Fear of flying is a difficult phobia to treat with conventional therapy techniques. Therapists often attempt to treat this phobia with standard cognitive-behavioral techniques, but run into roadblocks because of realistic obstacles. For example, systematic desensitization runs into problems because nowadays a person can only get to security without a ticket. So a person can’t just build up steps to the flight the way a person can do with, say, going to the high floor of a building in an elevator.
Many therapists also attempt to treat this fear by focusing on relaxation techniques: mindfulness, meditation, etc. These are useful and can be helpful, but are generally not enough on their own when trying to overcome fear of flying.
Some airlines try to help this phobia by offering courses to learn about flying, why it’s safe, and all of the logical components of this issue. But this is rarely, if ever, enough to overcome this fear.
While the professionals referenced above have good intentions, fear of flying is difficult to treat without a multi-faceted approach that specifically focuses on fear of flying itself. In other words, flying phobia requires its own focused approach.
One of the main reasons that fear of flying is separated from other phobias is because of the difficulty feeling grounded when the airplane is flying miles high in the sky. While with other phobias one may feel very much ungrounded, people have a realistic awareness that they are in some way attached to the earth, and therefore feel more in control, in certain ways. It may be scary being in a tall building, but at least on some level there is an awareness that the building you’re standing in is attached to the ground…and that you can leave when ready — as opposed to an airplane, where you’re in it for the duration of the flight once it leaves.
Unfortunately, fear of flying isn’t as simple as helping someone to feel grounded, otherwise a few grounding exercises would do the trick. Grounding is a piece of the puzzle, but there’s much more to it. Flying is so counterintuitive to our natural instincts, that several areas need to be addressed in order for a person to feel relaxed while flying.
The program I facilitate to specifically treat fear of flying focuses on four major areas. 1) Normalization of flying; 2) Education 3) Tools and Techniques (Grounding, Relaxation, and others); 4) Understanding your fear of flying.
These four areas cover the most relevant components that feed the fear of flying. But it’s important to emphasize that they are all important. Leaving out one of the components, or over-emphasizing one or two of them alone, doesn’t tend to work. The reason for this is because each area contributes to the phobia in its own separate way.
Normalization is basically training our brains to understand the normal and routine nature of flying (this is done through different types of simple written and experiential exercises that are modified based on each person’s history). Almost everything in life has risk (many have a greater risk than flying). But the reason we can do these things (such as driving, crossing the street, eating, showing, etc.) without fear is because we’ve done them so much without incident that our brains are trained to understand these routine activities as normal. That’s the aim of normalization with flying — teaching the brain to internalize the routine nature of flying.
Logic and emotion often don’t align, especially not with fear of flying. You can hear about all the odds and statistics in your favor, but somehow still feel panicked about flying. That’s why education about flying rarely works on its own. However, education is still quite necessary as part of the picture because they address “perceived threats.” Perceived threats are basically stories our imaginations make up that scare us. For example, if you think the wing is going to fall off the plane, knowing that the wing is one long piece that extends through the plane can help dispel this perceived threat, and decrease some of the anxiety. Understanding the sounds and sensations, how the plane is staying in the air, what turbulence is about, and other areas of flying, helps a person make sense of the flying environment. Without some education, even a frequent air traveler can feel fearful because the environment doesn’t consciously make sense.
Tools and Techniques
Relaxation and grounding exercises, as well as techniques to create new perceptions of flying can be quite useful when combined with the other components. These apply most to residual anxiety, as well as anticipatory anxiety. Also, certain types of grounding exercises can be helpful for dealing with turbulence, and for helping become grounded within the plane. People who are afraid to fly often try to mentally remove themselves from the plane. This attempt at mental disconnection from the reality often exacerbates anxiety and feelings of ungroundedness and fear. Learning to become present and more grounded within the plane allows a person to connect the mental process with the reality, which can decrease anxiety.
Underlying Issues — Your History
For each person, fear of flying tends to stem from underlying issues. When so many things in life have risk, why is flying — something most people only do occasionally — such a great fear? The underlying can encompass many things: difficulty with trust, feeling out of control, fear of heights, fear of public panic, general fears of mortality, or flying can be a metaphor or symbolic of something else completely (for example, fear of failure). Part of the puzzle is learning about what fear of flying stems from for you, and working to become in touch with these areas in order to decrease (and better place) the emotional impact.
All four components should be addressed simultaneously (as opposed to in a particular order), and are based on each person’s own history. For example, some people may spend more time working on turbulence because there is more underlying or emotional vulnerability in this area, while some may spend more time working on anticipatory anxiety, etc.
Fear of flying is not impossible to overcome, but attempting to conquer fear of flying by only addressing one or two of the components above can actually make it more daunting. I see people via Skype/FaceTime (long distance) as well as in my office for fear of flying coaching, and many start by telling me that they’ve been through therapy for fear of flying before, and they don’t think they can overcome it because they couldn’t resolve it in their previous therapy. As I learn about their previous therapy, it turns out that the approach the therapist used only addressed one or two of the components. When a person can effectively address each of the major areas that feeds fear of flying, it is possible overcome.