Fear of flying is a very common issue. Many people experience it, and many of these people will be the first to tell you that fear of flying robs them of their freedom. It keeps them from seeing family long distance, from traveling for vacations, from pursuing career goals that may involve travel, from moving somewhere far away, from attending major life events for family and friends, and so on. And when anxious flyers are able to fly, albeit with intense anxiety, obsessing about the upcoming flights often intrudes on the ability to enjoy the vacation or the events at the destination.
As a psychotherapist, I’ve worked with many people on their fear of flying using the combination method I created — the Balanced Flying Method. It is a comprehensive approach that treats fear of flying by addressing the main relevant psychological and emotional components involved in feeding this fear. (Here are a few links to how I work with fear of flying if you’d like to learn more: A Complicated Phobia; A Focused Approach; Podcast). Without getting into all of the details of the method itself in this particular post, one of the most significant pieces of this approach is “normalization”.
In most basic terms, “normalization” is what allows us to do everything we do in our daily lives without us becoming overwhelmed with panic due to risks we face every day. For example, driving, eating, walking, swimming, showering — and more. All of these things could be harmful to us in their worst moments. However, the reason we generally don’t fear these things is because our brains are so used to experiencing them safely that these experiences have become “normalized”. The brain understands the things we do regularly as routine, and therefore doesn’t cause a panic whenever we do one of these routine things.
However, with flying, most people don’t experience flying on a regular basis enough for the brain to adapt to it. There is little to no chance for the brain to become normalized to flying (though this isn’t the only issue that makes flying tough, it’s a major one). So when faced with the idea of flying, we react emotionally to the perceived danger, no matter how routine it really is.
However, making this issue significantly worse is the role of reverse normalization.
What is reverse normalization?
As noted above, many people have very infrequent exposure to flying. At the same time, however, many people are quite often exposed to news stories, tv shows, and movies that all commonly depict flying as something scary. How often in a movie or tv show does an airplane scene turn into something scary? Maybe not every single time, but far more frequently than reality. With entertainment, writers can create whichever kind of scene they want for a show or movie. They can create as many scary airplane stories as they want and make them look very real.
And with news stories, how often do you seen news stories that show airplanes as scary, even when nothing bad happens? We see stories of planes being diverted to other airports, scary turbulence stories, planes making an emergency landing because an oil light went on, people being kicked off of planes, people fighting in a plane, someone getting detained on a plane for causing a scene. Sure, nothing too positive. But these stories make headlines even though they all land safely, and were really never in danger of not landing safely.
Reverse normalization is the result of these news stories and fictitious entertainment stories. (Reverse normalization is also reinforced by hearing other people talk about flying as scary, which validates your own fears). We see many more negative associations to airplanes in regular daily life than most people are able to experience the routine nature of air travel. So what happens is, the brain actually normalizes the danger of flying rather than the safety. This means the brain learns that the danger is the norm, and safety is the exception. Even if this process is not accurate to reality, this is what the brain has absorbed by taking in all of the negative information that is available to be absorbed on a routine basis.
Just imagine, if there was an app or a channel that was dedicated to 24-hours, 7 days per week of watching airplanes land, not only would they probably not be able to fit all the landings into a watchable frame of time, but people would be so bored by it that they’d shut it off after five minutes. On the flip-side, there are full length shows dedicated to scary airplane themes that people will watch for a full hour. When the brain normalizes something, people become indifferent to it (which is what allows us to function). When it’s not normalized and there is fear, people watch and pay attention, subconsciously looking for information to protect them and keep them safe, or looking to validate their fears and avoidance. But unfortunately, all it really ends up doing is reinforcing the fear.
Part of what I do with the Balanced Flying Method is to re-route the normalization back to the safety and routine side through various exercises (this is one of the components of the method). It is possible to do this, and it has been very effective for people. One suggestion I can give here is to hold reality in mind when you see a scary airplane story in media or entertainment. Try not to get too drawn in.
Check out the links above if you want to learn about the other elements that have to be addressed as well. Either way, it is important to learn how to handle and correct reverse normalization as part of overcoming fear of flying.