Article: Why Do We Have A Fear of Flying?

I’ve been hired by AVO, a website dedicated to solving the fear of flying. AVO provides a real-time, peer-to-peer connection between people with flight anxiety, to experience shared empathy and support to overcome anxiety. I’ll be writing a series of articles that take the reader from the days leading up to the flight through a successful flight and will end with lessons learned over the series and the experience. The article below is the first in the series, and you can visit AVO to see my additional articles as they’re posted.

Why Do We Have A Fear of Flying?

Not being terribly fond of flying isn’t unusual. Air travel isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days when you would show up an hour before your scheduled departure time, take a leisurely stroll to the gate accompanied by the friend or loved one who gave you a ride to the airport and say your unhurried goodbyes as you waited for your flight number to be called.

Now even the simplest trip is an exercise in stress. A short, forty-five-minute hop from Los Angeles to Las Vegas requires arriving a minimum of two-hours before boarding. Quick hugs goodbye are given at the curb before rushing into the terminal to stand in the first of many lines. We’re required to show a valid government ID, to remove various articles of clothing, to be scanned and screened, all while keeping our fingers crossed that we’re not among the unlucky few selected for a more thorough luggage check. Then it’s a sprint to the gate and more anxious waiting, hoping there’s enough of that coveting overhead space left for our carry-on bags.

It’s enough to make anyone nervous.

For many, however, the discomfort goes beyond nerves, and the changes flying has seen. It’s not about the rushing, the waiting, and the rushing again. It’s a legitimate fear of traveling by plane. And it ranges from enduring the entire flight with the armrests in a white-knuckle death-grip to a complete inability to board a plane.

But where does this fear come from? Why are people afraid to fly?

“A lot of it is the lack of control they have in the situation,” explains Todd Farchione, the Director of Boston University’s Intensive Treatment Program for Panic Disorder and Specific Phobias. “When the doors close, they’re in it. They’re stuck. They can’t get out of the situation. I think that’s often what’s most frightening for most people.”

People should know is that they are not alone. At some point, as many as 12.5% of Americans will struggle with a phobia, and fear of flying (aviophobia) is one of the most common. It’s estimated that anywhere from 2.5% to 6.5% of the population struggles with it, and an even greater number of people suffer from fears that don’t reach phobic levels.

The difference between a fear and a phobia is that fear is an emotional reaction to something that is a real threat, or at least the perception of one. For instance, if you’re swimming in the ocean and you see a large shadow pass beneath you in the water that you think is a shark, you will feel fear. This is a natural response. It may turn out that what you saw was a harmless dolphin, but your perception that it was a shark was real. Therefore the perception of a threat was real, and the feeling of fear was valid.

A phobia is like fear with one important difference. The anxiety a person feels about the perceived threat is so intense it disrupts their ability to function. Say that you have a fear of sharks, but that fear is so strong, you’re afraid to go into any body of water. You avoid lakes, rivers, and even swimming pools. At this point, the fear has become irrational because the threat of encountering a shark in a swimming pool does not exist.

A phobia involves powerful feelings of fear that are disproportionate to the amount of danger. Many aviophobics know logically that flying is safe. We understand that statistically, we are much safer in an airplane than we will ever be in a car, yet we find the prospect of flying paralyzing. Although we know our fears are irrational, we cannot reason our way out of them.

A common fear among people with aviophobia is that we will experience overwhelming anxiety while on a flight. We may experience an unexpected panic while flying, becoming terrified that the experience will reoccur on a subsequent flight. These initial panic attacks have typically been recorded between the ages of 17 and 34 around the time of some major life event. This is why we sometimes wonder why we’d once been able to fly with no issues.

As with any fear, the fear of flying has triggers. Triggers are those things to which we’ve become sensitized — images, memories, thoughts, etc. For example, a person who’s become sensitized to movement, say, someone who’s had a bad experience with an earthquake, may fear turbulence. Someone who fears heights might be afraid of being so high of the ground, while someone who doesn’t deal well with confined areas might panic at the thought of the small areas of personal space afforded on planes these days.

A trigger can be just about anything: getting sick from breathing recirculated air, getting trapped in the restroom, sitting next to a stranger, sitting next to a window, not sitting next to a window, taking off, landing or being hijacked. Some people fear that a flight which is too full predicts a crash, while others feel a flight which is not full enough predicts the same. Some feel their very anxieties will somehow instigate a catastrophe.

And, of course, there are the many who just have a “bad feeling” about the flight. Barbara Rothbaum, Professor in Psychiatry and Director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University School of Medicine, says she recalls patients who didn’t get on a flight because they had a premonition that something bad would happen.

“I try to explain it wasn’t a premonition; it was anticipatory anxiety,” Rothbaum said.

With all of these triggers, you may think that the biggest and most obvious one is fear of crashing. And you might be right, depending on who you talk to.

In 2009, Rothbaum said of the Air France Flight 447 crash over the Atlantic ocean, that fearful fliers look at that incident and “don’t pay attention to other statistics.”  Rothaum reported that roughly 25 million American have some degree of fear of flying, from nervousness to aviophobia. And, of that 25 million, about half are afraid of plane crashes.

But Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, seems to disagree. In a 2014 Washington Post article, Seif said, “The most common person who’s afraid of flying is someone who’s claustrophobic.”

Now, the difference might come down to the fact that Rothbaum’s group of fearful fliers includes a broader range of people, from those with the slightest trepidation about stepping on board to those who simply will not step on board; while Seif may only be referring to people with diagnosed anxiety disorders.

It wouldn’t seem unusual to see an uptick in nervousness about flying after a commercial plane crash, considering the way these incidents are sensationalized in the media. The reports seem almost designed to stir up our fears about flight safety. What’s often ignored by the media are the truly sensational numbers. Like the fact that in 2014, 992 people globally died flying vs 1.24 million ground related fatalities reported annually. Hopefully, that won’t trigger a fear of driving in anyone.

So, if we know that statistically and logically, flying is the safest way to travel, and we know what our triggers are, why can’t we just not be afraid?

According to a report in Psychology Today, “fearful fliers have a tendency to believe what is going on in their mind is exactly what is going on around them.” This does not mean that aviophobics spend the entire flight hallucinating, or that we’re unable to differentiate reality from fantasy.

It means that when we are fearful, our minds are flooded with stress hormones and have a tendency to run with negative and frightening thoughts. So what’s really going on around us is a perfectly normal flight, with all the perfectly normal airplane sound, turbulence, flight crew activity, and passenger chatter. But, when our brain is saturated with stress hormones and running away with these thoughts, what we hear and see is engine trouble, something wrong with the wings, an anxious flight crew and frightened passengers.

Determining whether what you’re seeing and hearing is real or a product of your worried imagination is important and it’s where the practice of Mindfulness comes in, which we’ll get to in a later article. Mindfulness can help keep you soothed, centered and grounded in reality.

People who don’t suffer from an intense fear can’t understand what it’s like. They may tell you that flying is safe and to just get over it. But, you know better than anyone that if you could just get over it, you would have done that a long time ago. That’s why we’ll be offering a series of articles that will, at best make you more comfortable with flying, or at least help you better understand your discomfort so you can seek the help you need to overcome your fears.