In Part 1, I discussed what’s behind a fear of flying. We identified that, in order to fly comfortably, we need to be able to develop awareness and process the underlying emotions contribute to reinforcing this fear, soothe emotional and physical symptoms triggered by fear, and resolve the perceived threats that drive the fear. When not addressed, these components tend to feed off of each other, and can make our flight experience cognitively, physically, and emotionally quite uncomfortable. In essence, this is the fear of flying.
More than a decade ago, I designed a comprehensive and personalized method to directly address these areas of fear of flying. This method is rooted in psychology and utilizes a variety of techniques integrated with passenger flying education, with the goal of transforming our overall flying experience. If you look around the internet, almost all of the courses and methods that are meant to address fear of flying are not personalized — they are blanket approaches meant for everyone to use, no matter their background. I have seen people countless times who have tried those blanket methods and come to me saying they haven’t been helpful. Everyone’s fear of flying experience is different and comes from a different underlying place, and therefore needs an approach that can meet you where you are.
One of the components that sets this method apart from a strictly therapy-based approach is the inclusion of passenger flying education. In order to conquer the perceived threats, it is necessary that part of the process is to understand our flying environment. If you think you’re locked in a room with a tiger, wouldn’t it be nice to simply know that you’re only in a room with a cat, rather than having to cope with unnecessary fear? So in order to soothe our perceived threats and help prevent unnecessary fear, we need to help align our perceptions of our environment with reality. While this doesn’t do the job on its own, it is a necessary part of the process to understand our surrounding environment without our imagination running away with misaligned cues. Here’s one example of this:
Environmental Myth: Shortly after takeoff, I feel the plane sinking.
People often ask about the “sinking” sensation that happens shortly after takeoff. The truth is that airplanes require more power to takeoff than they do to climb. So after the plane is in the air for about 30 seconds, the amount of thrust (speed) is reduced. This reduction of thrust is physiologically experienced as a sinking feeling, however the plane is actually still climbing.
Relaxation Myth: Breathing exercises won’t help me when I’m scared on a plane.
Understandably, it can be hard for people to believe how much something as simple as breathing can help to settle our nerves. Breathing regulation is very important to cognitive, physical, and emotional relaxation. As part of our “fight or flight” response, anxiety and fear causes our breathing to become shallow and rapid (physiologically preparing ourselves to engage in battle, or run). If we regulate our breathing, we create the physiological atmosphere for overall relaxation. Meditation is based on the principle that it’s not possible to feel two conflicting states of emotion simultaneously — we can’t feel fear if we feel relaxed. So, while breathing exercises are not a cure on their own, they can be a helpful technique to help soothe ourselves approaching and even during a flight.
Emotional Myth: My anxiety and fear will never go away as long as I’m on a plane.
Believe it or not, this also isn’t true. I have seen many people overcome their fears and fly comfortably. While fear of flying is an incredibly complicated phobia, with an approach that addresses your emotional needs as well as the various internal avenues that reinforce our anxieties, it is possible to soothe our fears of sitting in unknown and vulnerable spaces. Not only have the vast majority of people I’ve worked with benefitted from reduced anxiety or become completely comfortable to travel, some have even found this approach to make flying enjoyable and exciting, looking forward to flying each time now, even after decades of previously not getting on a plane.
Normalization Myth: I’m lucky to be alive when I walk off a plane.
This is not true either, however people who fear flying often feel that their air travel survival was purely luck. This highlights another important element of overcoming fear of flying: “normalization”. One of the reasons that people fear flying is because they do it so rarely (if at all). Generally, when people aren’t flying, they’re completely removed from the atmosphere of flying which deprives your mind and emotions from the reinforcement it needs to integrate flying as normal. This creates the psychological and emotional misconception that flying only happens “once in a while”. However, flying is as normal and routine as getting up and going to work every day. Part of the process in conquering a fear of flying is internalizing the routine nature of flying.
As we can see from the discussion above, it is necessary to use a combination of methods, rather than a singular approach, to resolve the components that cause fear of flying. With this approach to create and internal and external environment for comfort and relaxation, and maybe even enjoyment in our flying experience.