Facing the fear of flying
It doesn’t matter that statistics show flying is the safest way to travel. For those with a fear of flying, it’s not about logic.
It’s the safest way to travel, yet the very thought of boarding a plane can make many of us feel like our hearts are about to jump out of our chests.
Feeling anxious when you fly isn’t that unusual; around 40 per cent of us admit feeling a little jittery when we get on a plane. But the 10 per cent of us who are what psychologists term “flight avoidant” may find we need professional help.
Being ‘flight avoidant’ doesn’t mean you refuse to travel by plane, but it does mean you’re likely to dampen your fear with alcohol or medication, or need some help from your friendly cabin crew during your flight.
Melbourne psychologist Shawn Goldberg treats plenty of people with a fear of flying – often referred to as aviophobes – and says there are usually a number of reasons for their anxiety.
Goldberg often hears people say their fear of flying ‘crept up on them’ as they got older and acquired more responsibilities. It’s not unusual for these people to recount tales from their youth of jumping on planes without a second thought.
But Les Posen, a psychologist who has been treating fearful flyers for 30 years, says most aviophobes have pre-existing anxiety-related conditions, such as panic disorders or claustrophobia and tend to fear not being in control.
He says when they were younger these people probably had other worries, but as they got older they worried more about their health. When you’re travelling in a plane, these fears can easily manifest and are compounded by the fact that escape is simply not possible. It’s the realisation that unlike in a car, you can’t pull a plane over to the side of the road that really disturbs people.
“There is an unknown quantity; it’s not what the plane will do, it’s what will I do in the plane,” Posen says.
Challenging the fear
Fear of flying is a specific phobia and Goldberg says you’re unlikely to overcome it without professional help.
This is because the fear part of your brain, which acts as the body’s alarm system for danger, is always going to win over the more rational part.
“It will always win because its trump card is ‘we’re going to die, what are you going to do about it?'” says Goldberg.
“No matter how rational you want to be, it will keep you on guard,” he says.
Irrational thoughts that creep in or ‘invade’ an aviophobe’s mind – “I’ve made the wrong decision” “the plane isn’t going to make it” – are reinforced by the physiological changes brought on by anxiety (cue pounding heart and sweaty palms).
What’s the treatment?
Evidence shows the best treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with exposure-based therapy, says Goldberg. (CBT is a form of structured therapy which aims to change the way a person thinks and behaves in certain situations by teaching them techniques to manage their anxiety, such as slow-breathing and changing the focus of their attention away from worries and anxiety. It can also help change an unhelpful thinking style to one that is more rational, using a technique called thought challenging.)
Goldberg says the premise behind CBT is that you think, therefore you feel. For example, if you get on a rollercoaster ride thinking it is dangerous you will experience some form of anxiety. If you think the ride is safe, you’re more likely to find it thrilling, and even if you do feel some sense of anxiety chances are it will be exhilarating, rather than frightening.
“Many people don’t fear flying and they don’t think turbulence is a danger to themselves, because they don’t think that.
“People with a phobia or a fear of flying have a belief system that flying or having anxiety during flying is somewhat compromising someone’s safety. And CBT is designed to change that,” says Goldberg.
Firstly, it’s important you unravel the ritualistic or superstitious behaviours you engage in prior to a flight, says Posen, and work on finding alternative behaviours.
For instance, if a camera crew were to follow a fearful flyer what would they see the week before a flight or the night before? Some people may board late, while others will be sure they get a window seat. But sooner or later that person may end up stuck in a middle seat for five hours, says Posen.
Next he looks for is what is happening physiologically. Is your heart racing? Are you short of breath? Do you feel dizzy or have twitchy hands?
The final element is cognitive, for instance what thoughts come to mind when you board a plane or when it hurtles along the runway about to take-off.
“Once people recognise these behaviours you can start pushing back against them and looking at alternative ones that are actually going to help.”
By this he means challenging the everyday behaviours that we take for granted like getting into a car, driving on a road, going into a kitchen – the sorts of things that are statistically far more dangerous than getting on a plane.
Sometimes Posen will pull out his tablet and use an app to show his clients how many aircraft are flying around the world at any given moment. “They’ll say ‘oh my god look at all that aircraft’ but they are all going from a to b, to c to d and they are all getting to where they are going.”
Confronting the fear
Next comes the flight simulator. Goldberg says this allows therapists to expose their clients to specific scenarios they may be fearful of. As he says, it’s not feasible to ask a pilot on a real flight to turn right at a sharp angle or fly through that cloud and see what happens.
Posen takes his clients through a virtual reality simulator where they can experience up to five take-offs, as well as turbulence.
“The principle is that the more you expose yourself to feared situations where nothing actually bad happens the more your fear system will recalibrate itself.”
Practical tips for fearful flyers
Before the flight: Minimise coffee and sugar. Arrive at the airport early and if possible visit an airline lounge.
During the flight:
- Use noise cancelling headphones during long flights – there’s much less wear and tear on the brain.
- Practise breathing exercises – People who are fearful of flying either pant breath or freeze and hold their breath. This sends signals that to the body that it is under attack and triggers survival mode. Posen advises slowing breathing down from an average of 16 breathes a minute to around 8. There are numerous apps available.
- Focus – Focusing on a task can help. There are some good apps that can help you to focus and can assist with unhelpful and catastrophising thoughts that may “invade” during a flight.
- Use music – Listening to music can help you to focus, relax, sleep, and deal with turbulence (you can bounce in the seat to the rhythm). Make sure you have these playlists ready to go as soon as the fasten seatbelts sign goes on.
- Have mantras ready – For instance “Turbulence might be uncomfortable, but it’s not unsafe. It’s like kayaking down a river stream.”
Managing your expectations
One of the big furphies for aviophobes is the belief that they need to be able to board a plane feeling totally calm; Posen says this expectation is nonsense.
“You need to be able to walk on board that plane and focus on the things you need to do to help you manage the flight,” he says.
Fearful flyers can have an anxiety level of three or four, as long as they know they have a handful of tools at their disposal to help them.
There are lots of triggers on a plane, such as noise, change of temperature, and the difference in air pressure compared to being on terra ferma. The task is to push back against those things and learn that you won’t die doing this. You may not like it, but it’s manageable.
“It’s not about turning people into happy flyers. It’s about turning people into people who can manage their own experience of being on a plane.”
The low down
Treatment through CBT sessions with a psychologist (on average people will need five sessions) or a fear of flying course can help you overcome your fear of flying. For some it’s a work in progress while others will completely overcome their fear.
An unexpected bonus of seeking help for fear of flying, it can also help you to overcome anxieties you may have in other areas of your life.
For instance, Goldberg has had clients who after treatment have been able to drive over the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne, something they hadn’t been able to do before.
by Nicola Garrett.
Article featured on ABC Health & Wellbeing