4 Psychological Interventions That Overcome the Fear of Flying

Posted On November 12, 2019

Fear of flight is a condition where some people are afraid of boarding an airplane. It manifests through acute anxiety and extreme discomfort at the thought of traveling in a plane. People with this condition put all the stops to avoid traveling by plane. They also manifest significant distress when assigned a task that requires them to fly. While some patients are averse to any form of flight, others manifest extreme discomfort during flight events such as take-off, turbulence, and foul weather. The phobia can be mild or extreme with nausea and panic attacks at the sight or suggestion of air travel.

Causes

The fear of flight is formally recognized by the Association of American Psychologists (APA) as a mental disorder and is classified as aviophobia under the DSM-5 system. Prevalence estimates indicate that the phobia affects around 6.5% of flight passengers while the anxiety affects as much as 40% of the flying demographic. Around 60% of the people with flight phobia have other anxiety disorders. They are likely to be triggered by situations that unsettle the nerves or involve some form of risk-taking.

 

  • People with aviophobia avoid flying entirely, while those with anxiety disorders fly with discomfort. The fear of flight may be just another symptom of a general anxiety disorder or a manifestation of a distinct phobia. While there is no clear cause of the phobia, some of the suggested triggers include:
    • Genetic predisposition
    • Exposure to sensationalized aviation accidents in the media
    • The feeling of lack of control during flight
    • Other phobias such as acrophobia and claustrophobia may be triggered by the flight

How to beat the fear of flying

Most psychologists treat the fear of flying by using a combination of anti-anxiety drugs, therapy, and relaxation techniques.

 Exposure therapy

Aviation associations collaborate with psychologists to organize workshops that help passengers overcome the fear of flight. According to the psychiatrist and former flight attendant Philippe Goeury, simulating flight conditions helps people understand the different sensations they experience on planes. They help patients visualize how turbulence is the equivalent of bumps on the road. Therapists also explain how pilots handle systemic failures to assuage the fear that all mechanical and technical problems lead to air crashes.

 Therapy sessions involve patients learning techniques of managing anxiety such as meditation and countering irrational thoughts with facts. They later advance to controlled exposure and the management of panic triggers. Most sessions involve the use of virtual reality simulators to imitate flight conditions. Research suggests that exposure therapy is more effective than traditional interventions for fear of flight.

 Cognitive behavioral therapy

Psychologists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on most anxiety disorders with significant success. CBT involves helping the patient reflect on the irrational thought processes they experience when they contemplate flight. The therapist then goes through the thought process with the patient correcting negative perceptions and equipping the patient with coping mechanisms.

 Most psychologists employ technology such as simulation and virtual reality to diagnose the type of phobia and develop an appropriate intervention. Other methods include group therapy, where patients meet the psychology experts at airports to experience flight conditions together. CBT has an 80% level of effectiveness on flight anxiety. Research indicates that CBT not only reduces the fear of flying but also equips patients with life skills they can use to handle other challenges.

 Education about aviation safety

 There is overwhelming statistical evidence indicating that aviation is the safest means of transportation. For instance, data from US transportation agencies demonstrates that the risk of injury or death on the road is one out of every 6800 passengers while that of air transport is one out of 13 million. It is clear that aviation is safer than traveling by car, but the majority of Americans are more anxious about entering a plane than driving a car.

 The misconception that driving is safer than flying is partly due to the disparities in the coverage of road and air accidents. Most aviation accidents dominate frontpage news and television screens nationwide. In contrast, traffic accidents get minimal coverage, even when they involve fatalities. A road accident may go completely unreported or appear in the local daily, but is unlikely to get statewide coverage.

 This difference in newsworthiness creates the perception that roads are safe. Moreover, 85% of aircraft affect private planes meaning that the risk of accidents on commercial planes is almost negligible. Psychologists use this evidence to assuage the fears of passengers who have phobias and generalized anxiety towards flying.

 Relaxation techniques

 Psychologists advise patients to try relaxation techniques during flight. Some of the methods include the use of electromagnetic pulses to stimulate the brain into relaxing. Passengers can also apply meditation, deep breathing, reading, playing games, art therapy, and other methods of reducing tension. Therapists train them on how to employ these methods under intense pressure conditions. They use specialized training environments, such as simulating turbulence using virtual reality.

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