Fright Flight - Conquering The Fear Of Flying
A woman across the aisle from me appeared to be
paralyzed with fear. She held onto the armrests of her seat until
her knuckles were white. As our plane went down the runway, I
glanced over and saw tears streaming down her cheeks. Having been a
flight attendant, I recognized her distress and began to tell her
that it was going to be okay. After we took off and the plane
leveled, she wiped the tears from her cheeks and the sweat from her
brow. She introduced herself to me. Her name was Helen, an executive
from Kansas City. She began a new job that required frequent
traveling and was on her first flight in years.
If you are afraid of flying like
Helen, you are not alone. Over 25 million Americans (about one in
10) suffer from aerophobia, or the “fear of flying.”
Aerophobia (also known as aviophobia) is one of the hardest
phobias to cure. It triggers a reaction in the body that causes the
person to feel threatened. The fear is so controlling that it
affects everyday life. It has wrecked the vacations, relationships,
and business careers of many individuals.
Why are so many
people afraid of flying? Let’s face it; flying around in metal tube
at 500 mph is not a natural act. Studies on aerophobia and other
phobias state some people develop intense feelings of fear and
distress in situations that pose no real danger to them. The
feelings become so overwhelming that they avoid the situation
completely. The idea of loosing control is a big issue for most
aerophobics. They try to control their fear by deciding never to fly
again. However, learning to feel in control while flying is a major
part of overcoming the fear.
One of the most promising ways to treat
aerophobia is to recreate the sense of flight through virtual
reality. The software called Virtually Better,
developed by Dr. Barbara O. Rothbaum of Emory University School of
Medicine and Dr. Larry F. Hodges of Georgia Tech, does just that. In
addition to using the software, patients sit in chairs with a
seatbelts while wearing virtual reality headsets on their heads.
Through the headset, 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 their airplane seat.
“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.
Through this type of therapy, aerophobics can confront their fear
with the safety net of a therapist ultimately controlling the
situation. Clinical studies have shown that by staging phobia
confrontations, approximately 75 percent of the people become
accustomed to the situation and eventually lose their fear.
Currently, the Virtually Better treatment is available in Atlanta,
Boston, Cleveland, New York, San Diego, and Washington, DC
In addition to virtual
reality therapy, many traditional resources and organizations
specialize in the treatment of aerophobia. There are 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 are similar
and include stress management, deep breathing exercises, and other
relaxation techniques. Many also supply technical explanations of
airplane mechanics, which helps people become better aware of the
Here is some advice for helping fearful
Choose a seat that is not confining. For example, 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; middle and window
seats are more confining.
Avoid alcohol. Contrary to what you’ve been told, alcohol will
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
Try to 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.
Pilots are more than happy to let you in the cockpit for a question
and answer session. Flight attendants are trained to answer any
questions and to show you the best way to enjoy your flight
Do relaxation techniques. Deep breathing exercises, stretching,
or listening to music is a great way to become more settled.
Always remember that 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:
Fear of Flying
Clinic: As seen on ABC’s 20/20, this clinic offers
workshops and flights based at the San Francisco International
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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