Fear of flying [aerophobia-aviophobia]

Aerophobia (or aviophobia), commonly known as the fear of flying, is a form of anxiety that affects many people around the world. Aerophobia consists of a fear associated with air travel and can manifest itself with different intensities. In some cases, the mere thought of traveling by air can cause a strong fear that leads to avoidance of the situation; in other cases, symptoms may appear even before the flight and then become more acute once on board.

This phobia, like others, is defined as irrational because it is not associated with any real danger: statistically speaking, air travel is safer than driving, for example. Those who are afraid of flying know this very well, but it is not enough to overcome aerophobia.

What are the causes of fear of flying?

The origin of aerophobia depends on several factors and can vary greatly from person to person. The most common elements are:

  • Negative experiences: A negative flight experience, such as severe turbulence or a hard landing, can trigger or exacerbate the fear of flying.
  • Feelings of lack of control: Aerophobia can result from feelings of lack of control over the environment or situation. In airplanes, passengers have no control over the flight, which can be particularly distressing for some people.
  • Media influences: The portrayal of airplane crashes in movies and television series can contribute to a fear of flying, especially when these events are portrayed dramatically.
  • Presence of anxiety or other phobias: People with anxiety tendencies or other phobias (such as claustrophobia, fear of enclosed spaces, or acrophobia, fear of heights) may be more prone to developing aerophobia.
  • One factor that can aggravate it is if you are headed to a destination where you do not want to go, even unconsciously, as well as the thought of being in a closed, poorly ventilated space as a result of the pandemic.
  • Aerophobia, like other phobias, can be learned in part by observing and listening to other people who are afraid of flying.

It is important to note that although all of these factors can contribute to the development of aerophobia, fear of flying is a very subjective condition and its specific causes can vary greatly from person to person.

Symptoms of aerophobia

Typical signs of aerophobia often begin with palpitations and an increased heart rate or irregular heartbeat (physical symptoms). These symptoms may develop into throat tightness, sweating, muscle stiffness, and thoughts or feelings of dread (psychological symptoms). In some cases, vomiting and diarrhea may also occur.

Secondary symptoms due to the level of stress associated with aerophobia may include sleep disturbances, digestive problems, and other physical symptoms such as headaches.

The range of symptoms associated with aerophobia, and phobias in general, is varied and depends on the individual. Here are the most common symptoms:

  • tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • tremors
  • Alternating hot and cold sensations
  • increased breathing rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • chest tightness
  • increased sensation
  • headaches
  • fear of losing control
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain.

How aerophobia limits a person’s life

Aerophobia can limit a person’s life. It can limit educational opportunities (e.g., going to college in another city), professional opportunities (traveling or attending international conferences), and social opportunities (attending a family event away from home).

In general, aerophobia limits the ability to travel to expand one’s boundaries and knowledge of the world and other cultures, which can lead to a degree of social isolation, especially when compared to the activities of one’s friends on social networks.

People with aerophobia may go so far as to blame and shame themselves for this fear, since it can also cause delays and cancellations of planned trips or additional costs in terms of time and money. This aspect also contributes to keeping the person away from the travel situation, which in the most extreme cases is excluded and avoided a priori.

It is important to know that aerophobia is a treatable disorder and that many people are able to overcome it with the right support and treatment. For example, psychological therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is very effective in treating aerophobia.

How to overcome fear of flying

In some cases, aerophobia is directly related to the unfamiliarity with airplanes and is gradually and naturally resolved with experience. However, be careful: this does not mean that insisting and forcing a person to fly without paying attention to his or her thoughts and emotions will be enough to overcome this fear.

In fact, forcing the phobic person to face the feared situation can be counterproductive. Psychological therapy is very effective in overcoming aerophobia. Most of the studies have focused on cognitive-behavioral therapy, but other therapeutic approaches can also be very helpful, especially short-term strategic therapy, which can provide quicker help in the most urgent cases.

In general, we can say that psychological therapy for aerophobia focuses on modifying the negative thoughts and behaviors associated with the fear of flying. In some cases, medication may be prescribed under medical supervision. Here are some of the things you can expect from psychological treatment for fear of flying.

  • Initial Assessment: The first step is a thorough assessment conducted by a trained psychologist. During this assessment, the person’s specific fears and the situations that trigger them are identified. This step is used to develop an individualized treatment plan.
  • Identification of distorted thoughts: Therapy focuses on identifying the distorted thoughts that fuel the fear of flying. Individuals in this phase learn to identify these thoughts and evaluate them more realistically.
  • Cognitive Restructuring: Once negative thoughts are identified, the therapist helps the person restructure these thoughts in a more positive and realistic way. For example, a negative thought such as “The plane will crash” can be changed to “Airplanes are safe modes of transportation with strict safety measures.
  • Gradual exposure: An essential part of psychological treatment is gradual exposure to anxiety-provoking flight-related situations. This may include visiting the airport, boarding an airplane on the ground, and eventually participating in short flights. This process helps the person with aerophobia confront their fears in a controlled manner.
  • Relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing and positive visualization can be learned during therapy. These techniques can be used during the flight to manage anxiety.
  • Planning and support: The therapist can help the person plan the trip and develop strategies to manage anxiety during the flight. The therapist’s emotional support is critical in dealing with challenges that may arise.
  • Monitoring and feedback: During treatment, progress in overcoming the fear of flying is monitored and positive feedback is provided. This builds the person’s confidence and encourages him or her to continue on the path.

It is important to remember that therapy takes time and commitment, and the results can be surprising. In fact, many people who follow a course of therapy are able to overcome their aerophobia and return to air travel with peace of mind.

Preventing and overcoming fear of flying on your own

Some people try to overcome this phobia on their own, with varying degrees of success. It should be noted that if one has not overcome it, the phobia may return at times in life when one is particularly vulnerable or stressed, but this does not mean that we cannot work on ourselves with self-awareness.

In fact, there are some “do-it-yourself” tricks you can use to prevent the phobia from getting worse or to start managing it immediately and on your own. These tricks may not work for everyone, but they are worth a try.

  • Educate yourself: learning more about aircraft operations and aviation safety can help you feel safe and reduce anxiety.
  • Avoid narratives, movies, and TV series that deal dramatically with the topic (aviation disasters); these narratives are often unrealistic but compelling fictions and only fuel phobic beliefs.
  • Identifying the biases behind automatic phobic thoughts: Because airplane crashes are in the news, you may accidentally hear about them on TV and in newspapers. This phenomenon increases risk perception, but it is actually a cognitive bias: it is called the availability heuristic, and it is the tendency of people to base their assessments of the likelihood and frequency of an event on the information that is readily available in their memory. The point is not that there are a lot of plane crashes, but that we are talking about the few that do happen, as opposed to more common and everyday accidents, such as car accidents, that do not make the news.
  • Read self-help books on the subject.
  • Don’t suppress this fear, don’t ignore it.

References

  1. Fly away fear. Overcoming your fear of flying; Elaine Iljon Foreman, Lucas Van Gerwen; Routledge; 2018
  2. Overcoming Fear of Flying: A Combined Approach of Psychopharmacology and Gradual Exposure Therapy;
    Abuso ABV, Hashmi M, Hashmi H, Khoo A, Parsaik A.; Cureus, 2023
  3. The nature and treatment of fear of flying: A controlled investigation; Wendy A. Howard, Shane M. Murphy, J.
    Christopher Clarke; Behavior Therapy, 1983
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scroll to Top