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The Jittery Skies: Conquering the Fear of Flying

(October 18, 2001)

Hoping to allay Americans' fears after the four hijackings, President Bush recently unveiled plans for more armed sky marshals, stricter security screening, and fortified cockpits. However, although air travel has more or less returned to normal, things will never be the way they were before the attacks, especially for those who suffer from aerophobia—the "fear of flying."


More than 25 million Americans (about one in 10) suffer from aerophobia (also known as aviophobia). Like people with other phobias, aerophobics develop intense feelings of distress in situations that pose no real danger to them. While many people were already uncomfortable with flying, the events of September 11 have only intensified these fears. It might take very little to trigger a fear reaction when it comes to getting on an airplane. Learning how to cope has become more important than ever.

Feeling out of control is the biggest issue for most aerophobics, who dislike being confined in an airplane where someone else is in the driver's seat. These people often try to control their fear by avoiding flying altogether. However, learning to feel in control while flying is a more productive way to overcome the fear.

Virtual Therapy

One of the most promising ways to treat aerophobia is through virtual reality. Virtually Better, a software program developed by Dr. Barbara O. Rothbaum of Emory University School of Medicine and Dr. Larry F. Hodges of Georgia Tech, helps aerophobics confront their fear with the safety net of a therapist controlling the situation. During treatment, patients sit in chairs wearing seatbelts and virtual reality headsets. Through the headsets, they can see a computer simulation of an aircraft's interior, the sky through a window, and aircraft wings as if they were sitting in an airplane seat. The patient "travels" through various stages of flight, including takeoff, landing, and even turbulence. The sounds of flight, such as those related to the plane's landing gear and flaps, are also simulated.

Clinical studies have shown that, through staged phobia confrontations, approximately 75 percent of the people become accustomed to the feared situation and eventually overcome the fear. Currently, the Virtually Better treatment is available in Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, New York, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.

Traditional Treatment and Coping Skills

In addition to virtual reality therapy, many organizations specialize in the treatment of aerophobia, including self-help groups (run in conjunction with airlines), clinics that offer therapy and hypnosis, and courses by mail. Although each program is set up differently, the theory and treatment processes all involve stress management, deep breathing exercises, and other relaxation techniques. Many also supply technical explanations of airplane mechanics, which help people become better aware of the airplane environment.

If you have to get on an airplane, and don't have time for formal treatment, here are some other ways to cope:

  • Choose a seat that is not confining. Avoid middle and window seats altogether and choose an aisle seat in the front of the cabin. The closer you are to the front of the aircraft, the less engine noise you will hear. Aisle seats also allow for maximum freedom of movement.

  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol does not numb the effects of flying. Flying and alcohol dehydrate the body. The two together will only make you more edgy, not relaxed. Also, make sure you have a good meal. It's best not to fly on an empty stomach.

  • Get to the gate early. Rushing to your flight only triggers more stress.

  • If you have any questions or concerns, talk to the flight crew. Flight attendants are trained to answer any questions and to show you the best way to enjoy your flight experience.

  • Talk to the passenger next to you. Talking to another person has a soothing and comforting effect.

  • Occupy or distract yourself. Absorb yourself in reading, music, crossword puzzles, or something else to take your mind off the flight.

  • Do relaxation techniques. Deep breathing exercises, stretching, or listening to music are great ways to become more settled.
The odds of being in an airplane accident are one in nine million. You would have to fly once a day for 26,500 years before encountering the odds of being involved in a fatal air crash.

Here are some online links to fearful flying seminars and courses: Offers a 60-minute video available to help conquer the fear of flying.

Fear of Flying Clinic: As seen on ABC's 20/20, this clinic offers workshops and flights based at the San Francisco International Airport.

Pegasus Fear of Flying Foundation Inc.: Featured on CNN, this company specializes in fear of flying recovery training programs and materials.

SOAR Inc.: With this company, veteran airline captain and licensed therapist Tom Bunn offers great resources and hands-on treatment to conquer the fear of flying.

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