Travel might be restricted now, but it's a good time to work on these tips.
The vast majority of people who are afraid of flying understand logically that it’s statistically safe. Here’s the cold, hard math: Between 2014 and 2017, the United States saw zero fatal accidents among aircraft, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Meanwhile, the U.S. experienced 33,654 deaths from car accidents in 2018, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
But for many, the logic of flight safety doesn’t seem to alleviate their fear of flying. There’s something about the turbulence, the sounds, and the height that just puts some passengers in a panic.
If flight anxiety keeps you from visiting your beloved cousins in San Diego or attending the work conference in Minneapolis, these tricks recommended by psychologists might help retrain your mind:
1. Get educated about airplanes
Turbulence can feel terrifying from row 19. After all, if your car started doing that on the interstate, you would most certainly start preparing your mind for the worst. The thing is, turbulence is often not a big deal in the cockpit.
Many flight phobics find it helpful to learn about pilot training, the mechanics of flying, airplane safety testing, and so on. It can make all those “weird sounds” and sensations less scary, once you know what’s causing them. Some airlines (such as Air France) even offer courses on these things to help nervous flyers.
2. Try cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can help treat mental health disorders like generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (but here are ways everyone can benefit from CBT). Its main goal is to train you to recognize unhealthful or misleading thoughts (or “cognitive distortions"), and disrupt them.
CBT can be tailored for flight anxiety by helping you recognize your cognitive distortions (e.g., “the plane just slowed down so something’s wrong and we’re going to crash and I’m going to die”) and then reframing your thoughts (e.g. “the plane just slowed down so maybe the pilot is looking for smoother air”).
CBT can also give you tools to deal with stressful moments, like using mindfulness or breathing exercises to alleviate sensations of panic.
3. Remind yourself of all the successful flights that day
As you board the plane, it’s tempting to think of the statistically rare tragedies that have happened. It’s your brain’s natural instinct to protect yourself, after all.
Instead, think of all the flights that have landed successfully all around you in just the previous 24 hours. The Federal Aviation Administration handles more than 44,000 flights per day, on average, and you can see them all using live maps online (like FlightAware).
These maps show the location of every flight currently in the air. Seeing all those planes navigating the same airspace may help ground you in reality. They got through this turbulence without a problem, so why can’t you?
4. Try group therapy or exposure therapy
For extreme flight phobias, consider exposure therapy programs. These may use virtual reality to simulate a flight experience, or they might even use actual flights. The goal with exposure therapy is to, well, expose you to the thing you fear to help you confront it and desensitize you to your triggers.
Nobody *has* to fly, and it’s fine to prefer long road trips, but if your fear of flying is hampering your life, consult a therapist: They can help you take back control of the cockpit of your life. Find out what to expect at your first therapy session here.
2017 NTSB US civil aviation accident statistics. National Transportation Safety Board. (Accessed on March 16, 2020 at https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/data/Pages/AviationDataStats2017.aspx.)
Air traffic by the numbers. Washington, DC: Federal Aviation Administration, 2019. (Accessed on March 16, 2020 at https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/by_the_numbers/.)
Fatality facts 2018: state by state. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2019. (Accessed on March 16, 2020 at https://www.iihs.org/topics/fatality-statistics/detail/state-by-state.)
How can I overcome my fear of flying? Silver Spring, MD: Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (Accessed on March 16, 2020 at https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/ask-and-learn/ask-expert/how-can-i-overcome-my-fear-of-flying.)