How common is it?
Fear of flying – or aviophobia – is a type of anxiety disorder. Even though flying is one of the safest methods of travel – estimates put the risk at one in seven million compared to one in 14,000 for a long car trip – somewhere between one in four and one in 12 people are concerned about flying to the extent that they won’t travel by plane, fly uncomfortably or have to self-medicate in order to fly.
What causes it?
The causes of aviophobia aren’t homogenous. The most common culprits are turbulence, claustrophobia, panic (usually among people affected by other anxiety conditions) and a loss of control, especially among doctors, lawyers and other senior professions.
Some people have a bad experience on a plane after always being good flyers, while others swap a carefree youth for fearful adulthood after they have children. When this happens, all of the thoughts about risk they used to dismiss multiply and affect their ability to fly.
What the media tells us about flying can exacerbate the problem. Stories about flying events are usually highly exaggerated and watching air crash television programs can skew probability estimates.
How to cope
Identify your triggers: Think about the specific aspects of flying that make you uncomfortable. Some people don’t like the mechanics of flying – the plane moves through the air in an unpredictable way and they feel like they’re going to fall out of the plane. Other people have a history of panic attacks and worry they’ll have a panic attack on the plane. People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or similar conditions worry that they won’t be able to rush to the toilet during take-off and landing. People who don’t like confined spaces feel anxious when the cabin crew close the doors.
Strategise: Developing goals and strategies to help you cope will help you to feel more in control of your flight. Break long flights into smaller increments and give yourself a task for each section, like watching a movie, walking five laps of the plane or reading a chapter of a book. Bring your tablet or smartphone in case the inflight system breaks down or it’s not to your liking.
Don’t grip the armrest: People often do the opposite of what they should be doing when the plane gets bumpy because that’s what comes naturally. In fact, gripping the armrest or seat during turbulence increases blood pressure and heart rate and renders you even less likely to feel like you’re in control. Instead, practice removing your hands from the armrest and put your palms in your lap facing up.
Ride out turbulence: Rather than trying to fly the plane with your backside, bounce along to music on your smartphone. This helps you to take charge of your movement rather than being reactive to what the plane is doing. Practice a manta about turbulence: “Turbulence is perfectly safe as long as I’m in my seat with the seatbelt fastened, but it can be uncomfortable”.
Practice: Combatting your fear requires practice and time in the sky, otherwise your old habits may return. Try not to leave many months or years in between flights. For people who used to be good flyers, they know what they can return to. For those who’ve never been good flyers, their challenge is harder but not unachievable.