Love to travel but hate to fly? You’re not alone. According to research, nearly 1 in 3 Americans is either anxious about flying or afraid to fly (1).
Believing what you imagine can increase your stresses and anxieties related to flying. A little turbulence here or an odd noise there can make the average adult begin the cycle of believing imaginary worst-case scenarios combined with all the symptoms to do with elevated stress hormones surface when you have a fear of flying – body sweats, heart pounding, shortness of breath, the list goes on.
Many turn to alcohol to help them blunt their anxieties on a flight, but this can leave feeling even more out of control and can lead to panic attacks. It’s in understanding the relationship we have with control that makes all the difference on how to cope with fear of flying.
Why are people afraid of flying?
Simply, we become concerned when we’re in a situation we can’t control, particularly when we have no means of escape if things go wrong – it’s human nature. However, a more suitable question to pose toward ourselves would be why do we fear this lack of control and why does not being able to escape make us panic and react negatively?
Our difficulty with control and escape has to do with trust – can we trust another person to have our best interest in mind – which certainly must have a lot to do with past experience, particularly past experience during our formative years, but it also has to do with imagination. We need to consider whether we have imagination or imagination has us.
Psychology anxiety and fear of flying
Peter Fonagy, an authority on developmental psychology, explains that early in life a child has no idea that what is in its mind may not be real (2). Nothing in the mind is real. Everything in the mind is representational. Think of your cellphone's camera. If you aim it at a flower, you can see the flower with your own eyes and at the same time see an image of the flower on the cellphone's screen.
The flower is real. The image on the cellphone's screen is representational. The flower is made up of biological cells. The representation is made of tiny lights that are turned on in various colors by electricity.
A similar process is going on in your brain. The image in your mind is made up electrically. In other words, what is in your mind is not the flower. Your mind produces a representation of the flower.
Fonagy suggests that adults who don't thoroughly appreciate the representational nature of the mind experience distress that others are not troubled by. If I think of an airplane crash, I am fully aware that I am experiencing not a real crash, but a representation of a crash. But a person who mistakes imagination for reality is emotionally impacted by their imagination in ways a person who appreciates the representational nature of the mind is not impacted.
When alarmed by what they imagine, awareness that what they are thinking may not be true vanishes. In the SOAR fear of flying program, we refer to this as "going into your own movie.”
For example, when there is turbulence, the plane drops repeatedly. Each drop triggers the release of stress hormones. Stress hormones, when released, grab our attention. Momentarily, we may even feel alarmed. About 60% of us have mental software that down-regulates alarm to interest, or to curiosity. This down-regulation from hyperarousal to merely arousal takes place so quickly that those who have this software are not even aware of being momentarily hyperaroused. Sometimes, pre-flight anxiety can provide the same surge in cortisol levels which is also worthy of working on to control.
However, the 40% of us who don’t have this down-regulating software stay alarmed. Once stress hormones are released and alarm us, we stay alarmed until the stress hormones burn off – which takes a minute or two. Turbulence is huge problem for people who don’t have down-regulating software because, before one shot of stress hormones can burn off, the plane drops again and releases another shot of stress hormones. The stress hormone level builds up, the ability to separate imagination from reality disappears, and the thought that the plane could fall out of the sky is experienced as the plane falling out of the sky.
This is when, because of lack of down-regulating mental software, our imagination takes over. Instead of having imagination, imagination has us.
This is why people suffer from panic attacks when feeling scared on a plane. When the heart pounds, the thought that this could be a heart attack is experienced as having a heart attack. Or difficulty breathing is experienced as suffocation. Panic results when a person believes they are in a life-threatening situation and no escape from the situation is possible.
How to overcome fear of flying quickly
We can free ourselves from fear of flying and from panic attacks by “installing” the missing mental software. Just as our cellphones stop ringing when we press the button to answer it, when stress hormones cause alarm, we need the feeling of alarm to stop automatically so we can think clearly, and keep imagination from taking over. Here are some steps you can try to help you get over fear of flying:
1. Concentrate on non-threatening things and practice visual exercises. You can use the "5-4-3-2-1 Exercise".
Or, the following anxiety control exercise is from the new book, Panic Free.
Think of a friend you feel physically and emotionally safe with. When you are with them, you unconsciously receive "safety signals" from their face, their voice, and their touch or body language. You can use these safety signals to establish automatic calming.
Every time you sense arousal or alarm, imagine your friend: a. walks into the room, b. comes over to you, and c. gives you a hug. By making the three things that cause calming — face, voice, and touch — come to mind repeatedly, you establish a program that will cause calming each time you get upset.
Let your friend’s presence linger in your mind for a minute or two. You could imagine your friend sitting down with you. You might imagine talking over what triggered you. Hanging out with your friend in this imagined way keeps your calming parasympathetic nervous system active until whatever stress hormones are present burn off.
2. Meet the captain
3. Get noise-canceling headphones
4. Be prepared with books or magazines