Feature Archive

Conquer Your Fear of Flying -- for Good

Is your fear of flying keeping you grounded? Experts have tips to make flying the friendly skies less scary.

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Are you anxious about getting on a plane these days? You're not alone but, say both mental health and aviation experts, a little knowledge will go a long way towards calming those fears of flying.

With Sept. 11 images etched in our memories, travelers have terrorists on their minds, says David G. Myers, PhD, a social psychologist at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and author of Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. "I'm going Greyhound rather than fly to California," Myers' cousin told him. "Al Qaeda's not so likely to target a bus." Others, also fearing the worst, says Myers, elect to drive rather than fly.

But these fears are often out of sync with the facts, Myers says, pointing out that the National Safety Council reports that in the last half of the 1990s, Americans were, mile for mile, 37 times more likely to die in a vehicle crash than on a commercial flight. In 2001, Myers calculated that if -- because of Sept. 11 -- we flew 20% less, and instead drove half those unflown miles, about 800 more people would die in traffic accidents in the next year. In fact, says Myers, a German psychologist by the name of Gerd Gigerenzer did indeed find that in the last three months of 2001, there were 350 more U.S. traffic fatalities than the average for those months in the previous five years.

"Flying may be scary, but driving the same distance should be many times scarier," says Myers.

Captain Ron Nielsen, an America West pilot based in Phoenix, who also teaches classes to fearful flyers both in person, and soon through teleclasses and a DVD, also stresses that flying is our safest mode of transportation.

Coping With Your Fear of Flying

Most people who are afraid of flying are most anxious about take-offs, turbulence, and aborted landings, says Nielsen, who advises a three-step approach to coping with a fear of flying:

  1. Educate yourself. When we don't have enough information, we project what we do know on to what we don't know, says Nielsen. "We tend to assume that because we know how to drive a car, we know what is happening in a plane." For most of us, that's just not true. That doesn't mean you need to learn to fly, but it will help to learn how an aircraft is constructed, how it actually takes off, stays in the air, and lands, and how much training is required of the pilot. "One of the reasons flying is as safe as it is, is because of all the regulations and monitoring," says Nielsen.
  2. Distract yourself. Nielsen, who developed Chicken Soup for the Soul Presents the Fearless Flightkit: The Remedy for the Fearful Flyer, created a flight CD that uses a combination of prose, poetry, and music to distract listeners. You can create your own CD to be used just for flights, or bring along a favorite musical CD or audiobook.
  3. Share your fears. "Don't keep your fear of flying a secret," says Nielsen. A fear of flying is often a fear of embarrassment, perhaps that you're going to lose control of your emotions on the plane. "Don't suffer in silence." Of course, it's probably wise to use some discretion about whom you share your fears with. "You don't want someone who's going to slap you and tell you to get over it," Nielsen says. "That just won't do it."

John McGrail, C.Ht, a clinical hypnotherapist and former airline pilot himself, gives his clients a simple relaxation exercise to alleviate their discomfort on a plane. To calm preflight jitters, he says, close your eyes and take slow, deep breaths while visualizing a smooth, safe flight. Sometimes replaying an easy flight from the past can be a perfect image, McGrail says. For any subsequent jitters, just repeat the exercise. "The more one does it, the more effective it is," says McGrail.

New Approaches to Conquering Phobias

If your fear is more deep-seated, to the point where you avoid flying at all costs, hypnotherapy is an effective tool. It works by re-sensitizing your response to an environmental trigger in order to bring about a different behavioral response -- in this case, instead of panic, one of calm and confidence. Hypnotherapy can often work in as little as two or three sessions, and once treated, the fear of flying usually won't come back, McGrail says.

Several new "power therapies" are also effective in helping people to quickly overcome phobias, including the fear of flying, says Daphne Stevens, PhD, LCSW. Thought field therapy, for example, uses the systematic tapping of acupuncture points, and is effective in reducing fear and anxiety. This therapy uses key points, in specific sequences, to eliminate negative thought from the mind and the body's energy system. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an approach that uses directed eye movements to desensitize fears and traumatic memories.