Aviophobia: Understanding the Fear of Flying

– Posted in: Phobias

Traveling by airplane is one of the fastest, safest and easiest modes of transportation. It enables people to travel vast distances unthinkable just a few short decades ago. 

While most people enjoy the convenience of air travel, people with a flight phobia have an intense fear of flying. This fear may prevent a person from going on vacations or visiting family and friends. It can cripple the careers of businesspeople by preventing them from traveling on work-related business.

Fear of flying, also known as aviophobia,  is an Anxiety Disorder classified as a situational Specific Phobia. The person with fear of flying has a continuing and excessive fear triggered by flying or the thought of flying. Typically, flying is avoided or endured with intense anxiety, which may take the form of a panic attack.

Famous people afraid to fly include John Madden (NFL coach and commentator), Stanley Kubrick (filmmaker), Kim Jong-Il (North Korean leader), Whoopi Goldberg (actress), Joseph Stalin (past ruler of the Soviet Union), and wrestler Andre the Giant.

Several studies have found that up to 40 percent of people have some degree of anxiety about flying. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 6.5 percent of  Americans — 20 million — have a fear of flying so intense that it qualifies as a Specific Phobia. More women than men suffer from fear of flying.

In addition to those with flight phobia, there are individuals who fear and avoid flying because they suffer from Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia—they fear having a panic attack while on an airplane. However, unlike those with a specific flying phobia, people with agoraphobia also fear other situations from which escape may be difficult if they have a panic attack.

What are the causes for fear of flying?

The cause for fear of flying is disputed. While most researchers believe it is a learned fear, the factors that make one vulnerable to its development may vary. 

The way each individual processes threatening stimuli may help determine whether a fear of flying develops. If a person tends to catastrophize outcomes based on unfamiliar stimuli such as loud noises and turbulence, and adds to that an overreaction to other fears, such as the fear of terrorism, they may be well on the way to developing a flight phobia.

The components of a fear of flying are created from other phobias and fears:

  • Fear of heights (acrophobia)
  • Fear of closed in spaces (claustrophobia)
  • Loss of personal freedom and control, or being dependent on technology or other people
  • Fear of having Panic Attacks in places where escape would be difficult or embarrassing (Agoraphobia)
  • Fear of being over water
  • Fear of the dark (flying at night)
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of accidents that might cause injury or death
  • Fear of terrorism, skyjacking or other deliberate attacks
  • Being idle for long periods of time
  • The security screening process
  • Concerns about turbulence and other weather conditions
  • Not understanding the activities associated with a normal flight
  • Underlying issues from past psychological or physical trauma

In addition, other factors that may predispose someone to developing a flight phobia include:

  • Stressful life events
  • Personality factors, such as individuals who find it difficult to give control to another
  • Misinformation about the danger of flying
  • A biological predisposition

What is the treatment for fear of flying?

Treatment for fear of flying has three components: education, therapy, and medication. Not all are required for every person.

Education

In some cases, educating people with a fear of flying about the “nuts and bolts” of aviation can considerably diminish their irrational fears. Understanding what a certain sound is or that an encounter with turbulence will not destroy the aircraft is beneficial to easing the fear of the unknown. 

Even so, when airborne and experiencing turbulence, terror can result, despite the person knowing logically that the plane is not in danger. In such cases, therapy — in addition to education — is needed to gain relief.

Therapy

The primary treatment for fear of flying is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This involves exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring and relaxation techniques. These rest on the theory that a phobia is due to an initial sensitizing event (ISE) that has created the feelings of fear. The initial sensitizing event was the first time that the person felt those intense feelings of fear. 

A trained professional can help an individual develop a treatment plan to extinguish a phobia through either graded exposure (desensitization) or intensive exposure (flooding).

Traditionally, exposure therapy has had to be carried out on actual airplanes. Patients faced their fear gradually by meeting at an airport and boarding a stationary plane several times before taking an actual flight. Success rates for exposure therapy are about 90 percent. 

However, this type of exposure therapy has declined since the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as airport security has tightened.

Virtual-reality programs are now being used experimentally. They offer a computer-generated simulation of flying that is three-dimensional and lifelike. Dr. Barbara Rothbaum of Emory University in Atlanta, who has studied virtual-reality treatments for fear of flying, says that the success rate is comparable to more traditional exposure therapy.

