I know a little something about having a fear of flying. About six months ago, on a flight from New Jersey to California, I had a panic attack. It was likely induced by a lack of sleep, which provokes my anxiety, and my fear of becoming panicked on the plane, which is ultimately exactly what occurred.
While I haven't been formally diagnosed with panic attacks, I've known since grammar school that anxiety is the reason why I sometimes experience moments of intense dread accompanied by physical symptoms like sweaty palms, extreme nausea, and trouble breathing.
My plane landed safely, and I had an amazing time on my trip, but my flight experience was obviously less than ideal. Although I made it through my return trip without having a panic attack, I found myself in a similarly excruciating circumstance on a more recent flight, this one to Florida. I got off the plane never wanting to feel trapped in the sky again.
To get closer to that reality, I spoke to three psychologists with experience treating people who have a fear of flying. Here, they offer up some of the best ways to deal with flight anxiety.
Why does a fear of flying happen in the first place?
“The fear of flying [can be] a confluence of many different phobias,” Martin Seif, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and head of Freedom to Fly, a workshop for fearful fliers held in New York’s Westchester County Airport, tells SELF. Being afraid of heights, tight spaces, social situations, or leaving your comfort zone can all make you scared of flying, Seif explains.
In other cases, people experience flight anxiety because they have had a bad experience on a previous flight, Alexander Alvarado, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in phobias and anxiety and owner of Thriving Mind Psychology, a private practice in New York City, tells SELF. Or they might have never flown before, so they’re not sure what to expect. The complex mechanics of aviation don’t help; many people are nervous to fly because they don’t understand how planes function. (It is kind of wild that they can just…stay up like that.)
Panic attacks, like the ones I’ve experienced, are another common reason for flight anxiety. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), panic attacks are characterized by a swift onset of overwhelming fear or dread, along with at least four physical or psychological symptoms like trembling, feeling out of breath, chest pain, and fear of dying.
If you experience repeated panic attacks without an obvious trigger, you could have panic disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). A common characteristic of panic disorder is intense fear about having another panic attack, particularly in situations where you’ve had one in the past. So, if you previously had a panic attack in a grocery store or on a cramped airplane, you may be more likely to experience debilitating worry whenever you’re at the grocery store or on a plane.
Even if you don’t have a panic attack when flying, you might spend the entire flight afraid of experiencing one, Seif says. This can lead to you avoiding flying even when you’d theoretically like to travel.
A fear of flying can get so severe that it becomes an anxiety disorder.
Also known as aviophobia, a fear of flying is listed in the DSM-5 as a specific phobia. That means you have an intense fear of an object or situation that is out of proportion to the actual risk involved, according to the Mayo Clinic. For a flight phobia, symptoms would include things like avoiding flying (or feeling panicked if you absolutely have to fly), a spike in anxiety when you even think about getting on a plane, and physical reactions like shaking.
Specific phobias are some of the most common anxiety disorders, but there’s a range here when it comes to a fear of flying. You can be scared of flying without actually having a phobia. The latter involves long-lasting, life-disrupting physical and psychological reactions to air travel.
Wherever you fall on the fear-of-flying spectrum, there are tactics you can try to reduce your anxiety.
Learning about aviation can help tame a fear of flying for some people.
Since a fear of flying can stem from a lack of understanding, learning more about how planes work may help.
As part of Seif’s Freedom to Fly program, participants learn aviation facts to counter their anxious thoughts. “Anxiety … [is] fueled by ‘what if’ catastrophic thinking,” says Seif. Through education about aviation, those who fear flying learn to challenge this thought process.
“If someone has the thought, ‘I can’t fly because it’s more dangerous [than driving] and I could crash,’ learning about flying might help them have a counter-thought, which is, ‘Planes are actually safer than driving in a car,’” Gabrielle Avery-Peck, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders including panic disorder and specific phobias, tells SELF. Knowing more about aviation means you can tell yourself that the bump you hear isn’t the plane falling apart—it’s the landing gear extending. You’ll know that turbulence is basically a plane’s version of a car going over potholes, not a sign that the flight’s going down.
Learning about aviation on your own is more likely going to help with a less severe fear of flying, not an actual phobia. With that in mind, if you decide to do this, it’s important to be mindful of how you conduct aviation research.
