Jet setting off on an adventure is, for many, one of the biggest highlights of the year. But if the thought of boarding a flight fills you with absolute dread, you’re not alone. It’s estimated one in ten people are affected by a fear of flying (aerophobia or aviophobia), with some experiencing symptoms so uncomfortable that it prevents them from even setting foot inside an airport.
Whether it’s the stress of taking off into the skies or the anxiety of sitting in a confined, claustrophobic space, facing your flight phobias head on can seem a truly daunting task. We spoke to Dr Nick Mooney, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Re: Cognition Health about overcoming aeroplane anxiety…
Psychological therapy has been proven to help people manage their anxiety when flying. However, one size does not fit all and the specific techniques used for one person may not be the most useful for another. It’s recommended that people experiencing moderate to severe levels of anxiety when flying seek support from a qualified therapist with experience of working with anxiety conditions.
Common forms of talking therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are able to help those with milder levels of anxiety to better manage their discomfort and make flying a more enjoyable experience.
Try Calming Techniques
Specific techniques including breathing exercises, mindfulness skills, visualisation exposure exercises and challenging unhelpful thoughts can be useful in counteracting anxiety associated with flying.
It’s best to practice these skills in advance so they can be put into practice effectively on the fight. Remember to also be kind and compassionate to yourself. Even though you might recognise the thoughts as irrational, the anxiety you are experiencing is certainly real and valid. It is OK to be anxious and the feelings will pass quicker if you don’t try to avoid or struggle with them.
Complete A Course
Intensive therapy programmes such as ‘fear of flying’ courses provide some additional advantages, particularly for those with moderate to severe levels of anxiety. These courses are offered by a number of airline operators and most are based on CBT principles. Many ‘fear of flying’ courses provide immersive exposure to the anxiety by including an aeroplane flight as part of the programme. These courses are also usually run in a group format which can be validating to people, as they are able to share and normalise their anxiety with other sufferers. A lot of courses also use former pilots or aircrew in addition to therapists who specialise in aviophobia. This can instil an extra sense of confidence in the information being provided.
There are plenty of courses to choose from. Virgin Atlantic’s acclaimed Flying Without Fear course helps between 2-3000 people each year conquer their fears, but there are also courses with British Airways and easyJet, that you can sign up for, too.
Knowledge Is Power
Understand your triggers. Try to identify what your biggest fears are. Worrying that the plane will crash or be hijacked may play on some people’s minds while others may be more concerned about the potential catastrophic consequences of having a panic attack in an enclosed space at 30,000 feet. By pinpointing your fear, you will be able to better understand the steps needed to help combat your phobia.
Inform The Crew
Some people find it helpful to inform the flight crew and even neighbouring passengers of their fear of flying. This can help by ‘naming the elephant in the room’ – if, and when, you start to display signs of anxiety you won’t be so worried about what others might be thinking and you are likely to receive genuine expressions of sympathy and validation. The flight crew will be well aware of some useful tips and tricks to manage flight anxiety so may be able to offer additional support or assistance if needed.
Find Out The Facts
Do your research on statistics relating to your phobia. For example, if your phobia surrounds the plane crashing, research how many planes have crashed recently and what the likelihood of this happening is. Whilst it won’t eliminate your fear, it will put it into context and help you to rationalise these unhelpful beliefs.