Fear of flying (or flying anxiety, flying phobia) is a difficult fear for many to kick. It has a way of paralyzing people into long-term avoidance of flying or into crippling levels of anxiety, ranging from panic attacks to complete shut down when faced with flying. Even the mere thought of flying for some can trigger anxiety and panic on its own. But, why is fear of flying often so difficult for people to overcome?
Too many approaches that miss…
There are many attempts at helping people resolve fear of flying out there. “Attempts” being the key word. The problem? Most are not as effective as people would hope. The people who come to me to help them overcome fear of flying have often tried many of these other approaches first, including methods that are claimed to be “scientifically proven” that still don’t help. There are lots of courses out there that offer to teach people all about flying and then take them up for an airplane ride at the end of the course. These are tempting and interesting courses, but mostly misses the point of fear of flying. This type of course only addresses one small layer of fear of flying — the conscious component, which is generally the smallest of the layers that needs to be addressed. It’s not that these courses are unhelpful, it’s that they don’t do nearly enough.
The conscious component of fear of flying is the stuff that you have in the front of your mind, that you think about. For example, if you think that the wing is going to fall off the of plane because you see it bobbing up and down outside of your window, that’s going to cause a significant amount of anxiety. If you know that there are reasons the wing is built to bob up and down, then it may reduce your anxiety to challenge the conscious thoughts with more accurate information. Less perceived threats, less anxiety. So the concept of that approach makes some logical sense.
However, the vast majority of flying anxiety for people isn’t about logic. It’s emotional. This means that information placed into the front of your mind is unlikely to help more than a little bit. This is because the “back” of the mind, the subconscious, tends to contribute most of the fuel for fear of flying. To illustrate this — you do many risky things every day, such as driving. But you don’t panic before driving because your brain is so normalized to the experience that it doesn’t subconsciously react to the idea of driving. The front of your mind may be fully aware of the high risk of driving, but the back of your mind has been normalized to it. So you get into your car a remain calm despite the knowledge of risk.
With flying, people generally don’t fly enough for the brain to become as normalized to it. So even if they consciously know facts and stats about the low risk of flying, it doesn’t stop the subconscious brain from reacting to the idea of flying.
Why is it significant that fear of flying is emotional?
The first major reason is described above, that you can’t logic your way out of emotions. Stats and information may offer a momentary “okay, that’s good to know”, feeling, but it doesn’t suddenly make someone ready to jump on a plane. Anxiety and fear about flying in planes is generally deeper and larger than the flying, itself (which is why many people who fear flying don’t feel anxious about the idea of flying if they could do it 50 feet off of the ground instead of 36,000 feet).
For everyone, these underlying anxieties (and the manifestations of these anxieties) that cause the reactions in the unnormalized flying brain are different. The root and trigger of fear of flying is actually not the same for each person. This is a big part of why this phobia is often difficult to resolve. Because most approaches to treating this issue apply a one size fits all idea and don’t consider each person from their own point of psychological and emotional reference.
However, it’s not quite as simple as just finding and resolving the major underlying anxieties, this is just one piece of the fear of flying puzzle.
Another reason fear of flying is so complicated is because many people have experienced a “reverse normalization” of flying. This is basically internalizing the idea that flying is more dangerous and risky than otherwise. This often happens because of taking in too much triggering information from the outside — such as the way flying is depicted in TV, movies, media, or otherwise. When taking in countless images that show flying to be scary and dangerous, that’s what we internalize. This is magnified because most people don’t fly enough to counter this information in the brain.
Therefore, a major component of overcoming fear of flying is helping the subconscious brain to internalize actual normalization — helping the brain to internalize the routine nature of air travel. And while this is a major piece, it’s worth mentioning that certain deeper anxieties (as mentioned above) can actually block the normalization process. This is the reason that there are people out there who fly constantly for work, yet still fear it. There is something else being triggered, and no matter how many times they fly, they continue to feel as if they just got lucky each time. It’s not hopeless if you’re one of these people. It just needs to be addressed in a way that acknowledges and understands that this is happening, rather than just trying to more aggressively shove a blanket method through that wall.
The Balanced Flying Method
Understanding the major components that are significant in the fear of flying picture, I designed a method about a decade ago as part of my therapy and coaching practice (there are many articles about it around the internet if you wish to learn more). It is created to address the major components that fuel fear of flying while actually considering how you (each individual person) respond to flying and anxiety, the ways that the fears manifest for you, both outwardly and on a deeper internal level, and is then applied to help you normalize the experience of flying.
It has been highly successful for people for a few reasons. First, because the method comprehensively addresses all of the relevant openings to fear of flying, and secondly, because it isn’t a blanket approach. The basic structure of the method is consistent, but each component is applied within the context of each person’s emotional makeup — meaning that it is applied differently for each person based on them. It is the weaving of the person with the method that had made this so effective for people.
When other approaches out there claim that theirs is the “best” one out there, and then asks you to purchase videos or books, or otherwise so you can learn a bunch of exercises and facts, there is no way it can possibly take into consideration who you are and what is actually being activated in you when it comes to flying. The roadmap to your fear (and therefore, how to address it) is with you.
I only work with people individually (I see people long-distance via online coaching for fear of flying work), which ensures that I learn directly about you and can respond to what you need before applying the techniques of the method. If you’re going to try other approaches, I would recommend two things: make sure that your own life context and emotional process lend to making the decisions in applying the method you have chosen; and, to believe in the method you have chosen.