For many, flying is a necessary evil, but for some it can be torture. The mere thought of an upcoming flight can cause great distress, and in extreme cases evoke panic attacks and vomiting. Experts on the other hand say that such a fear is irrational, because statistics show that you are much more likely to die in a car crash than in a plane accident. So why are so many of us afraid of flying? This article helps you to understand why you have such a phobia, and what steps you can take to overcome the very real fear of flying.
Understand your fear of flying
Flying is generally considered to be one of the safest form of public transportation available. According to the International Air Transport Association there were 36.4 million flights in 2015. Of these there were 4 fatal accidents, where a total of 136 people lost their lives. In comparison 1.3 million people died in traffic accidents during the same period. That shows that fear of flying has little do with the actual risk of accident. If that was the case, then everyone who is afraid to fly would be a lot more afraid to drive or ride a car. That is clearly not the case.
Rather, fear of flying is a specific phobia. It is one of several kinds of anxiety disorders. As an anxiety, fear of flying is concerned with what might happen, rather than what is actually happening. For example, if you are sitting in a plane with all systems functioning and you are still feeling afraid that something might happen, that is considered an anxiety.
The fear of flying has various components, and not all of these are specific to the flight itself. These can be anxieties about:
- crowded conditions and enclosed spaces
- being dependent on unknown mechanical things and an unknown pilot’s judgement to maintain your safety
- not feeling in control.
These phobias manifest themselves in both physiological (such as sweating, dizziness, dry mouth, muscle tension, tremors, heart palpitations) and psychological symptoms (such as impaired memory, poor or clouded judgement). Basically, your fear of flying is based on the uncomfortable realisation that your life is vulnerable and fragile, and the awareness that you don’t really have real control over it.
Understand that you are not alone
A study by eDreams found that 1 in 5 people (20 %) worldwide are afraid of flying. It further found that there are two types of fear; logical and illogical. Logical fear affects 80 % of people with fear of flying and those affected are usually uneasy, alert, anxious and upset. Even though they are anxious, they are not completely overwhelmed by the fear. On the other hand, 20 % suffer from illogical fear. This is a more extreme type of fear that prevent people from flying, and if they do fly, they will have a very unpleasant experience.
The study further found that the fears of about 75 % of the people questioned revolve around accidents due to engine failure, turbulence, damage to the aircraft and weather conditions. However, 25 % fear that something could happen to them, such as not being able to escape from the aircraft should something happen. That fear is often characterised by loss of control and panic attacks.
Following are the steps you should undertake to reduce your anxiety and make the flight as pleasant as possible.
Make sure you have enough time
The night before your flight you should try to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation tends to affect those that already have anxiety the most and makes it harder to cope with symptoms. The day of your flight you should ensure that you check in at the airport at least 2 hours prior to departure. Long security lines create stress, which will increase your anxiety, especially if you’re in a rush. Also make sure you get to your gate in good time. Dont’t get stuck in the airport shops, being forced to run to catch your flight.
Visualize your journey
Visualizing and mentally walking through the flight in advance will help to mitigate your fear of flying. Here is a simple visualization technique that if done consistently will reduce your anxiety. You should start using this technique one or two weeks before you fly, and repeat each session daily for about 10 minutes:
Find an isolated place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit down comfortably. Visualize yourself at the airport. You are feeling joyful and happy that you are going to fly. See yourself walking to the gate, boarding the plane and sitting down on your seat. While in your imagination, look around and see the other passengers and crew. Pay attention to details around you. The more details, the stronger the visualization exercise will be. There is no need to feel fearful about the flight while visualizing, as this is all in your imagination.
Visualize the plane taking off while you are in your seat. Focus on feeling confident, happy and safe. Look through the window and enjoy the magnificent view. Eat the food served. Feel the sensations in your mouth. Imagine having a pleasant conversation with the person next to you. Feel the expectation of having a great time at your journey. Visualize the plane landing, taking you safely to your destination.
