have to be a couple of thousand pages thick if every successful (and boringly) completed flight were to be reported.

The truth is, flying is ultra-safe but you never read about that fact.

Hence, if your fear of flying is based on the fact that planes crash, yes, they do but the odds of you being on a plane that hits the side of a mountain or bursts into flames are many millions to one against, especially if you are flying with one of the top airlines:

Hence, even if you are flying with an airline that has a safety record that ranks amongst the worst (and if you are scared of flying, this is probably not an especially good idea), you are probably going to have to get on an airplane at least a million times to guarantee that your worst fears come true. If you live to be one hundred years old, you are going to enjoy 36,525 days on this earth, so you would need to take quite a few flights every day to reach this target!

Of course this is taking things to an absurd extreme, but it does serve to highlight the fact that being scared of flying per se is pretty absurd in itself. The logic does not however get away from the fact that many people are terrified of flying, so we need to establish why this should be the case and what you can do to get over this fear if you are a bad flyer.

The first thing to understand is what the fear of flying really is, because if you know that there is an far higher chance of getting killed in a car crash than there is on a plane, your fear cannot be based on the fact that a plane is transportation in the same way that a car or bus is.

Some people will suggest that they are scared of flying because the idea of sitting in a metal tube at 35,000 feet above the earth is so unnatural, but that does not make a great deal of sense either. Driving around in your car is no more natural than flying and very few people are scared of being in a car. This is not therefore particularly convincing argument either.

The truth is that the fear of flying has little to do with risk as such because whilst there is a risk of an accident whilst flying, that risk is considerably lower than it would be in a car, and after all, there is a risk attached to everything in life.

What makes a plane different to a car is that in a car, you retain a degree of control (even if we are not driving) and you are on the ground. Once you are in a plane and they shut the doors, that’s it, your trapped and you suddenly feel very vulnerable and threatened. You have no control, because your fate is now 100% in the hands of the crew, and you’ve never even met them!

You are more aware than at perhaps any other time that you are vulnerable and that life is fragile and that whilst moving around on the ground is perfectly normal, flying through the air is not.

In essence, a fear of flying is a type of anxiety disorder, a specific phobia or fear that cannot necessarily be easily overcome by trying not to think about it. As an anxiety, you are scared of the unknown, worrying about what might happen rather than something that will happen or what is happening right at this moment.

For most people, fear of flying is a combination of many factors or fears that they have. For instance, many people are scared of heights, whereas others feel uncomfortable in crowded places or in an enclosed space. Then there is that fact that a stranger has complete control over your destiny whilst others (ground engineers and the like) could have made one tiny error that has effectively sealed your fate even before the plane taxies out to the runway to take off.

Everyone knows that you cannot control your fate or your future but if you suffer from a fear of flying, this is effectively what you are trying to do on a psychological level. Consequently, worrying about the future will cause physical and emotional upset in exactly the same way as would something genuinely happening.

If for example there was smoke pouring out of the engine and the pilot was attempting an emergency landing, your emotional and physical reaction would probably be the same as the reaction generated by the fear that something like this might happen.

As a general rule, people who suffer from a fear of flying will most commonly suffer one or both of two adverse reactions.

Firstly, they may suffer on a physical level, perhaps feeling sweaty or dizzy, being dry mouthed with a pale or flushed complexion. They might feel abdominal pains, muscle tensions or tremors, have difficulty breathing or feel heart palpitations.

On the other hand or in addition, some people suffer on a psychological level so that they suddenly have poor or misguided judgment, narrowed perceptions or negative expectations.

The key to the fear of flying is that you are trapped on that plane, and that is far too much like being trapped in a coffin which for many people is their worst nightmare. As anyone who has suffered from a fear of flying knows, once you overcome your fear, this does not mean that you are any less well aware of the small risk involved in getting on the plane – it is just that you have learned to accept those risks as a natural part of life.

So, how do you overcome this fear?

