Fear of Flying: A Complicated Phobia

Southwest_Airlines_CabinPhobias in general are not fun to deal with, especially if the phobia involves your daily life in some way. For example if you work in a building where you have to take the elevator, but fear elevators; or have to take the subway to work and fear of the subway. But for some reason, the treatments that tend to work for phobias on the ground don’t tend to work as well for fear of flying.

Fear of flying is a complicated phobia. There are a few reasons this phobia is often much more difficult to resolve than other phobias. First, there’s the whole being miles high in the sky thing, which, no matter how safe it might be, is nearly impossible for many people to wrap their heads around how it could possibly be safe.

Also, flying is something that people tend to do only once in a while, unless their jobs require frequent travel. Because of this, there’s less opportunity to overcome the fear, and it remains dissociated in the brain as something not normal to daily life, regardless of how routine flying actually is. This increases the anxiety about flying. Driving is much less safe than flying, but the reason people tend to generally drive without fear is because it’s something they do every day, and the brain has internalized it as normal and safe. This is the aim of normalizing flying.

The combination of these two areas makes fear of flying difficult to treat with most conventional methods of treatment phobias. This is because, even if you resolve one of those components above, the others often still exists. This means that some people can fly on a daily basis, making it very “normal” to the brain, yet if they don’t understand how flying works, they may still experience significant anxiety and fear because they think they just get lucky every day when they make it alive.

I used to have my own fear of flying. A pretty bad case of it at one point. Using my education and experience as a psychotherapist, and my knowledge of aviation, as somewhat of an enthusiast, I created a method — the Balanced Flying Method — based on the principles that if a person is going to overcome a fear of flying, it has to be both normalized by the brain, and the person has to know what’s going on, from a passenger point of view (sounds, sensations, a bit about how flying works, etc.). They have to have answers to their questions, not just fly a lot or go through desensitization.

Of course, it’s not completely as simple as that, but those are the two primary principles of this approach. It is still necessary to learn how to regulate our emotions and our minds (and active imaginations that take over when feeling fearful). The problem is that many therapists approach fear of flying primarily in this area and don’t include the top two areas in any way. This is the mistake many approaches make. Regulation is important and helpful as part of the process, but it doesn’t resolve the issue on its own.

The last element is the underlying. What’s happening that creates the fear of flying for you? Why is it possible to be confident in other areas of life, yet be so fearful of flying? A fear of flying often encompasses a range of other phobias within it. For example: fear of heights, fear of falling, claustrophobia, loss of control, fear of embarrassment, fear of illness, etc. This just adds to what is already a complex phobia. The underlying elements are different for each person, and uncovering this is also important in resolving this fear.

All of this is what makes fear of flying such a unique phobia to treat. It requires a multifaceted approach, otherwise it comes up short. The four prongs to this method I described above (normalization, passenger flying education, emotional/cognitive regulation, underlying psychological elements) are weaved together through various kinds of exercises and conversations to treat this fear.

This approach is created in a way that it’s flexible to be tailored to each person’s needs (for example, some people fear takeoff the most, and we may spend more time on this area, or certain underlying elements surface and we work more here for a time. Or spend less time in areas that aren’t problematic. Etc.). All that’s needed to do this is a willingness and interest to do some worksheets and exercises, and a curiosity to learn and talk about yourself.

Contact me if you are interested to learn more. The Balanced Flying Method is open to people locally in NYC and long-distance online.



6 thoughts on “Fear of Flying: A Complicated Phobia

  1. Thanks for the explanation. I used to have full-blown panic attacks while flying and driving on the highway. I was probably anxious with a few other things too but flying and the highway just gave me full-blown panic attacks. I finally decided to look for help after I was seriously considering quitting my job. I tried a panic attack program after reading a review on feelgoodreviews.com and after very slow progress I’m happy to say I don’t have any problems anymore.

    However, the fear of flying still exists. I found it easy to make small steps with driving because I did it so often but when it comes to flying I juts don’t know how to “practice” if I don’t fly that often. Never to be exact. Still, I’m committed to get over this because at the moment it’s so bad that I still refuse to go on holidays (actually skipped two holidays) with the familiy if flying is involved.

    1. Hi Robin,

      Thank you for reading and for your comment. This program is designed to create normalization without having to fly all the time in order to achieve it. Feel free to send me a direct email or call if you’re interested in this.


  2. This is wonderful article, I’m suffer from fear of flying for many years, I have tried many courses & books to get over it, My advice is to improve the aviation knowledge by reading all about this subject.

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