Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias – approximately 1 in 10 people experience flight anxiety. Statistics from Boeing report that 17% of Americans admit they are afraid to fly.
Fear of flying can range from mild to severe (panic attacks, crying, fear of dying)
Car travel is about 100 times deadlier than flying. However, high-profile plane crashes, movies, 9-11 (many developed a fear after this event) and the more dramatic and horrifying nature of a potential crash, can reinforce societal fears around flying.
No single cause but several aspects of flying could trigger anxiety such as:
- Previous negative flying experiences – bad turbulence, feeling panicky or hot and bothered
- Seeing other people (often parents when younger) being anxious and panicking whilst flying. This could be as a child
- Fear of loss of control – the fact that they have no direct control of the plane
- Can be agoraphobia or claustrophobia related
- Fear of the fear itself – people can become anxious about the prospect of being anxious and fearful. They might not have even flown before..
- General anxiety/stress – i.e events such as work-related stress, marriage or relationship difficulties can prompt flying anxiety
Negative impact of flying fear:
- Avoidance of holidays
- Restrict business travel or avoid work-related opportunities altogether
- Disrupted sleep before day of flying or even days before
- Not fully present and able to enjoy the destination due to excessive worrying about the return trip
- High-levels of anxiety before and during flight
Tips and suggestions to overcome the fear:
Identify the triggers related to the fear
What exactly is it about flying that makes you anxious? Go through the above list of potential causes (see above) and see which fits.
A strange question perhaps but one I sometimes ask clients is – “if this fear/anxiety had a positive purpose or benefit, what might that be?” It could be as simple answer such as – to keep me safe, or to avoid what happened last time.
With one client, her fear began after she had reluctantly agreed to move abroad with her partner for work that next year. After a bit of exploration, it became clear that there was a part of her mind that felt anxious about moving and so the flying fear was a subconscious means to solve the problem more indirectly and keeping her at home!
Don’t beat yourself up
Many high-achievers make the fear worse by beating themselves up about being afraid as they know that it’s irrational. Frustration then breeds anxiety and reinforces the problem.
Instead accept that your mind is producing these anxiety related symptoms as a way to protect you from potential danger or to avoid something your subconscious deems unpleasant (even if you are not consciously aware of that). If you can be ‘okay’ with the anxiety and accept that it is temporary, the severity of the fear is often significantly reduced. You will then reduce your fear of the fear itself..
Change the pictures and mental movies you make about flying in your mind
Many of my clients have terrifying and dramatic mental visualisations of crashing into mountains, of terrible turbulence or perhaps a vivid memory of a previous experience. This kind of thinking reinforces the fear by re-activating previous negative thought patterns. The brain doesn’t tell the difference between what’s real and imagined so each time you make these negative images, you are effectively telling your brain that it is afraid of flying!
- Close your eyes and when you think of the fear, what pictures, thoughts or even mental movies do you play in your imagination? You’ll notice that by running through this in your mind, you may feel anxious just by imagining it. How often are you playing the same movie or thinking the same thoughts each time you think about flying?
- Instead, you need to replace these pictures/movies with exactly what you want instead. So, one tip is to create a mental movie of yourself on the plane smiling and looking relaxed, or walking off the plane doing a victory dance…
Hypnotherapy works by helping someone re-evaluate and reframe unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about flying. The relaxed mental focus and positive suggestions given during a session, helps create new mental associations. With a little repetition, the brain can then re-wire and re-programme itself!
Mind-set technique – Coping and mastery imagery
I use this simple visualisation to help people re-associate flying with confidence and calm
- Create a mental movie in your mind of you coping (not perfect yet!) much better than you do now.
- See and feel yourself being more in control and calmer before the flight (even the day before) and then running it through to a point where you have safely arrived at your destination.
- My clients do this 3 times and usually come up with a phrase or trigger word such as ‘I’m calm, relaxed, and in control’
- The next step is to then make a visualisation where they see themselves not just coping but mastering the situation. They go through the same visualisation 3 times, seeing themselves even more confident than before.
This exercise is one way to prime the brain for success and to rehearse how they might respond to any challenges that arise.
Finally, don’t forget the power of relaxation
It is very difficult if not impossible to feel anxious while relaxed so here are some ideas to promote mental and physical relaxation:
Physical – Breathing techniques such as 7-11 (breathe in using tummy to count of 7 and out for 11) can be practiced beforehand and then used whilst flying to promote relaxation and also a sense of control/focus.
Progressive relaxation – Imagine relaxing each part of your body from head to toe. Some of my clients listen to a hypnosis audio where they imagine a wave of relaxation or soothing liquid spreading into each body part. Some people also like to tense each body part/muscle for 5-10 seconds and then relax it etc
About the Author
Kristian Lees-Bell is a business psychologist, therapist and executive coach who helps professionals to identify their blind-spots and derailers, overcome their mental barriers, and move past limiting beliefs, so they can be happier and more effective at work. Kristian’s interest in psychology and self-development started over ten years ago after discovering how hypnosis and performance psychology techniques could help him overcome stage fright as a professional jazz singer. Combining his expertise as a hypnotherapist and an academic background in Occupational Psychology, Kristian’s work addresses the root cause of people-related issues and assists in areas such as stress and anxiety reduction, mental resilience, and developing high performance habits.