Aviophobia, or the fear of flying, is a more common disorder than you may think. In fact, up to 40% of the general population in the United States reports a fear of flying. Additionally, between 2.5% to 6.5% of the population has a clinical phobia of flying.
Even though flying disorders are incredibly common – 40% of the population translates to about 130 million people in the United States alone – there are not many studies that tackle the subject. But that doesn’t mean that those with flying anxieties have to live in fear for their entire lives. In fact, there are several mechanisms that may help you handle flying anxiety.
What Causes Flight Anxiety?
There are several aspects of flying that may cause undue stress and anxiety. Triggers may vary from person to person and even among situations. According to a Norwegian survey conducted between 1986 to 2015, some of the most common triggers of flight anxiety include:
- Turbulence and other in-flight disturbances
- Unknown sounds
- A fear of terrorist attacks
Additionally, a news report published by NBC found several other common flight-related anxieties, including:
- A fear of crashing
- A loss of control
- A fear of heights
- Feelings of claustrophobia
- Losing loved ones in a crash
Furthermore, a survey conducted in Germany involving 30 adults with aviophobia and 30 healthy controls discovered that there are multiple reasons someone may develop a fear of flying. The study found that:
- 50% of those with aviophobia and had experienced a frightening event mid-flight
- 70% of flying phobia patients felt an increased fear of flying after being exposed to negative media relating to airplanes and flight travel
- 60% of patients with aviophobia experienced stressful life events not relating to airplanes that impacted that relationship with flying
Steps to Handle Flying Anxiety
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America collaborated with Dr. Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist with 35 years of experience, to identify the eight key steps to handle flying anxiety. These include:
Knowing what triggers your anxiety
As we discussed, a fear of flying may have nothing to do with the plane. Knowing what sets off your fear can help you pinpoint strategies to handle your flying anxiety.
Arming yourself with facts and statistics
Did you know that there’s only a 1-in-11 million chance of being in an airplane accident?
Being aware of your anticipatory anxiety
Often times, a fear of flying is strongest before a person is actually in the air. Knowing that you’re likely to feel your strongest anxiety before you get on the plane may help you cope.
Remind yourself that just because you’re afraid, that doesn’t mean you’re in danger
The human body is designed to respond to dangerous situations. But just because you feel like you’re in danger does not mean that you are.
Recognize that you can outsmart your anxiety
Acknowledging your discomfort without giving in can be a powerful tool. By thinking around your anxiety, you increase your chances of making it onto that plane.
Learn how airplanes work
After all, airplanes are just machines. By understanding the science behind them – especially the myriad of safety measures built-in – you may feel less anxious about your next flight.
Inform passengers around you about your anxiety, as well as how they may help you
Sometimes, all the facts in the world can’t stave off a panic attack. Letting others know how to help you just in case may be enough to help you calm down and take a deep breath.
Treat every flight as an opportunity to overcome your fear
After all, exposure therapy is one of the most successful methods to overcome phobias, as we’ll discuss.
The beauty in these steps is that you can take them on your own and at your own pace. The internet provides plenty of resources, such as flying statistics, how airplanes work, and even how to acknowledge your discomfort. However, for those who have severe anxiety, a simple checklist like this may not be enough to overcome a fear of flying.
The Use of Virtual Reality to Handle a Fear of Flying
Another up-and-coming method to handle aviophobia in recent years is the use of VR or virtual reality. Virtual reality exposure therapy, or VRET, is where participants are exposed to a variety of stimuli, such as sights and sounds, to simulate flying.
When used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy, this method has been correlated to help reduced fear of flying. In some studies, VRET has even helped patients take their first steps toward getting on their first plane.
Virtual Reality to Reduce Flying Anxiety
This case report published in the peer-reviewed journal Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance studied three male patients with a severe fear of flying. Each individual completed a clinical interview about their fear. Afterward, they underwent three VRET sessions in which they sat on a moving platform inside a large VR system that simulated the sights and sounds of takeoff, landing, and air turbulence.
The results of this case study found that, for all three men, VRET reduced their fear of flying. By combining cognitive therapy with a licensed therapist during flight simulation, each man gained more control over their anxiety with every session. In fact, the experiment was so successful that two patients took a real flight within months of the treatment.
VRET For Flying Anxiety
This study analyzed the results of 40 VR-related studies that took place between 1969 and 2007 to examine the effectiveness of VR treatments on a fear of flying. The authors found that, even though many studies used various techniques in addition to VR, VRET therapy was shown to be effective in all cases when combined with either cognitive behavioral therapy or relaxation techniques. Thus, VRET remains one of the most effective ways to handle flying anxiety.
There are several steps you can take to handle your flying anxiety. Taking actions such as mentally preparing yourself, learning more about airplanes, and recognizing that flying is the safest way to travel can all help you relax when you’re in the air. But, if your anxiety is extreme, you may also consider discussing options such as VRET therapy with a licensed psychiatrist.