Fear of Flying

Special for my two friends who are afraid to fly! 🙂

Flying is generally considered to be one of the safest forms of public transportation currently available in the United States. Statistics compiled by the Department of Transportation have led to the conclusion that airline travel is 29 times safer than driving an automobile.

The problem with the above statistics is that they do not stop people
from being afraid of flying.

Statistics do not help because the fear of flying actually has little to do with risk as such. If the fear of flying were actually caused by the potential for an accident, then everyone who fears to fly would be even more afraid—29 times more afraid, to be statistically exact—to drive or ride in an automobile. But that is clearly not the case.

Anyone who flies—even someone not afraid of flying—understands that there is always some chance of an accident, just as with any life activity. Relatively few accidents happen in aviation because pilots are specifically trained to stay calm and to think clearly in an emergency—and they are trained to handle just about every emergency imaginable.

But, without their own specialized training, many passengers sit in the cabin worrying about the dangers of flight. Despite the safety statistics, they become disabled by fear and experience the psychological symptoms that make flying a misery.

If you carefully read the information on this webpage, you will learn that, although the fear of flying isn’t really about the risks inherent in aviation, it is based in the uncomfortable awareness that life is fragile and vulnerable, and that none of us—much like the man in the fictitious opening story—has any real control over it, whether in the air or on the ground.

Because we were not designed to fly like birds, whenever we get into a “flying machine” we have to confront our deepest fears of human vulnerability. It’s not so much that flying is “unnatural,” but that in finding ourselves way up in the sky, sealed in a machine, we can hear our deepest whisperings of vulnerability more clearly than anywhere else.

Still, even though none of us is ever “in control” of anything, we can learn to be psychologically in command of our thoughts and feelings—and trust in something greater than ourselves—more than we think.

Continue reading, therefore, to experience your own “specialized training” in flying without anxiety.

Technically, the fear of flying is a Specific Phobia, one of several kinds of Anxiety Disorders. As an anxiety, the “fear” of flying is more concerned with what might happen than with what actually is happening.

If, for   example, you were sitting in a plane with smoke coming out of the engines   while the captain was trying to make an emergency landing, there would be a   clear and present danger, and anyone would be afraid. But if you were sitting   in a plane with all systems functioning normally and you felt afraid that   something threatening could   happen, that would be anxiety.

The fear of flying has many components, not all of which are specific to flight itself. Some of these components are anxieties about:

Enclosed spaces, Crowded conditions, Sitting in hot, stale air; Being required to wait passively; Not understanding the reasons for all the strange actions, sounds, and sensations occurring around you; Worrying about the dangers of turbulence; Being dependent on unknown mechanical things to maintain your safety; Being dependent on an unknown pilot’s judgment Not feeling in “control”; The possibility of terrorism.

If your fear of flying   derives from a past trauma   or accident, you might consider a consultation with a psychologist   specifically to resolve those “underlying” issues. You might also be   interested in Wings   of Light, an organization formed as a support and information   network for persons whose lives have been touched by aircraft accidents.

No one can be in control of his or her future, and so anyone who worries unnecessarily about the future will cause physical and emotional reactions just as if something dangerous really were happening.

Generally, people who experience a fear of flying report two basic kinds of symptoms.

Physiologicalreactions to fear and stress include: Muscle tension; tremors; Heavy, labored breathing; Heart palpitations; chest pain; Abdominal and intestinal discomfort; Sweating, weakness, dizziness, prickly sensations,   dry mouth, flushed or pale face.

Psychological symptoms include: Impaired memory; Narrowed perceptions; Poor or clouded judgment; Negative expectancies; Perseverative thinking.


Clearly, the fear of flying can be associated with many different symptoms. You might even experience some of these symptoms in situations other than flying and not be nearly as incapacitated as when you are flying in an airplane.

In fact, this is the key to the whole problem. In other situations, you have much more freedom to change things. If it’s stuffy in a car, you can open a window. You can talk to the driver. You might be the driver. Even riding in a bus or train is usually less troubling than flying.

The reality is that flying can feel like being trapped—trapped in the airplane until it lands.

And so it might be said that your symptoms are your “out-of-control” reactions to feeling trapped and out of control.

A person who has overcome the fear of flying still knows that anything could go wrong with the flight—just as someone driving a car surely knows that an accident could happen at any time. What this person has overcome, therefore, is the escalating spiral of ever-worsening symptoms triggered by one or more of the anxiety-provoking components of airplane flight.


So, as strange as it might sound, even an adult’s fear of flying may have nothing to do with flying per se. Consider the following case vignette.

A 32   year old woman calls the office, leaving a message in which she requests   treatment for fear of flying. She says that the last time she had to fly she   couldn’t board the plane, and she was such a nervous wreck that her husband   had to drive her home. She now has recurring fantasies that she is on a plane   which crashes.