Medication

Aside from sedatives, such as the benzodiazepines Xanax, Valium, Ativan, most drug therapy efforts have been unsuccessful in treating fear of flying. Passengers often self-medicate with alcohol, as well. But sedatives and alcohol typically only provide short-term relief. 

The one exception to the ineffectiveness of drug therapy would be when the fear of flying is secondary to Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia. In this case, antidepressant medications may be used in combination with the behavioral therapy for maximal benefits.

What do you think?

  • Do you or someone you know have a fear of flying?
  • Have you sought treatment? If so, what kind of treatment did you receive?

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Further reading:

For Fear of Flying, Therapy Takes to the Skies, New York Times July 24, 2007 

Fear of Flying – Wikipedia 

Fear of Flying Tips website 

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29 Comments… add one
Scam August 27, 2008, 7:37 pm

I used to be fine when flying, having taken many trips to countries all around the world. My fear was triggered, I believe, by two events: a transatlantic flight in extremely poor weather conditions and another flight in a small plane where the pilot was recklessly throwing the aircraft around in order to show off.

Since then, I have made one return flight in about 20 years.

Now I have the opportunity to have a totally free and great holiday with my parents. They emmigrated 18 months ago and I haven’t seen them since.

My fear is so great, however, that I am sitting here trying to think of excuses why I cannot go.

Mike August 27, 2008, 7:46 pm

If you have the time before you are due to go, you can first check if your local airport or the airline offer any classes or help for aviophobics. These can be the tried-and-true exposure therapy, or a combination of exposure and computer-based therapy.

Then, if you find nothing, try to find a therapist who specializes in phobias — there are some out there. Failing that, any good therapist can definitely help you.

Aviophobia has one of the highest treatment success rates of all the phobias. It would be a shame if you had to miss this opportunity!

Scam August 27, 2008, 7:51 pm

I think I will have to give that a go.

Strangely, I’d been building up courage recently, only to have it all knocked out of me recently – 2 major plane crashes and one near miss in the last week have set me back somewhat!

Mike August 27, 2008, 7:59 pm

I don’t want to minimize the tragedy of these crashes, but air travel is still safer than crossing the street (especially my street) or driving to the dentist.

One of the essential components of therapy for aviophobia is education, which will help you put these unfortunate events into context.

Good luck! And I hope you get to go!

Scam August 27, 2008, 8:10 pm

I’d say that I know enough to realise the risks are minimal but that doesn’t seem to help.

There’s also that element of not being in control if something does go wrong, plus the fact that I know someone who was amongst the first on the scene at Lockerbie, and his accounts of what they found are somewhat different to how it got reported :(

Mike August 27, 2008, 8:48 pm

The person’s experience must have been truly traumatic.

Still, a good therapist can help you through this. Yes, there’s always risk, and I don’t want to try to gloss over the horrors of an airplane crash. But the benefits do outweigh the minimal risk you take by flying.

To tell you the truth, I would not be very comfortable in an airplane, but for different reasons, mostly agoraphobic. Although I haven’t tried it, I think I could fly if I were to be able to get over the problem with enclosed places with lots of people.

Again, good luck!

Scam August 31, 2008, 6:53 am

Well, if I DO go it will be in about 6 weeks and even now, thought I haven’t booked yet, I cannot sleep, I feel sick all the time and I am stressed beyong belief :(

Mike August 31, 2008, 2:30 pm

Scam, thanks for your comment!

You need to get some relief from your constant fears, either from a mental health professional, or by just planning your trip with land transportation, such as a train. If you do fly and you don’t get some relief before then, you will be a nervous wreck when you get there!

Lee August 31, 2008, 3:37 pm

My concern is that I will get there and spend all the time worrying about the flight back home at the end!!

Mike August 31, 2008, 11:00 pm

Lee, I’d thought of that. Maybe after doing well on the flight there, you won’t be so worried while you’re there!

Good luck! I keep thinking that if I just ponder your situation hard enough I might come up with a silver bullet to make it all go away!

Lee September 1, 2008, 5:11 am

There is no silver bullet Mike – I have got to find the solution within myself and just get on with it.

