If you have a fear of flying then you know how terrible a long (or even short) flight can be.
This fear can make people have panic attacks, hyperventilate, feel claustrophobic, get dizzy, have heavy and/or laboured breathing, experience a lot of sweating and experience negative thoughts and poor judgement. Fear of flying can even make some people avoid travel by plane altogether, causing them to miss out on fun vacation trips and/or family events.
In short, fear of flying can be awful, but there is hope in overcoming your fear so you can board a plane without having a meltdown.
"For people to overcome this, they have to come to an understanding of the nature of their anxiety," Dr. Neil Rector tells The Huffington Post Canada. Rector, a psychologist and senior research scientist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Research Institute, says that people are scared of flying for a variety of reasons, but the two main areas are, "One, that people are afraid of the plane crashing and of dying and two, people who can't manage their anxiety on the flight itself for a lot of reasons." Some of these reasons may be anxiety problems related to fear of heights, fear of germs, claustrophobia and agoraphobia.
Read on to find out more about fear of flying and some advice on what to do to overcome it.
How Common Is Fear Of Flying?
This fear is very common, according to Dr. Rector, who used to consult as a psychologist on a fear of flying program that was developed by Air Canada pilots.
"I've seen rates between 20 and 25 per cent of people who would say they're fearful flyers," he says, adding that they may not meet the full criteria for flying phobias and those with diagnosable disorders are a much smaller percentage.
According to FlyFright.com, a resource for people who have a fear of flying, nearly 1 in 3 adult Americans is either anxious about flying (18.1 per cent) or afraid to fly (12.1 per cent).
How Does This Fear Develop?
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For some people, just reading or watching the news can trigger a fear of flying. "We hear a lot about crashes, and near misses so these very scary flight-related problems get showcased on the front pages of newspapers," says Rector. "So we see horrific instances of post-crash debris and it's scary so I think some people have either gone through a very bad flight where they thought they were in jeopardy or phobias or anxiety can develop just through observing."
What Do You Do If You Have Anxiety Around Flying?
"My main tip is that people need to understand that anxiety is prompted by the perception of a threat and that anything they can learn to do to manage that threat will also manage the subsequent anxiety that they experience," says Rector. "Threat triggers anxiety so if you can learn to identify and manage that threat then you can also learn how to manage that anxiety."
Rector recommends to write down what you fear about flying then get a good reference guide (such as this and this) on the nature of air travel and learn about whether or not your perceived threats are accurate.
One way to practice this is, say you're afraid that your plane will crash if there's turbulence. Rector suggests that reading about flying will teach you that planes are made to withstand turbulence and that pilots have already anticipated turbulence and will know how to deal with it when they arrive at that natural rough spot.
"Turbulence in of itself rarely poses any problem whatsoever," he says, "so in other words, if I think turbulence is dangerous I'm going to get really anxious but if I can get information to learn that turbulence is not dangerous, then I can use that factual information to manage my threat when I'm actually flying."
What If You're Afraid Of A Terrorism-Related Event?
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What we need to understand, according to Rector, is whether that threat is probable. "To manage anxiety, we have to be able to discriminate between things that are possible versus things that are probable," he says.
Although horrible events such as suicide bombings and hijacked planes show that these threats are possible, "the question is what is the likelihood or what is the probability on any given flight that these terrible scary things can happen," he says.
The risk of these threats happening are "extraordinarily low," he adds, noting that there are thousands of flights that take off and land every day without incident.
What fearful flyers have to do is collect information to see flying "in a broader context" — that a terrorist event or a rogue pilot represent very infrequent events.
"When people collect more facts about the nature of flying, then perceptually, people feel like they have more control because they understand it better," says Rector.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
It's one thing to tell yourself these statistics but it's another to fully comprehend them and use them to manage your anxiety around flying.
One of Rector's top tips to help people with their anxiety is to see a therapist who can get them to practice cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Part of this therapy can involve exposure to the fear, learning to disengage from unproductive worry cycles over things you don't have control over, reading information and/or news about flying and other coping strategies to change unhelpful patterns in your cognitions and behaviours.
Because people who have significant claustrophobic fears have recurrent panic attacks or other anxiety conditions that make flying difficult, Rector recommends to get help from a psychologist or therapist.
"People with these disorders have to learn strategies to overcome these anxieties that are activated by flying," he says. "We would recommend cognitive behavioural therapy that includes significant exposure to it."
Will Prescription Drugs Help?
If you believe you can't fly without the help of prescription drugs, Rector says you need to discuss it with your physician first.
"In the short term, when people take short-term activated drugs, they actually do help," he says. However, prescription drugs probably won't solve your fear of flying in the long term.
"What we know from research is while we know that drugs can help people get through flights, unfortunately an implicit message is learned that 'I can only get through this with drugs.' So we’re ultimately trying to get people to stop taking drugs and to develop their own coping strategies independent of medication."
That being said, Rector says if prescription drugs are the only way some people can cope with flying, and they do so infrequently, then it is one way that they can deal with their fear. "We're just saying it's not the optimal way," he says, referring to prescription drugs. "We really want people, for the long term, to not be using drugs."
He reiterates that cognitive behavioural therapy can help people reduce their reliance on prescription drugs.
"Flying is an incredibly safe behaviour," says Rector. "The staff are so well trained and carefully selected to do the job."
He points out that it's natural to feel uncomfortable while flying; after all, you're stuck in a tight space with strangers, but if you're experiencing a lot of stress and/or anxiety around flying, you should get help for it.