When you   call her back and request more information, she says that the last flight on   which she flew encountered turbulence. One of the male flight   attendants was injured by a beverage cart, and one of the female flight   attendants who came to his aid started crying. The woman mentions that when   she told this to her husband after the flight, he was not very sympathetic   and they had an argument.

You ask   if she can remember exactly what her husband said that was “not sympathetic.”   She hesitates, then replies that he told her, “Oh, the flight attendant was   just upset because the two of them were probably having an affair.”

You then   ask for some general information about recent events in the woman’s life. She   replies that she and her husband were married two years ago. For the last   year they have been trying to have a baby. About six months ago the woman   received a job promotion which required her to fly frequently across the   country. She adds that she had no trouble making any of these flights until   the problem with the turbulence.

Although this case is fictitious, there are several clinical possibilities that can be considered.

The woman is ambivalent   about her job promotion and fears that it might affect her marriage, and so   the fear of flying symptoms serve unconsciously   to prevent her from fulfilling the duties of her new job and call into   question the promotion itself.
The woman is afraid that   her husband may be dissatisfied with the marriage and may be having an   affair—or thinking of having one—and so the fear of flying symptoms keep the   woman at home near her husband.
The woman is afraid of not   being able to have a baby, and the thoughts of a plane crash may be an   unconscious expression of her fear that she will die childless.
The woman may be feeling   hurt by her husband’s behavior, for any of the reasons above, or for other   reasons. But, because she cannot acknowledge the full extent of her angry   response to feeling insulted, abandoned, and helpless, and because   she may even feel guilty for having thoughts and feelings of revenge, she   visualizes the plane crashing as an expression of an unconscious desire to   punish her husband—or herself.

Any—or all—of these possibilities could be an explanation of the fear of flying symptoms. And none of them has anything to do with flying itself.

Therefore, if you have a fear of flying, before seeking treatment you might want to ask yourself several questions (along the lines of the vignette presented above):

1. What exactly were the   circumstances of the flight on which the fear of flying symptoms first   appeared?

 Why were you flying?

What happened just before the flight?

What happened during the flight?

What happened just after the flight?

2. What was happening in your life before the fear of flying symptoms   developed?

Did you experience any major life changes before the fear of flying symptoms   developed?

Did anything happen that left you feeling uncertain or conflicted before the   fear of flying symptoms developed?

Had anyone done anything to you that had left you feeling emotionally hurt   and angry before the fear of flying symptoms   developed?

3. What exactly might a fear   of flying prevent you from doing?

How do you really feel about not doing it?

Maybe you don’t really want to do it. Or maybe you feel guilty about doing it

Who knows? You might end up in treatment for something other than fear of flying, or you might be able to solve the problem yourself without professional help.


Considering all that has been said on this page, treatment for the fear of flying can take several forms.

You might simply need   factual information about principles of flight and flight safety, such   as turbulence. You can begin by reading my page Principles of Aircraft Flight. You can   also get similar information for free from other websites, or you could buy   any number of online courses, or you could participate in a group fear of   flying program offered through airlines. For more information about these   alternatives, see my page Fear   of Flying Treatment, and its Additional Resources section.
If information alone is   not sufficient, then you might want to treat the symptoms of your fear   of flying by changing your negative thinking or by learning a   relaxation technique. I offer two free self-help training courses on this   website, one in Progressive Muscle Relaxation and the   other in Autogenics.
If a basic symptomatic   treatment is not sufficient, then you might want to try exploring the psychodynamic   aspects of your anxiety, as outlined in the section above called Other Issues to Consider.
If a basic symptomatic   treatment is not sufficient, and if your own psychodynamic exploration does   not help you, then you might want to add a more clinical approach. You   can follow the free self-help treatment guidelines I offer for Systematic Desensitization, or you can consult with a   psychologist or other mental health professional for treatment of a phobia, or you can seek treatment to help   you better understand your emotional life.
Finally, if your anxiety   is based in an existential fear of death more than an anxiety about   flying, you might want to consider the idea of spiritual   healing.

By : Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
San Francisco

For more information check this http://www.guidetopsychology.com/fearfly.htm


5 thoughts on “Fear of Flying

  1. Thank you for sharing this post by Dr. Richmond. Anxiety and panic attacks are the daily enemies of several of my friends here where I now reside. A lot of these syndromes have their origin in bullying and ridicule of these individuals as very young children. It is much more comfortable to lable the panic and anxiety as “fear of flying”, “fear of spiders”,”fear of snakes”, etc. than to bring even partially to the surface the actual cause of the fear. Spiritual healing is ALWAYS needed by these individuals, as it is by all of us “bent” humans, as Charles Williams described us in his sciencefiction space allegories.


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