Afraid of Flying?

Learn How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help You Manage Those Flying Phobias.

As a clinical psychologist, I help people manage fears, or phobias, that interfere with life.  Many people are afraid of flying but are able to overcome these fears with help.  Below are fictional “dear diary” stories to illustrate how many people feel when facing a Boeing 747 followed by specific ways that therapy can help you get your feet off the ground.

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Dear Diary,

I must be coming down with something…my stomach has been upset for the past two days, and I keep breaking out in sweats. I hope it’s not a stomach virus.

Or maybe it’s a respiratory thing? I notice I can’t catch my breath lately. And my heart is beating so fast! Maybe I should see a cardiologist.

Or maybe I hit my head? I’ve been getting sort of dizzy and noticed some tingling in my hands and feet. Which doctor helps with that? A neurologist? I don’t know.

I can’t figure out why this is all happening now. And just before Thanksgiving! I’m supposed to go visit the family, and my flight leaves on Wednesday.…You don’t think that this has anything to do with the terror I feel at the thought of getting on an airplane…right?

Yours truly,

Ms. Jittery

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Sound familiar?  

For many of the 45+ million Americans who fly at Thanksgiving, the anxiety of flying sets in days in advance. For some, it might ruin their whole week. Whether the fear began after a particularly rough flight or has been around as long as a person can remember, the physical symptoms that come along with a fear of flying can be very uncomfortable, and often scary.

Some people experience full-blown panic attacks while in flight, and others feel little waves of anxiety every time they think about flying. Whether the feelings come on intensely all at once or build up slowly over a period of time, physical symptoms are a core experience for those with a fear of flying.

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Journal,

The car is almost packed. I have 23 hours of new podcast material to listen to, which should last me the entire drive. I’ll need another 23 for the ride back at the end of the week, but I’ll deal with that later.  Sure, flying would get me there more quickly. And yes, the rest of the family will be catching up for a day and a half before I even arrive. And yeah—I am missing a bit more work than I should (not to mention that huge meeting I won’t make it back for on Monday) but that’s okay. Everybody—from my family to my coworkers—knows that I don’t fly. I mean, I never have before—why start now?

Signed,

Mr. Evader

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How about this?

Most of us know at least one person who will go to great lengths (in a car…) to avoid flying. Avoidance can seem to help with a fear of flying in that you don’t have to experience the anxiety of getting on a plane.  However, avoidance can actually make things worse in the long run. By continuing to avoid airplanes, a person never gives himself the chance to learn that he actually can manage his anxiety and that flying actually is relatively safe. But, as any avid evader knows, avoidance can be addictive!

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For my memoire –

That’s it! I just landed, and I swear I will NEVER fly again—and this time I mean it! These airlines nowadays don’t seem to care about passenger safety. With all of the noises that plane made, I was certain that something was wrong. But the worst was when the noise stopped! I swear heard the engine stop working entirely. And the turbulence! I’m telling you—that plane dropped 500 feet in 5 seconds. It’s a miracle that we didn’t fall right out of the sky. I just know that one of these days, my plane will crash. Or even if it doesn’t, I’ll feel so uncomfortable that it might as well crash.

Until next time,

Mrs. Uninformed X. Thinking-Traps

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And finally, this?

For lots of people, their fear of flying is perpetuated not only by misinformation, but also by “thinking traps” that work against them when it comes time for a flight. Erroneous concepts such as the existence of “air pockets” and airplanes “dropping” in the sky contribute to people’s experience of fear when it comes to flying.

Furthermore, fearful flyers often overestimate the likelihood of risk on a flight.  They also imagine unpleasant flying experiences to be much more intolerable than they actually are. Both of these common “thinking traps” keep people stuck in the experience of fear when it comes time to travel.

How can Cognitive Behavior Therapy help?

So—are fearful flyers doomed to lives limited by the distance one can reasonably drive in a car? Definitely not!

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic approach that shows great success in managing fears, or phobias, such as the fear of flying.

But how? Through a combination of:

  • Education
  • Breathing skills
  • Thinking skills
  • Graduated exposure to flying-related scenarios
  • Mindfulness

CBT can help people conquer their fear of flying and expand their experiences and lives. Information about flying itself as well as information about the body’s response to fear can go a long way in managing anxiety. Slowed, deep breathing skills quiet the physical reactions of fear, and learning to think from an evidence-based and measured perspective helps to bring big fears down to size.

As with any phobia, exposure to the feared situation itself is key. The creative use of videos and virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) help familiarize a person with the airplane environment, and, as we all learned during 4th grade piano lessons: practice makes perfect! Finally, from a mindfulness-based perspective, practicing observing one’s own experience of fear without feeling totally consumed by it can help a person navigate the very uncomfortable experience that is fear of flying.

Whether you’ve avoided flying your whole life or just started avoiding it last year, you don’t need to go through another holiday season with the same level of dread that you have in years past.

To learn more about how CBT for fear of flying can work for you, contact us here.

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Julia Vigna Bosson, PhDBosson Rounded
Clinical Psychologist
Julia Vigna Bosson, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist. She has worked in various medical centers, including multiple VA hospitals, in private practice, and for the NYU Posttraumatic Stress (PTSD) Research Program. Dr. Bosson has a specialty in treatment of anxiety and trauma disorders, ranging from the effects of daily stressors on physiology and immunity to PTSD and other post-trauma reactions. Dr. Bosson is a Certified Provider of Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) for PTSD.