Don’t be worried if fear or worries enter your mind while doing the exercise. Simply acknowledge them and focus on being happy and excited to finally be on your next journey. Gradually, the fear and worries will fade away, and the mental images of you being confident, happy and safe will seep into your subconscious mind and replace your fear of flying.
Ask for a seat in the front of the plane
Those seated at the front tend to feel less impact from turbulence. A good idea is therefore to tell the personell at check in that you have a fear of flying, and ask to be seated at the front of the plane.
Don’t be afraid of letting the crew know you have a fear of flying. They will most likely devote you a bit more attention, and make sure you are feeling okey. Consider talking to the person next to you. After all, there is a 1 in 5 chance they are also afraid of flying.
Put your fear into perspective
Think about how relevant your fear and worries really are. These are the facts:
- The chances of being involved in an airplane accident are 1 in 11 million – even less in the western world
- There are 99 000 planes taking off every day
- Flight safety requirements are more strict than ever before – flying commercially has never been safer
Due to the fact that airplane crashes seem to make headlines in every newspaper around the world for a long time (think of Malysian Airlines and Germanwings disasters) once they occur, we often get the impression that they happen a lot more than they actually do. In reality, with so many flights taking off every day and such strict flight safety requirements, flying remains the safest form of transportation. In fact, 2016 was the second safest year in aviation history. With that in mind, the next time your anxiety from fear of flying rises, ask yourself:
- Am I really in a real dangerous situation, or is this simply unpleasant?
- If this really is a dangerous situation, then why would the crew want such a job? It’s not like it will make them millionaires anytime soon.
Using breathing techniques helps to relieve stress and anxiety. Do the following breathing exercise to relax yourself before and during a flight:
- Take a long, slow breath in through your nose, completely filling your lungs
- Hold your breath while you count to three
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, while you relax the muscles in your jaw, face, shoulders and stomach
This deep breathing exercise is an extremely important coping technique for anxiety or panic disorders. Deep, comfortable breathing is the key to relaxation.
In addition to breathing exercises, moving your body will distract your mind and help to cope with your fear of flying. This is due to the fact that we have a tendency to literary become frozen with fear. Try to move your legs up and down, similar to riding a bicycle. Tighten your hands, like you are squeezing a ball, release and tighten again. Keep repeating.
Distracting yourself will remove your thoughts of being in the air. Try to listen to calming music, watch an exciting movie or read a book. Most airlines have in the last years adopted more liberal policies on electronic devices, making it possible to distract yourself also during take-off and landing.
Understand that turbulence is not dangerous
Turbulence can be caused by different things, mainly by wind and weather conditions. However, each and every one of them is well known and understood by pilots. Turbulence will cause you to experience everything from mild to more forceful shaking of the airplane, or even give you the feeling that the plane is falling.
What is important to know about turbulence is that, despite whatever movie you might have seen, it will not cause the plane to fall down from the sky. Compare it to hitting small bumps on the road when driving a car – you aren’t really worried the car will flip over and kill you inside? Injuries due to turbulence are extremely (!) rare, and when they do happen, it is due to people not wearing their seatbelts or walking around the cabin. The worst thing you are ever going to encounter, even during rough turbulence, is having your drink spilled over you.
Avoid caffeine products
Coffee and tea contain a stimulant called caffeine. Caffeine is a psychoactive that stimulates your fight-or-flight response, and studies show that it can trigger an anxiety attack or make anxiety worse. It will also keep you awake, reducing the chance of relaxing or falling asleep. You should therefore avoid it to reduce your fear of flying.
Still uneasy? Consider a bit of Dutch courage. Having a drink or two might help calm your nerves. It will also make it easier to fall asleep. But don’t overdo it! Drinking excessively might result in you feeling even more anxious than before.
If you have an extreme fear of flying you might consider taking a course on managing and overcoming it. Further, if your fear derives from a past accident or trauma, you should consider a consultation with a psychologist to resolve the underlying issues.