The Jittery Skies: Conquering the Fear of
(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
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.
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
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,
Traditional Treatment and Coping Skills
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.
you have to get on an airplane, and don't have time for formal
treatment, here are some other ways to cope:
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
Here are some online links to fearful flying seminars and
Aviophobia.com: Offers a
60-minute video available to help conquer the fear of
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
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
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