Conquering Your Fear of Flying

  • Whether your fear of flying manifests as butterflies in your stomach, gripping the armrests on takeoff, and feeling anxious during turbulence or as a full-fledged flying phobia with panic attacks and the desire to avoid flying at all costs, there’s good news: You can get help.

    Several studies have shown that as many as 40 percent of American adults have some degree of anxiety about flying. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.5 percent have a fear of flying that is persistent, intense, and irrational and qualifies as a phobia.


    Flying and Other Phobias


    Flying phobia is considered a specific phobia, which is a type of anxiety disorder. People with specific phobias experience a seemingly excessive and unreasonable fear in the presence of or in anticipation of a specific object, place, or situation—such as flying, driving over bridges or in tunnels, or riding in an elevator. The fear may not make any sense, but they feel powerless to stop it, and even thinking about it can cause extreme anxiety.

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    Other common specific phobias involve animals, insects, heights, thunder, public transportation, and dental or medical procedures.


    Fearful Flying

    Many people with a flying phobia worry about losing control, feeling anxious in a confined airplane cabin, or having a panic attack. Others fear heights or an airplane crash, even if they know that statistically, flying is safer than driving on highways.

    Many fearful fliers take sedatives or alcohol to try to reduce their fear. Alcohol produces temporary relaxation, but it could also make people feel less in control or hamper their abilities once the plane touches down. Sometimes doctors prescribe short-acting anti-anxiety medication, which can be helpful if used infrequently and under a doctor’s supervision.


    Treatment Helps

    Most people who have a fear of flying or a flying phobia find significant improvement after treatment.


    Below are common treatments for phobias:


    Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) actively involves a patient in his or her own recovery, which provides a sense of control and skills to use throughout life. CBT focuses on identifying, understanding, and modifying thinking and behavior patterns. When a person changes thinking and behavior, emotional changes usually follow. CBT can address specific problems, such as flying phobia; treatment might be three to six sessions or one long session. CBT teaches skills for handling anxiety, and patients who learn and practice the skills can use them when needed.


    Exposure therapy, a type of CBT, involves gradually approaching the object of a person's fear until the object or situation no longer causes a fear response. It generally works best when conducted in a predictable manner and when the person feels control over the situation. Some fearful flyers may have the opportunity to board a stationary plane several times before taking an actual flight accompanied by a therapist.

    Virtual reality programs are a type of exposure therapy. They involve exposing a patient to a high-tech simulation of a flight experience, which includes a helmet with built-in audiovisual components. The therapist controls the virtual environment and determines the degree of exposure appropriate for the patient.


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    Getting Help

    The Anxiety Disorders Association of America provides a list of its professional members who specialize in treating phobias and other anxiety disorders and have provided descriptions of their practices. Find a therapist near you.


    PLEASE NOTE: The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) does not endorse or promote any specific medications or treatments.

Published On: September 15, 2008