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How to overcome an intense fear of flying

A phobia that affects one in six.

Every day six million people around the globe put their trust in aeroplanes to take them from A to B. When getting on a flight, most of us might only have a momentary glimpse of fear that subsides. However, for many other people, the intense fear of flying can be unimaginably petrifying – this is known as aerophobia.

What is a fear of flying (aerophobia)?

Simply put, aerophobia is the intense fear of flying that can stem from perceived threats and lived experiences. People with aerophobia might feel anxious before or during a flight, or they may not even be able to fly at all due to their paralysing fear.

“You may be showing signs of having a phobia if you have an intense, irrational fear, avoidance of the feared object or situation, physical symptoms like sweating, trembling, and rapid heartbeat, and an overwhelming anxiety when confronted with the fear,” explains Australian Psychological Society President, Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe.

A fear of flying is actually extremely common with one in six people reportedly experiencing some form of aerophobia. Moreover, one in five people admit to calming their fear of being on a plane with alcohol or medication.

There are several reasons people have a fear of flying, these include:

  • Turbulence
  • Fear of crashing
  • Claustrophobia
  • A perceived loss of liberty
  • Panic disorders (including agoraphobia)

What causes phobias?

A phobia is when a person has an irrational, unrealistic, persistent or excessive fear of something. It can be caused by several factors:

  • A traumatic experience: Say you’ve experienced a terrifying ordeal on a plane, such as a scary bout of turbulence, the next time you get on a plane you might find that you struggle to feel calm or safe.
  • Genetic factors: Some research suggests that some of us are more likely to develop phobias than others due to our genetic makeup.
  • Learned behaviours from early life: Another cause of phobias is behaviours that we learn early on in life. If you were raised by highly anxious parents, it’s likely that you may struggle to cope with stress in your adult life.

Someone with a phobia, including a fear of flying, might feel the following symptoms and emotions:

  • Fear
  • Panic
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Sweating
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating

What can you do about aerophobia

If left untreated, phobias can wreak havoc by controlling your day-to-day life. If a fear of flying is stopping you from travelling and having fun, fear not, there are ways to work through phobias.

One solution is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Generally, you will work with a therapist to identify the unrealistic and anxiety-inducing thoughts that enter your mind when flying and work to replace them with positive thoughts.

Another method is exposure therapy, which is the philosophy that the more you experience something, the less anxiety you will have about it. For flying, this can be watching videos or going to flight simulators before working your way up to actually getting on a plane.

“Common ways to help deal with a fear of flying can be through educating yourself about how safe flying is, gradually exposing yourself to flying-related situations before you fly, practising relaxation techniques and having healthy distractions on your flight like a good book or movie,” Dr Davis-McCabe.

“For more serious cases you will need to talk with your psychologist or GP about cognitive-behavioural therapy or even medication.”

In fact, there is even a program available in Australia dedicated to helping people with aerophobia overcome their fears with flight simulators, CBT and speaking with real pilots about flying. 

Virgin Australia also has a program where you can register as a ‘nervous flyer’. Virgin will then email you material leading up to your flight to alleviate your anxieties. Whilst on the plane, a flight attendant will keep an eye out for you throughout your journey.

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