Research into the thought processes of people who are afraid of flying has indicated that there are four different types of thinking associated with fear.

People who fear flying:

  • Can usually think of nothing other than flying and how unpleasant it is both before and during the flight;
  • Usually indulge in self blame, thinking about all the mistakes they have made;
  • Often resign themselves to their fate, simply accepting that they have to be scared and that they can change nothing;
  • Will catastrophize, that is, they think of all the terrible things that could happen.

Taken together, what this means is that if you fear flying, you’ll probably spend a great deal of time thinking about it and worrying about it beforehand. Furthermore, once you are on the plane and your flight begins, you’re going to focus on the unpleasant physical and psychological effects that you feel, making the whole of your journey a time of misery.

You will blame yourself for all your mistakes and errors, you will tell yourself that there is nothing you can do about the mistakes and thoughts about all of the terrible things that might happen will preoccupy your mind.

Thus, if you want to tackle your fear of flying, you have to deal with all of these different psychological processes separately, because it is only by bringing each of these different feelings under control that you can conquer the totality of your fear.

The first thing to do is go back to the statistics as the facts very clearly show that even if you do not have any control in a plane, it is still the safest form of travel by a significant margin. The reality is, the chances of you even being in a plane accident are almost infinitesimally small, and no matter which way you look at it, facts are facts.

Next, think back to all of the times that you have flown before. Have there ever been any major, life-threatening incidents or occurrences that you personally have experienced? The chances are that for the vast majority of people, the answer to this question is going to be ‘no’ so you have already seen plenty of evidence that flying is extremely safe.

Can you calculate the number of times you have flown in your life? It doesn’t have to be an exact number, just an approximation is good enough.

Now, go back to the stats again and using a worst case scenario, assume that you are flying with an airline with an awful safety record, there is still only one chance in 830,428 that you are ever going to be on a plane where there is a least one fatality.

How many flights have you been on, and how close to that number are you? Not very close I would be willing to bet, so once again, the statistical chances of being in this situation (where someone else dies, not you) are minimal.

From here, you have to start applying a little logical, adult thought to the four psychological factors were looking at earlier.

For a start, there is no point in worrying about flying for days or weeks in advance. It is either going to happen and you have to do it or you cancel your flight and don’t go where you were planning to go. Take a deep breath, stand back from the situation and forget about it. It is it going to happen or it is not and thinking about it is not going to change anything.

For example, you may be worrying about completely the wrong thing, because before you ever get on the plane, there’s far more chance that you will be involved in a car accident that will prevent you going on your trip in any event. Of course, this is morbid thinking but it serves to illustrate the point that there really is no sense in worrying about something that might never happen.

When you are on the plane, cruising at 30,000 feet, it is a fact that there is absolutely nothing you can do to change your situation. So, make sure that you get a window seat, and be amazed at the view (assuming that are not flying at night). Your grandparents (or perhaps your great-grandparents) never, ever got to see such an unbelievable panoramic vista of the world, they never got to see such incredible beauty, so be grateful instead of being scared.

In this way, you teach yourself that instead of being afraid of flying, you should be in awe of or rapt by the wonder of modern day, super-safe flying.

Don’t dwell on your mistakes. You are going to get a chance to make good on your errors at a later date because that later date will inevitably come. And you should also remember that none of us is perfect and everyone makes mistakes from time to time because making mistakes is an inevitable feature of the human condition.

Understand that whilst you are 100% in the care of someone else, they are the most capable people imaginable for the job that they are doing. And despite this fact, you are not completely helpless. You can deal with the psychological and physical side-effects of fear of flying by learning and practicing deep breathing exercises, progressive relaxation and so on.

Discipline yourself to do these things whenever the fear of flying starts to set in again by making sure that these skills or abilities become a part of your regular flying routine. One way of doing this that will work for almost anyone who suffers from a fear of flying will be highlighted in the next chapter.

