Fear of Flying
Flying anxiety, or the fear of flying, is actually a type of phobia and is part of the spectrum of anxiety disorders. This type of anxiety is linked to the fear of what might happen, as opposed to the fright one would experience in the middle of an actual flight emergency. In other words, people who suffer from a flying phobia will feel threatened even when sitting in an airplane that is on the ground, not moving, and with everything functioning normally.Fear of flying can be anxiety related to and triggered by:
- Loss of control and worries about having a panic/anxiety attack while in flight
- Fear of being in an enclosed space (claustrophobia)
- Worry about turbulence or a fear of heights
- Fear of being exposed to illnesses from other passengers
- Being anxious about sitting in close quarters with other people
- Not understanding the sounds and sensations of flying in an airplane
- Having to depend on an unknown person’s skills and judgement (the pilot’s)
- Fears about possible terrorism
Symptoms of flying anxiety can include:
- Stomach discomfort, nausea
- Dry mouth, flushed or pale face
- Rapid breathing and heart palpitations
- Muscle tension or tremors
- Negative expectations
- Dizziness, sweating, or weakness
The Department of Transportation has concluded that it is 29 times safer to fly in an airplane than to drive or ride in a car, yet most of us use an automobile every day without a second thought. And, even though statistics tell us that air travel is one of the safest forms of transportation, many people still harbor deep fears and anxieties at the thought of getting on a plane.
Did you know, however, that a fear of flying really isn’t about the risks involved in the act of flying? Instead, this anxiety is really more about the sufferer’s loss of control and the awareness of being vulnerable.
Help for Fear of Flying
Avoiding flying will not help: it will only serve to keep your fears intense and alive. The next time you fly, try some of the following to help with your unease:
- Before you fly, try to recognize the signs that your anxiety level is rising and make an attempt to manage it with deep breathing, yoga, or meditation
- If you are on the plane, try relaxation exercises: take a deep breath, lower your shoulders, and unclench your shoulder muscles before letting your breath out. Do this with various areas of your body (relax your hands and legs, relax your facial muscles, relax your abdomen, etc).
- Focus on a peaceful image in your mind. Make it real—for example, if you are picturing yourself on a beach, feel the sun’s warmth on you, hear the cry of the seagulls, taste the sweetness of the fruit you are eating. Focus on the details!
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, feeling your abdomen rise as you do. Exhale through your mouth to a count of 10, pushing out all of the air with your abdomen. Do this 4-5 times while allowing your muscles to relax.
Seeking Professional Help
If your flying anxiety can’t be overcome with relaxation techniques, it might be time to seek the help of a therapist. Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy have been successfully used to reduce the triggers and fears associated with flying.
In Exposure Therapy, the intent is to guide the patient into a more accurate train of thought, so their anxiety system ceases to give misinformation about what may happen during a flight. This type of training is done through example: the patient is repeatedly guided into a situation where they will face their fears and anxieties. Over the course of treatment, they become conditioned to the situation they have feared and it no longer provokes their anxiety.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy helps the patient become aware of their unreasonable thoughts and beliefs so they can view the situation more realistically and react in a healthier way. It helps the person identify and challenge negative or inaccurate thinking so that they can replace the negative thoughts with positive, accurate ones that are more realistic.
With either form of treatment, techniques are taught to help the patient manage anxiety. For example, as mentioned above, diaphragmatic breathing can be learned so it can be used to help calm a person while on a flight. People can also learn to desensitize their bodily sensation triggers so they don’t react to turbulence or the feeling of the plane taking off or landing. Virtual reality programs can be used in a safe environment to educate people on the sounds and sensations they will experience during flight. And, as a last resort, anti-anxiety medications can be used in combination with therapy to help someone manage their fears during a flight.
If you or someone you know is having difficulty traveling due to their fear of flying, we can help! For more information or to talk to a mental health professional about your flying anxiety, contact Dr. Rosen or call The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida at 561-496-1094.
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