Think You’re Afraid to Fly? You May Not Be.
Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias in the United States. You may have a flying fear yourself, or, if not, you definitely know someone who does. A vast majority of the population reports experiencing at least some level of discomfort while flying. For many people it is such a crippling fear that they simply refuse to get on a plane anymore. People frequently use alcohol and/or prescription (or even non-prescription!) medication to help themselves get through a flight with less anxiety, and most people feel a sense of relief once they have landed safely at their destination. But what if I told you that it’s not actually the flying part that freaks you out?
For a high percentage of those people that experience intense anxiety related to flying, there is something else that they are actually afraid of: a panic attack. Specifically, they fear having a panic attack while on the plane and not being able to “escape.” Even if people have never had a panic attack, they can develop this form of fear of flying. The core fear here is that somehow, some way, the person will “lose control” and “freak out” while on the plane. Obviously, if you are on a plane cruising at 30,000 feet, there is no way to physically remove yourself from that situation. Thus the fear intensifies, and people who experience this type of anxiety often describe worrying that they will “go crazy” because they are “trapped.” This leads to the anticipation of being embarrassed and mortified that they’ve had a “complete meltdown” in front of an entire plane full of people to witness it.
Anyone who has ever had panic attacks can tell you that they are incredibly uncomfortable and upsetting to experience. People frequently fear that the panic attack will never end, that it will cause a more serious medical reaction such as a heart attack or stroke, or—once again—that they will go crazy and their mind will never be the same again. While the physical sensations of panic—racing/pounding heart, sweating, shaking/trembling, dizziness/lightheadedness, shortness of breath, chest tightness, feeling disoriented—are very real and can be distressing, no one has ever truly “lost all control” (whatever that even means) and “gone nuts” from a panic attack. So, for the most part, what people are afraid of happening if they do have a panic attack simply doesn’t happen. Every panic attack ends, no matter what.
It is also quite common for people with a history of panic attacks to have this concurrent fear that they will not
be able to leave wherever they may be if/when they panic. So it makes sense that this anxiety would be magnified in environments like an airplane, a train, a bus, or even an elevator—anywhere where their ability to up and leave is not entirely within their control. The good news is that there are highly effective methods of treatment for panic; in order to effectively overcome this form of flying fear, then, the person needs to work on the panic first.
Evidence-based treatments including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) have all been proven to help people overcome panic attacks and any fears associated with having them. People can even learn a series of exercises known as interoceptives, which involve inducing physical sensations similar to those of a panic attack. While that may sound counterintuitive—or, at the very least, unpleasant—the more people practice these exercises, the more they truly learn that they do not need to fear experiencing those sensations and those physical feelings themselves pose no real threat to them. Fear of panicking while on an airplane is just one “subset” of flying fear, but it is one that can easily be treated with the help of a licensed clinician who is well-trained in CBT and ERP. Advances in the realm of
Fear of panicking while on an airplane is just one “subset” of flying fear, but it is one that can easily be treated with the help of a licensed clinician who is well-trained in CBT and ERP. Advances in the realm of Virtual Reality have helped with treatment as well, as we can now simulate scenes such as flying on a plane quite easily. Because of this, people can now practice facing their fears on a regular basis, whereas actually getting on a plane and flying consistently enough to extinguish any anxiety related to that simply is not practical for most people. If you or someone you know struggles with this fear, please know that now, more than ever, it very possible to overcome it.