As for thinking about all of the things that could go wrong, you have to be realistic and grown up about the situation. For instance, whilst you might allow yourself to think dark thoughts before getting on the plane, once you are on-board, you should see view the whole thing as a challenge, a fight from which you are not going to run away.

Accept that whilst there are a multitude of bad things that could happen, the chances of any of these things happening are absolutely minutely tiny, so what is the point of worrying about something that is almost certainly never going to happen?

Teach yourself these thought patterns and it will help to banish all of the negative thoughts that between them make up the fear of flying.

The natural negative element

One thing that differentiates flying from most other forms of public transport is that most people do not fly without a good reason to do so. Whilst you might for example hop on the subway to go down town to see what is happening, you almost always have a concrete reason for flying.

Sometimes, the reason that you’re flying is positive or happy, but this is not always the case. If for example you and the family are jetting off on vacation, you have a completely positive situation which probably means that your emotions and feelings are also completely positive.

However, most of us have suffered situations where the scenario was very different, where we have had to fly for a reason that was not especially positive or upbeat. For instance, there can be very few people who have not had to take a flight that was not in some way associated with family illness or even bereavement.

In this type of scenario, you are obviously going to feel a little downbeat and negative. You are suffering unpleasant emotions such as hurt or uncertainty and because flying has a psychologically negative side to it, it is easy for those negative emotions to be transferred or attached to the flying process itself. In effect, your emotions are already ‘dangerous’, so you transfer those negative emotions to flying.

If you have a fear of flying, it is probably not something that started before you went on your very first flight. Although the majority of people will probably feel a little nervous about flying for the very first time, these feelings usually pass when you see that flying is not really all that different to travelling on a bus or on the subway.

For anyone who has a more persistent fear of flying, there has probably been a previous flying experience when that fear first exhibited itself (sometimes with but usually without a specific reason). This may not necessarily be associated with a bad experience in flight because it might be more associated with the negative reason for which that flight was being taken.

What you need to do in this situation is trace the reasons for your fear of flying. If you can trace what caused this fear in the first place, then you will be able to do something about it, so start by isolating when you first started to feel your fear of flying.

Next, analyze such factors as why you were flying, and what happened before, during and after the flight. Try to recall as much detail as you can, and write it all down as this may be the key to why flight is so scary for you.

At the same time, analyze what was happening elsewhere in your life as well because this too might have been a psychological trigger for the fear that you feel right now. For instance, did anything happen or did anyone do anything that left you feeling emotionally hurt or disturbed? Did it or they make you feel conflicted or angry before, during or immediately after you took your flight?

If there is a positive answer to any of these questions, it may well be that you are transferring negative thoughts or feelings from a completely nonrelated situation to flying.

It will certainly help you if you can trace the root cause of your fear of flying, especially if the main cause has got nothing whatsoever to do with getting on a plane. In any situation where you can trace the exact cause of a fear or a phobia, it makes it considerably easier to tackle that situation the next time you get on an airplane because if you know what ‘the enemy’ is, it is far easier to fight it successfully, whereas it is much harder if you don’t.

If you are flying with children

The majority of children do not have a natural fear of flying, so unless your child has previously been involved in a flying situation that was traumatic or scary, it is likely that there is some other underlying reason if your child is scared of flying.

Sometimes, children will have exactly the same scenario in their life as highlighted in the previous section of this report. Something bad happens in their life and they transferred the negative feelings about whatever it was that happened to flying.

For instance, in a modern world where divorce is becoming increasingly common, it is not especially unusual for children to have to fly from one estranged parent to visit the other. In this scenario, it is fairly obvious that the child involved will have mixed or negative emotions and not unnaturally, these negative emotions could very easily be transferred to the process of flying itself.

It is also a fact that children are often very well tuned to their parents emotions and feelings, so if you feel somehow upset or concerned about flying, it is quite likely that your children will feel exactly the same as a reflection of your psychological mien.

So, if your child starts to exhibit signs of being scared of flying, consider whether there is anything in the surrounding psychological situation that could be causing them to feel this way.

Join us on Facebook