Some people have gradually become uncomfortable flying, and no particular event seems to have caused their problem. We're not certain why people might grow increasingly fearful as the years go by. Perhaps it's an issue of age, since the fear of flying begins at 27 years old on average. As we get older, many of us have a family we care about. If we are leaving our young children or a spouse behind when we fly, we may feel threatened or afraid that they'll be abandoned, that we will never see them again. It is those thoughts that may cause us to become more fearful. Or perhaps as we get older we pay more attention to the fragility of life, so that the older some people get, the more fearful they become. That fear can translate into a discomfort about flying.
You may not be able to pinpoint when your anxiety about flying began. Many people, though, can identify at least one of four different circumstances that contributed to their first problems with flying. These are: remembering a bad flight, hearing scary stories about flying, taking a flight while feeling nervous or claustrophobic, or traveling during a personally stressful phase in their life. I will discuss each of these possibilities in the next few pages. See which ones seem to fit for you.
Common Causes of Fear of Flying
- You had a difficult time during a previous flight
- You reacted to stories you have heard
- You developed other problems which increased your discomfort of flying
- You had several months of stress prior to becoming uncomfortable
1. You had a difficult time during a previous flight
The vast majority of people who become uncomfortable flying never experience actual danger on a flight. This is because danger is rare in commercial aviation. Yet they become frightened while flying, which causes them to worry about future flights.
How do you define a frightening experience? It is any experience that your mind decides is frightening. Realistically it might not be a problem; there may be no threat to your life or health. Yet if you feel scared, you will remember the experience as a dangerous one.
Let's say you're taking a commercial flight, and the ride is smooth and calm. Then you see the seat belt light turn on, and the Captain announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, soon we will be approaching some choppy air. We would like everyone to return to their seats and fasten their seat belts." Simply hearing that there is going to be turbulence may make your heart race immediately. Even though the plane is safe, you end up feeling traumatized. That is, you were frightened, regardless of the real danger, and you felt out of control.
Whenever you think you are out of control, you will have fearful thoughts and your body will become tense. If that experience is frightening enough, you will become "conditioned" to it. This means that when you take flights in the future, you will begin to anticipate the possibility of turbulence again, and become anxious just thinking about it.
So if you have memories of past flights in which you felt uncomfortable, and those memories come back to you easily, this can be at least partly responsible for your current discomfort.
2. You reacted to stories you have heard
You can also develop discomfort simply by hearing about someone else's problem. We call this "vicarious" learning. You hear about another person's experience, and then imagine yourself having that same experience. We have clear examples of this phenomenon in the airline industry. Vicarious fears develop with every airplane accident we hear about. People will imagine what it would have been like for them if they had been aboard that particular plane.
If your mind rehearses a traumatic event in imagery, your body will react to it almost as though it were happening in reality, and you will feel anxious. What if you then predict that it might occur when you next fly? ("Hey, it happened to that plane. That means it could happen to my plane!") You will likely get more anxious and associate that anxiety with your next flight. It can be as simple as that.
How to Turn Stories into Worry
Hear About Someone Else's Problem --> Imagine It Happening To You --> Get Anxious --> Worry About Your Next Flight
Fearful fliers often look for data to reinforce their anxieties. They tend to ignore articles that talk about safety and how much the airline industry has improved in the past two decades. Instead, they seek out the articles discussing any possible danger or threat in the industry. This is a way people contribute to their own discomfort. They continue to gather evidence that supports their fearful position, while ignoring any data to the contrary.
3. You developed other problems which increased your discomfort of flying
Discomfort with flying can stem from a number of other fears: heights, crowds, closed-in spaces (claustrophobia), panic attacks, and feeling trapped or out of control.
Perhaps you are someone who has had panic attacks. Your first panic attack might have been in a sales meeting or just before giving a speech. Then, slowly but surely, the panic attacks started to occur elsewhere, such as in a car or on the subway, in a restaurant or a grocery store, in a church or in wide-open spaces.
Most people who have panic attacks need to believe that they can escape a fearful place easily, that they won't feel trapped or out of control. Well now, planes don't sound too much like they fit that criteria!
For example, you board a plane, find your seat and then sit back to watch other people board. A few minutes later you hear the announcements beginning, and you realize that the door is about to close. What if you don't like feeling trapped, and the idea of the door closing makes you feel trapped? At this point you may experience a rush of sensations: racing heart; light-headedness or dizziness; cold, clammy hands; tingling in your fingers, toes and mouth; difficulty breathing; becoming very hot or claustrophobic. Coupled with all these physical symptoms, you may have the urge to rush off the plane, thinking, "I'm about to lose control, and I'm going to be trapped," "I'm going to go crazy," "I'll have a heart attack," "I can't tolerate these feelings," or, "I'll make a fool of myself." Thoughts such as these will obviously increase your panic.
Any time you face your fears -- such as claustrophobia -- you may experience some symptoms of panic. If you have had uncomfortable symptoms on a recent flight, it wouldn't be surprising, then, for you to start questioning how well you will handle yourself on your next flight. Ironically, the more you worry about such problems, the greater the likelihood that they will occur. If you become worried enough, you may stop flying altogether as the only means you know to insure your comfort.
4. You had several months of stress prior to becoming uncomfortable
Your first difficulties with flying might have come after a period of stress in your life. This frequently relates to people who have developed panic attacks. We know from research that people tend to have their first panic attack following six to eight months of stress. This stress often relates to the theme of loss, such as death in the family, long-standing illness of someone close to you, moving, changing jobs, divorce. Even some events that seem like gains, such as marriage or having a child, can precede the first panic attack. Each of these positive events includes not only something that you gain, such as a partner or a son or daughter, but some sense of loss, such as your freedom, your ability to control your time, and your independence.
If you go through a very stressful period, it is as though your mind becomes more vulnerable and more fragile. Then, out of the clear blue, you have your first panic attack. If these panic attacks continue, then you will begin to fear places or situations in which you feel trapped or out of control. Airplanes can fit into that category, since you don't get to fly the plane and you don't get to get off whenever you want!
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What did you learn about how your discomfort started?
Did you notice several possible causes? Even more important than how your difficulty started is why it still exists.
For instance, did any part of your discomfort come from concerns about the airline industry? If so, then you will want to pay attention to that issue in the section called "Learning how to fly comfortably." You cannot get the complete benefits of this self-help program until you decide to trust the airline industry. As long as you believe that commercial aviation is inherently dangerous, then there are no techniques to make your flights comfortable. If your goal is to fly comfortably, then you must add the goal of making peace with the airlines.
Then make sure you continue studying with this material. Reassurance about airline safety alone may not be enough. If you have been worrying for a while, your worries may continue even with new data. You may need many or all of the skills I'm offering in this program. They will help you translate your new trust in the industry into comfort on your future flights.