New Strategies for Fear of Flying


Fear of flying? I don’t know a lot of people who are afraid of flying maybe because they would use other means and not bring it up! Interesting! I need to overcome jet lag! the strategies I know don’t work!

By Bill McGee, special for USA TODAY
On the one hand, commercial aviation remains the safest mode of transportation in this country. Yet millions of people—perhaps about 15% of the population, according to a recent poll—remain afraid to board an airplane.
When I last wrote about this topic in 2004, 9/11 was still fresh in many travelers’ minds. I detailed a variety of remedies, ranging from self-help courses to books and videos. And of course I provided statistical evidence in an appeal to logic. But I may not have adequately addressed just how real such fears can be to those who suffer from aerophobia.

Like many others who have urged their fellow travelers to book a flight, I’ve come to see that logic is not enough to assuage such very real concerns.

Confronting demons

Recently I was given the opportunity to immerse myself in a hands-on fear of flying program sponsored by The Phobia and Trauma Clinic at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (Disclosure: I teach writing classes at Hofstra but have no connection to the Psychology Department, which runs the clinic.) Once they enter this program, those who experience trepidation every time they’re scheduled to fly are forced to confront their deepest and darkest feelings head-on, no matter how gruesome. “We address their fears in a very direct way,” explains Dr. Mitchell Schare, a Psychology professor and the director of the clinic.

Although I’ve spent much of my adult life involved in aviation and don’t fear flying in the least, I still learned quite a bit from the experience, particularly when I strapped in for a virtual reality “trip” that took me through an imaginary airport, onto an imaginary jet bridge, and finally into the cabin of an imaginary commercial aircraft. As my “flight” encountered severe turbulence, my senses were assaulted by the sight of flashing cabin lights, the sound of whining jet engines, the feel of a shaking seat, and even the smell of a stuffy cabin. For those who exhibit signs of terror, sensors monitor their most critical reactions.

In discussing the program with its administrators, one of the first things I learned is that the “fear” of flying may in fact be comprised of separate and distinct fears, including fear of heights, fear of loss of control, fear of losing one’s balance, and fear of death itself, in addition to claustrophobia, panic disorders and social phobias. Many travelers suffer from two or more of these conditions at once, so an effective diagnosis is critical.

After witnessing the clinic’s treatment methods, what became apparent to me is that each of these fears is quite real, and none are easily allayed by reason or statistics. In other words, you can spout the data ad nauseam:Boeing, for example, asserts that flying commercially in the United States is 22 times safer than driving, and there’s an entire cottage industry of statisticians happy to amplify and clarify such numbers. But the bottom line is that many of those who are afraid to fly simply can’t absorb the logic, because as one administrator noted, “Thoughts are thoughts and emotions are emotions.”

What also became apparent is that the fearful flier must want to overcome this problem on his or her own. Some products and programs are marketed toward the partners or friends of those who are afraid to fly, but signing up a loved one under duress for such a course probably won’t work. Just as someone kicking an addiction must be self-motivated, it’s also true that those suffering from aerophobia must make this decision for themselves. “It’s like dieting,” says Schare. “You can’t have someone else do it for you.”

However, this isn’t to suggest aerophobia cannot be overcome. In fact, the VALK Foundation in The Netherlands claims a 98% success rate in treating fear of flying. Many of those who have conquered their anxieties about getting on an airplane did so because they were motivated by a desire not to miss out on a family occasion, vacation, or critical business opportunity.

Alternative methods

Today there is a wide variety of remedies being offered to combat fear of flying, and the results vary just as widely. For those who would like to learn more, there are dozens of books on this topic, and has categorized some of the better ones under “fear of flying.” In addition, many of the leading self-help aerophobia programs consist of any combination of books, booklets, DVDs, CDs and/or MP3s.

Some nervous fliers simply choose to medicate, though counselors say this may not always be effective. For those concerned about side effects, some travelers prefer homeopathic products, which offer a non-addictive alternative to many prescription sedatives and other medications. Homeopathic remedies for fear of flying symptoms are offered through a variety of health stores and online.

Counselors I spoke to question the effectiveness of hypnosis, but those who are receptive to such procedures may find comfort in this option. In-person visitation is the preferred method, but patients who don’t have the time and/or money and/or access can purchase a variety of audio tools. Also, synchronized breathing might help some find relief and calm their nerves. Ancient exercises—such as Qi Gong—are proven stress relievers, but may not work for all nervous fliers, particularly once they’re airborne. However, under certain conditions such practices could provide a low-cost and natural remedy.

One of the simplest of all solutions may prove effective for some fearful fliers: Listening to soothing music on an iPod or other electronic device can ease the stress and anxiety of flying. In addition, some recordings can be overdubbed with subliminal therapeutic advice.

Of course, psychological counseling is always an option as well. And now there are fear of flying courses offered throughout the country. Last year, Harriet Baskas detailed several such programs offered at a number of airports.

Before enrolling, it’s important to learn about a program’s techniques in advance. Some courses are crafted by mental health professionals and other courses by aviation veterans, but the best offerings combine expertise from both sectors. However, the psychological components are key. For example, the Fear Takes Flight program in Kansas City was developed by a licensed counselor and includes not only an initial diagnosis but in-office treatment strategies that may include eye movement desensitization reprocessing or even hypnosis or trance state therapy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: