Phobia of flying: how can it be treated?

It is estimated that between one-fifth and one-third of all travellers suffer from some degree of fear of flying. Yet there are techniques, training courses and courses to help you overcome your fear of flying! Find out how to detect it, identify its causes, and how to treat your fear of flying so you can travel with a clear mind.

Are you affected by fear of flying?

Fear of flying is a manifestation of fear and anxiety at the mention of air travel, whether in France or on the other side of the world. In its most acute form, anxiety may appear as soon as the trip is planned and flights booked. It increases as the day of departure approaches, eventually leading to insomnia. Feelings of anguish and anxiety peak on arrival at the airport, during boarding and during the flight. Once at altitude, the patient may feel great discomfort and stress, and becomes hyper-receptive to surrounding signals. Every signal is then interpreted catastrophically, whether it's unfamiliar noises or in-flight turbulence - all of which are perfectly normal. The phobia of flying is expressed in varying degrees and can cause symptoms of stress, anxiety and even panic.

List of symptoms of phobia of flying

  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Gastric problems
  • Blushing
  • Loss of bearings
  • Feeling of disorientation
  • Irritability

Airplane phobia and avoidance

Another symptom is avoidance. In its acute form, it consists of not flying at all, for fear of being confronted by these anxieties. The person concerned will carefully avoid airports, which has the detrimental effect of entrenching the anxieties thanks to the deceptive comfort of no longer feeling them. Another, more common avoidance strategy: many people who suffer from anxiety when flying resort to medication or alcohol, before or during the flight. This helps to alleviate symptoms by lowering the level of consciousness, without overcoming the fear of flying. Sometimes, symptoms are mild enough to be tolerated. Air travel can be uncomfortable and stressful, but not to the point of panic and phobia. The traveler will often immerse himself in distractions (films or books) to avoid thinking about a situation that deeply concerns him. Even if it's far less disabling, this is a case to watch out for, to prevent mild stress from degenerating into a fear of flying!

Where does the fear of flying come from?

Fear of flying: a complex phobia

Where does a phobia of flying come from? In reality, there is no universal answer to this question. It's a particularly difficult anxiety disorder to diagnose, and it's different for every individual. Fear of flying is a complex phobia, a mixture of fears specific to flying (fear of technical failure, pilot failure, turbulence, fear of crashing...) and non-specific fears (claustrophobia, social phobias, fear of the ocean, fear of losing control...). In some patients, these non-specific fears pre-exist the phobia of flying, but are revealed by the flight situation. The problem with airplane phobia or anxiety is that these disorders blend together. They become difficult to disentangle and identify without outside help (whether cognitive-behavioral therapies or hypnosis). The feeling of discomfort is self-sufficient and takes on the name of fear of flying, anxiety, or even phobia of flying when it becomes truly paralyzing.

How do you become phobic about flying?

A phobia of flying is not innate. It is always curable. It cannot be repeated often enough: no one is born with a phobia of flying! On the contrary, it's an acquired fear, combining pre-existing disorders. It's impossible to generalize how a phobia of flying is acquired. Sometimes it's triggered by a bad experience on the plane: a hectic flight, severe turbulence, a breakdown during the flight... In many other cases, it appears from one day to the next, without any logical cause. Some phobias even appear in flight crews or frequent flyers, after thousands of hours of trouble-free flying! Finally, in many cases, anxiety about flying is self-fed by the media exposure of air crashes. Although infinitely rarer than road accidents, their treatment accentuates anxiety phenomena in people with an anxious background. That's why we advise you to avoid focusing on continuous news coverage, and to seek balanced information from real specialists in aviation safety.

Definition of fear of flying

Phobia of flying is also known as aviophobia or aerodromophobia. It is one of the anxiety disorders. It's a phobia of air travel. Phobia is to be distinguished from simple fear. The latter is a graduated, adapted reaction, useful in the event of danger. Phobia, on the other hand, is a pathological fear that needs to be treated. It has no connection with reality and considerably overestimates risk. Phobia is closely related to anxiety, a state of psychological disturbance caused by fear of danger. A phobia of flying can be said to exist when the anxiety is so incapacitating as to cause great discomfort or make it impossible to fly.

Fear of flying: 3 examples of triggers

Flying triggers specific, often pre-existing anxieties. Here are 3 (non-exhaustive) examples of anxiety disorders that can be treated separately.

Fear of flying and claustrophobia

Claustrophobia is the fear of confined spaces. Very widespread, it is one of the main causes of airplane phobias. Patients suffering from claustrophobia have a hard time coping with the fact of being in a small cabin, with no way of getting out. In particular, claustrophobia is the panic fear of not being able to escape in the event of danger. It's linked to the loss of control felt by many air travellers. Once identified, treating claustrophobia as an anxiety disorder is a possible technique for overcoming the phobia of flying.

Air holes and turbulence on planes

Air holes are probably the most common misconception about aircraft. They stem from the misconception that there are areas of «emptiness» in the sky. In air holes, the aircraft is no longer supported, experiences turbulence and can even fall. Of course not! Air holes don't exist, because there's no more vacuum in air than in water. Turbulence is caused by the movement of air masses. They are not dangerous for aircraft, but at most cause discomfort in the cabin. As part of cognitive-behavioral therapy (or CBT), patients can be given reliable information about flying and air safety, so as to short-circuit their preconceived ideas and defuse most of their fears about flying.

Vacuum phobia

Vacuum phobia (or acrophobia) is a fear of heights out of all proportion to the real dangers. A plane cannot fall from the sky! On the contrary, thanks to its lift, it can fly for many kilometers, even if the engines are switched off.

How to overcome a fear of flying?

It's never too late, nor too early, to treat a fear of flying. Everyone can benefit from our anti-fear of flying courses, and rediscover the pleasure of flying with peace of mind. Overcoming the fear of flying is a great achievement. It allows you to feel fully in control of your destiny, and to enjoy trips with family and friends, anywhere in the world. For business travellers, it means finally being able to go on business trips without being polluted by phobias or anxieties. There's no single method for overcoming a phobia of flying: hypnosis, homeopathy and self-help books also have their fans. That said, it's psychology and cognitive-behavioral therapies that have the best results when it comes to overcoming phobias and traveling with a lighter mind.

Cognitive-behavioral therapies

Every therapy for phobia of flying is different. It must identify the nature of the anxiety and the anxiety disorders that may be present. Identifying the cause of a phobia or anxiety about flying is fundamental. This gives us the opportunity to treat any pre-existing disorders separately. Whether it's claustrophobia, social anxiety, loss-of-control anxiety or something else, knowing the exact cause of your fear of flying is the first step in targeting therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapies (or CBT) have proved their worth in the treatment of phobias in the broad sense, and in particular for fear of flying. What are they? These therapies are based on two components: 1.cognitive and 2.behavioral. The cognitive part provides a knowledge base for understanding the subject of the phobia: airplanes, flying, piloting, air safety. The behavioral component builds a physical response to stress symptoms. This includes relaxation and breathing techniques. Taken together, CBT helps to replace the thought circuits and bad reflexes that led to the vicious circle of air phobia.