A fear of flying affects a huge amount of the population– up to 40% of people suffer from this disorder. We reached out to licensed psychologist Dr. Seth Meyers for his advice on how to overcome this debilitating fear in this new blog for Way.com:
Written by Dr. Seth Meyers
Like most disorders, there’s a spectrum of fear and anxiety when it comes to the fear of flying. The full-blown disorder is included in the official text of mental disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). It is diagnosed as “Specific Phobia, (flying).” While a small percentage of individuals meet the criteria (approximately less than 5%), about 40 percent of the population has some fear of flying.
The most common symptom sufferers have is – you guessed it – anxiety, manifested in increased heart rate, mild or moderate panic symptoms, tightness in the chest, and sweating. These symptoms hit like a freight train, a telltale sign that the central nervous system is in a state of alert at the mere thought of flying.
Is overcoming a fear of flying possible?
If you deal with this fear, you can absolutely overcome it as long as you are willing to start using new coping tools and you’re willing to invest the time and energy. The more you invest in making this change, the better your odds are for success.
Change your associations to flying in ways you never considered.
When the idea of flying has been contaminated by a web of dark images and irrational fears, it’s time to change your associations. One way to do so is to focus on new, positive visual images of flying. First, go to a popular online search engine and spend time looking at all types of airplanes. Make it fun by doing a search for “the world’s most beautiful airplanes” or “the best airlines,” for example. Scroll through pictures and spend time looking at the little details of each aircraft. Explore images of “first-class galleys” and see how food is prepared, or search “most comfortable airplane seats.”
Next, look for videos of kids and their first flight experience, flight attendant routines while they work in the cabin, and other videos of planes harmlessly flying through the air. Practice this technique several days a week and you will desensitize yourself to your old negative associations by creating new positive ones.
Repeat a mantra custom-designed for you.
Nothing helps a person maintain their mental composure better than a swift and direct mantra. On a common-sense level, the following statement feels unbelievable but is true: Flying is the safest way to travel. Flying is safer than driving in a car, taking a train, and – believe it or not – walking down the street.
For this reason, when your anxiety and fears flare up as you think about a future flight, wait at the airport, or sit on the runway, gently whisper under your breath repeatedly, “I sometimes forget that flying is the safest way to travel.” Most importantly, breathe long, slow deep breaths in and out as you repeat this reassuring, logical, and entirely true statement.
Distract yourself with a mental project.
While singer Selena Gomez will tell you that the heart wants what it wants, the fixated brain wants what it wants, too: more to fixate on. When your flying fears swell to a high, your brain is like a hungry mouth that won’t stop until you give it something else to eat. Rather than simply trying to stop your mind from fixating on your fear, redirect your mental energy to something else that requires keen focus.
Before you fly, have a work document saved on your computer that you can sink your teeth into, or use a notepad function in your phone and do an organizing project (add birthdays of new friends, set up alerts in your calendar for important dates coming up in the next year). After just a minute or two of switched focus, you’ll feel less anxious.
Carry a special journal used only for flights and jot down reassuring notes and your coping plan.
The final tip is the most important one, and it can be practiced before you leave for the airport, while you’re seated at your gate, or sitting in your seat on the plane. Flying anxiety is usually highest in the minutes before you board and your first few minutes on the plane, with anxiety “spikes” triggered by various movements and noises (fleeting “dings” or various systems being activated) as the aircraft prepares to taxi to the runway.
Use this time when anxiety spikes to write out your simple list of a) things you’ll do to stay calm and rational, and b) things you’ve carried with you to soothe yourself. Your written plan may look like a different version of this: “I will take slow, deep breaths. I will repeat my mantra in my head as many times as I need to. I will make a list of [insert what applies] for work and home life that I’ve put off until now.
I will do little ankle rolls and then do wrist rolls. I will close my eyes and try to relax every single muscle in my face. I also have my gum to chew to keep my mouth busy. I have my little stress ball and I will play with it between my fingers. I might get out a book if I feel like it. I will scroll through pictures of my dog because that always cheers me up.”
These notes will keep you focused and relaxed, and they are key to controlling your mind.
Ultimately, it’s not one particular coping technique that will help you overcome your fear of flying – it’s the mix of several tools that will make the difference. The point is that our minds aren’t like small children we let run wild, but rather sophisticated devices that go haywire if we don’t give them appropriate, firm boundaries. Try all these coping techniques the next time you fly and ask yourself later which technique helped you the most. While I already know which one it will probably be (hint: it’s visual), what works best for you may be a surprise.
Dr. Seth Meyers is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and TV guest expert. He is the author of the self-help book Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve. He earned his B.A. in psychology from Vassar College and graduated from the APA-accredited doctoral program in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology in New York City, where he earned the Jeffrey Sage Award for overall excellence in clinical psychology.
Meyers has worked for approximately 15 years in the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health system, including the last several years which focused on threat assessment and safety in school and college settings.