Don’t Let the Fear of Flying Ground You
More Americans will travel the skies this summer than ever before, an aviation trade group said in a recent study. Airlines for America said it expects nearly 260 million travelers will fly U.S. airlines this summer. Even with those statistics, as many as 25 percent of all Americans suffer some nervousness about flying and remain grounded due to fear.
The most extreme suffers have a condition called Aviaphobia, where the mere thought of air travel causes them to shudder. How can people break this cycle and see the skies as “friendly?” We turned to NYC neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez.
How to ease your fears before you book a ticket
Develop some knowledge of flying — Read a book called, Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel by Patrick Smith. People are afraid when they don’t understand what is happening to the plane and why. What do certain noises mean? Why do the wings flap in flight? Can turbulence cause the plane to crash? What is wind shear, and can it really rip the wings off a plane? How does a plane get off the ground? Why does the plane sometimes bump, jig and turn at a high angle during climb out? Flying is statistically the safest form of transportation. It is far more mysterious to most than driving a car. By educating yourself through a consumer-friendly book written by a pilot, this will help to ease your fear and take some of your power back.
Cognitive behavioral therapy — This is a form of therapy, also known as CBT. If you change your thoughts, you can change your response and behavior. Addressing general anxiety can reduce the intensity during triggering moments, like being on a plane. The therapist may suggest exposure therapy, where your first assignment is to drive to the airport and walk into the terminal. The second assignment might be to take the shortest flight possible from your home with a trusted friend or loved one. The third time might involve a longer flight alone until the fear is de-escalated and flying begins to feel “normal.” This type of “practice” is known as exposure therapy.
Attend a fear of flying clinic — There are online courses such as the Fear of Flying Help Course. There are also more tactile in-person groups such the Fear of Flying Clinic. The Fear of Flying Clinic has provided intensive therapy to familiarize anxious travelers with the airborne experience. Founded in 1976 and based at San Francisco International Airport, the Fear of Flying Clinic includes 24 hours of instruction spread over two weekends. It involves a licensed behavioral therapist to teach coping mechanisms, as well as lectures from airline pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and air traffic controllers. Participants also familiarize themselves with the cockpit, control tower and maintenance facility.
Hypnotherapy — Like any phobia, a fear of flying is rooted in your subconscious. You may have had a traumatic experience, watched a plane crash or saw a movie that disturbed you. Whatever the cause, your mind is trying to protect you. It thinks that flying is dangerous. Thus, fear is created to warn you away from flying. To conquer your fear, you must address it. Hypnosis finds out what triggers that fear in your subconscious. Over time, a hypnotist helps to reprogram the mind so that you are no longer afraid. Your mind relearns positive truths about flying. As a result, you can escape from your long-held fear.
Monitor your media intake — This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is worth mentioning: Avoid airplane disaster movies, news coverage of plane crashes or other scary media images. Remember that the vast majority of flights arrive safely, but only the problem flights make the news. Don’t let that skew your impressions of flying.
How to avoid anxiety and panic when you are airborne
Talk to the senior flight attendant before you board — Ask to board early by telling the gate attendant that you suffer from fear of flying and wish to talk to the flight attendant in the pre-boarding phase. They are accustomed to dealing with nervous fliers. Explain your fears to him or her. Perhaps it is take off that concerns you the most, or maybe it is turbulence or landing. Tell them your seat number and ask if they could come and check on you during the inflight times that are most concerning to you. If you are traveling alone and your seatmate seems friendly, perhaps you could ask them to engage you in conversation during take-off to keep your mind off things during this phase of the flight. Strangers can be surprisingly nice inflight.
Bring an inflight “tool kit” — Distraction is key to staying out of fear or panic. In your carry- on, pack crossword puzzles, coloring books, download books or movies that are “light.” Do not watch or read anything that includes topics of murder, terrorists, plane crashes, fires, death or anything that can trigger fear. Anything you are reading, listening to or watching should conjure pleasant thoughts.
Brain games are great because they keep your mind occupied, and that is the goal. The last thing you want is to be clutching your seat handles waiting for every little air pocket. While you are at it, skip the inflight coffee or Diet Coke. The last thing you need is caffeine to make you jittery.
Progressive muscle relaxation — In progressive muscle relaxation, you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in and relax them as you breathe out. You work on your muscle groups in a specific order. When your body is physically relaxed, you cannot feel anxious. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation for a few weeks will help you get better at this skill, and in time, you will be able to use this method to relieve stress. You can use an audio recording to help you focus on each muscle group, or you can learn the order of muscle groups and do the exercises from memory. Choose a place where you won’t be interrupted and where you can lie down on your back and stretch out comfortably, such as a carpeted floor. Breathe in, and tense the first muscle group (hard but not to the point of pain or cramping) for 4-10 seconds.
Benzodiazepines — If your fear is really intense and you have discussed this with your psychiatrist, they might feel it appropriate to prescribe you a low dose of a benzodiazepine such as Klonopin or Ativan, which work very quickly to calm intense anxiety or panic. These medications are habit forming, so it is best to use them only in extreme situations of panic when you are faced with a phobic situation. Remember not to mix them with alcohol. Sometimes just knowing they are there as a “rescue” can make the phobic person feel better.