Focusing on aviation disasters could just make your fear of flying worse.
Avery-Peck warns that there’s a fine line between learning just enough about aviation and learning so much that you freak yourself out even more.
One huge reason flying is so safe today is that aviation experts have changed flying equipment and protocol based on past crashes. If you’re researching aviation, you might stumble upon a lot of graphic information about how certain plane crashes happened. Depending on how your mind works, these details might fuel your fear even more.
It’s also possible for aviation research to become a “safety behavior” for people with a fear of flying, Avery-Peck says. That means it’s something you do because you feel it will protect you when it really won’t at all. It’s basically like a mental crutch. At that point, you’re no longer learning about aviation to reframe your pre-existing notions about flying. You might instead be reinforcing the idea that reading everything you can about planes is the only way you’ll be safe when you fly, which isn’t constructive in the long run.
Here are some resources for learning about aviation in a helpful way.
Not sure where exactly to begin? Start here:
- Look at this list from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, which explains common noises associated with each step of flying. It may help you avoid catastrophic thinking when you hear a noise you otherwise wouldn’t be able to identify.
- Read a book meant to help with a fear of flying. Some, like Patrick Smith’s Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel, are actually written by pilots who can explain aviation in laypeople’s terms.
- Watch informational videos from various airlines, like those offered by British Airways. You can virtually tour some of their popular aircrafts and learn about basic airplane functions for free.
- Use online self-help guides, like this free one offered by The Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center of Durham and Chapel Hill in North Carolina. It offers a step-by-step resource for understanding and overcoming your fear of flying.
- Google “fearful flier program near me.” Fearful flier programs can offer a variety of techniques such as one-on-one coaching, educational courses on aviation, and sometimes in-person or virtual reality airport and airplane tours. Some programs, like Seif’s Freedom to Fly, even offer the option of a “graduation flight” at the end of the program, where you go on a short flight with a psychologist as well as a group of other fearful fliers.
- Take a flying lesson at a flight academy near you. Often called “discovery flights,” these typically involve taking a short flight in a small plane so a pilot can explain the technicalities of flying to you. (Of course, do your research to make sure anywhere you do this is safe and properly licensed, and don’t force yourself to do this if you’re terrified.)
If you feel like learning about aviation on your own might just make things worse, or if you’ve tried and you’re not seeing progress, Avery-Peck says it may help to seek guidance from a mental health professional.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common therapeutic approaches for fear of flying.
Through CBT, people learn to reframe their thoughts and challenge the beliefs they have about their fears, Avery-Peck says.
A CBT technique known as exposure and response prevention (ERP) can be especially useful for a fear of flying, Avery-Peck says. It involves exposing someone to a situation that stokes fear, then training them to cope with those feelings in a healthy way. Avery-Peck uses virtual reality (VR) to help accomplish this with those who have a fear of flying.
“The virtual reality will walk them through waiting at home, having a cab pick them up, driving to the airport, waiting at the gate, walking onto the plane, then being on the plane itself,” she says. Some practices may even try to personalize your VR experience by capturing and using footage from the particular airport you’re flying out of, Alvarado says, explaining that his practice does this when possible.
When using ERP with VR, a therapist might ask you to recreate the physical feeling of being anxious by doing jumping jacks to increase your heart rate or hyperventilating so you’re breathing abnormally. Your therapist can also equip you with techniques like deep breathing to learn how to calm the physiological signals that are contributing to your anxiety.
“The goal is to get used to your anxiety,” Avery-Peck says. “We inadvertently keep ourselves anxious by interpreting our physiological symptoms as dangerous. [Your body] can learn that something is scary, but it can also unlearn that something is scary.”
If your flight anxiety is really affecting your life, it’s important to get a psychological assessment. Only then can you work toward overcoming your fear of flying. To find help, try Googling “fear of flying therapy near me” or looking through resources like Psychology Today and GoodTherapy for practitioners specializing in anxiety, phobias, and panic attacks. The right therapist can help you work on your coping skills through CBT and other measures, help you identify if something you’re not aware of is contributing to your fear of flying, and explain if you might benefit from anti-anxiety medication when you fly.
While my panic attacks have never made me not want to fly, they have made the experience very uncomfortable at times. Now that I know there are so many options for tackling my fear, I’m hopeful that anxiety-free flights are in my future.