That, unfortunately, is easier said than done.

Lee September 27, 2008, 4:43 am

As an update, I originally planned to wuss out and take an 8 day round trip by train instead. After much thinking, and my son offering to ‘hold my hand’ I took the plunge and decided to face my fear instead – I’ll be conquering, or at least facing, my fear in about 2 weeks time.

Even though my parents have paid for a round trip they have also offered to let me throw the return away and they will pay for the train back if necessary – knowing that I have an alternative if the first flight freaks me out should make the holiday far more pleasant.

I’ve also spent a huge amount of time trying to work out what causes the fear in the hope that I may find the solution within myself.

For me, I believe there are many factors – the lack of control, existing anxiety in my life (stress of getting son’s passport at short notice, my ongoing divorce, leaving my new partner and trying to sell my house all at the same time), previous bad flying experiences (bad in my opinion) and, lastly, that fear of a ruined holiday.

Mike September 27, 2008, 3:08 pm

Thank you for the update, Lee. I’ve been wondering how you were doing but didn’t want to pester you on Twitter.

And congratulations! The only way to face our fears is to confront them head on. My daughter held my hand all the way through a recent event I had to go to. No shame there, just love and understanding.

Have a good trip!

Lee September 27, 2008, 6:44 pm

I’ve not been on Twitter, or hardly anywhere else online, as I am quite stressed about this, but determined to overcome it all the same.

Mike September 27, 2008, 6:50 pm

Know I’m thinking about you and wish you every good result on your trip, before, during and after.

I’ve noticed that you have been absent from Twitter lately. I’m glad you’re keeping up your blog.

Brad December 16, 2008, 3:38 pm

Not sure if you have already taken the flight but look in to Xanax or Niravam. I take a bottle of 15 Niravam whenever I fly and it has never failed me. I usually only need one before the flight but have taken two pills if needed.

Lee December 16, 2008, 7:38 pm

I’ve been and come back and all was well. In the end I took about 4mg of diazepam which seemed to do the trick for most of the flight :)

Lee’s last blog post..A Scam Email From Psychic Sara Freder

Lee December 16, 2008, 7:39 pm

Mike – what plugin are you using for the addition of Twitter IDs to the comments?

Lee’s last blog post..A Scam Email From Psychic Sara Freder

Anibal April 13, 2013, 11:41 pm

I’ve had GDA since I was about 5 when I used to bite my nails and be sick before I went to shocol. I don’t know where it comes from and it is horrible living life with this shadow over you all the time. I think it takes a lot of strength and bravery. Thank you for sharing your video.

Mike December 16, 2008, 7:56 pm

Lee,
I’m really glad you were able to visit your parents! Congratulations on conquering your Aviophobia!

The plugin I am using is still in beta, but it works well for me. It’s called WP-Twitip ID and is from the same fellow who does the CommentLuv plugin.

Mark August 4, 2009, 4:46 pm

Thanks for the great post. I myself have suffered for years with flying but I never really knew that there was a specific anxiety condition related to flying. I thought I was probably just fearful of being up in the air and totally powerless and out of control if something were to happen. Perhaps I am just a bit of a control freak.
.-= Mark´s last blog ..Causes Of Anxiety Attacks =-.

OblixObtaiz September 27, 2009, 7:17 am

I think you made some good points in your post.

Bobi July 17, 2010, 7:23 pm

Great points, and its very sad to see such a high number still of those still afraid to fly even giving the statistics. Flying can be liberating for the many that want to travel, but that fear is awful- I have been there too! Medication in combination with other therapy options such as NLP seems to works best as far as I’ve seen. Great article, thanks for keeping the eyes open to the rest.
.-= Bobi´s last blog ..Air Travel- Is It Right for You =-.

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Maria December 23, 2012, 4:43 am

I have a horrid fear of flying, and its causing a rift between my family and I. They don’t seem to understand my fear and they say its causing them even more stress of having to leave me behind and how un co-operative I am.

My fear is simply the fact that I have no control over it, and that the flight could just plummet any moment. I’ve been under constant worry and stress ever since I found out that I am traveling.

I feel the only way I can cure myself is to see a therapist, but my family insists on taking me on the flight. The only way they will be able to do that is if they sedate me!

Please help!

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