I am a social work specialist and an instructor in the
Department of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa Health Care. I
will be happy to take your questions on the topic of Fear of Flying. I have spent
the last 10 years working with individuals who have a fear of flying. And,
during the past year, I have begun to offer discussion groups for people with the fear of
What is the first step in overcoming fear of flying?
I think the first step in
overcoming the fear of flying is to start getting information about opportunities
in your area to work with someone who can help you take the necessary steps to
face this fear.
I hate to fly--I know my fears are way exaggerated but how do I get over
I don't think we get over our fear, but I think we learn to
face it and, through a series of techniques, we can learn to control our fearful
thoughts as well as some of the uncomfortable physical reactions that are
associated with those fearful thoughts. Another helpful approach is to get more
accurate information about the actual dangers of flying. We know, for instance,
that flying is 20 times safer than driving a car. Even though we may know that in
our rational, logical mind, often times our fear is really a product of our
emotional reaction, and it is very difficult to combat it with logic. It would be
nice if we could simply think or feel our way out of fear, but I think that it is
very much like conquering other fears or changing other behaviors, and namely we actually have to do something different. Many people, I think, are
familiar with the expression from Alcoholics Anonymous that says, "Walk the walk and talk the
talk." The idea being that if you change your behavior, eventually your thoughts
and feelings will change.
Where does the fear of flying start? Is it a past experience that causes
The most accurate answer is that we really don't know because it is
probably different for each person. Certainly, for some people a past experience
seems to cause it. If someone has a scary experience or an experience that they
interpret as scary, they, in fact, may develop a fear. Sometimes we learn to be
afraid because other people around us are afraid or are expressing fear. Many
fears are the result of misinformation and not understanding, for instance, how
an airplane flies. As we look at some of these enormous planes sitting on the
ground, it is very difficult to imagine how this thing gets off the ground
and stays in the air.
Why do some people hate to fly so much?
I have thought about this a great deal actually, and I have come to
the conclusion that people don't really fear flying itself, but that they have a
number of other fears that are associated with flying such as the fear of
heights or the fear of being trapped in a closed place. I
think that for many people there is a fear of crashing and dying. For some
people, I have discovered, that the fear of flying is actually tied to a fear of
leaving home and leaving a familiar place. However, I have found that the number-one reason that people share with me and talk about in the flying groups is not
being in control of the situation. Some people have a fear of going too fast;
that was one that came up in my last group, another fear is related to a fear of
heights. These people often fear going up in elevators, climbing ladders etc.
I think that because there are a number of fears that are a part of this
condition, it can be more complicated to treat. On the other hand, one of the
things I have discovered is that regardless of the specific reasons that
people fear flying, when they finally decide to face their fear and get some
help, most of them are able to achieve success.
I hate to fly over large bodies of water--but over land I am ok. Why is
If you have a fear of water, it may be that this is part of the
fear. Perhaps you believe that on land there would be more people to see you and
to help in an emergency. Since most of us spend most of our time on land, it might seem safer to us.
What can I do to make my kids not afraid to fly?
When we are working with our children, one of the
things that is very important is for us to be aware of how much impact our own
words and fears have. If you are a person who is afraid to fly, it is okay to
admit that to your children, but then to say to them, "Even though I am afraid, I
am working on this." Also, helping them to realize that there will be many times
in life when situations seem scary, but if we face our fear and we don't avoid
the situation, we usually find that it is less scary than we predicted. So much
of fear about anything seems to be anticipatory, and it seems to be what I would
call, "looking for a future catastrophe," and reacting as if the catastrophe is
happening now and is real at this moment.
Every time I even think of flying I have nightmares about it--how can I
I think that you may not be able to stop it, but you may be able to
understand that as you begin to change the way you think about flying, you will
likely find that you have fewer nightmares, or they are less severe. A part of
the nightmares may be an expression of the fears that you have during the day and
the way you are thinking about flying. If you were to decide to think about it
differently, or take steps to manage your anxiety about flying, I suspect the
nightmares would decrease.
Am I nuts to hate to fly?
Of course not. There are many people who are uncomfortable about
flying, and we would certainly not consider these people to be "nuts" or to have
a mental disorder. We describe flying phobia as a mental disorder when the person
takes extraordinary steps to avoid flying and the avoidance of flying has a
serious impact on their life. There are many people who feel that not flying does
not interfere with their lives and that not flying is a perfectly comfortable
choice for them. If that were the case, we certainly would not diagnose that as a
disorder. Generally the people who come to me for treatment want to overcome this
fear because it is having a significant impact on their lives. Perhaps it is
affecting the kinds of jobs they could get. In some cases, it is affecting family
life because families may not be able to take a distant vacation in a short
amount of time unless they fly. If not flying does not interfere with your life,
there is certainly nothing wrong with you. If it is not interfering with your
life or keeping you from doing things you would enjoy, there is probably no
reason to change. Most of us do not change unless there is a very strong
Is drinking alcohol to overcome the initial fear of taking off on the
plane a bad idea?
We do not recommend that people use alcohol or drugs except in very
small amounts because those, by themselves, can create other problems. These
substances could also interferes with the sense of accomplishment or the sense of
being able to deal with the experience. There was a pilot for one of the airlines
who developed a fear-of-flying program a number of years ago and one of his
comments was, for a small fear then a small drink. If it's more than that, you
are trying to shut out the experience. When we work with people who are dealing
with anxiety associated with flying or with any other situation, we are actually
teaching that person to do something that we call "habituating." This means,
"getting used to." What that means is learning to tolerate a certain level of
anxiety, by not exaggerating the response to the anxiety. By not demanding that
the anxiety go away immediately, you will find that this is what will help bring
the anxiety down. When you use alcohol/drugs to block the anxiety, you cannot
Do you have suggestions on how to be able to fall asleep on a plane? I
have trouble sleeping even on nighttime flights?
Different techniques, such as listening to soft music, may help people in falling asleep on a plane
or relaxation tapes. People who are flying
through several times zones, such as on international flights, may find it
helpful to have their physician prescribe a mild sleeping pill. Obviously you
need to talk to your own physician about what would be best. It is probably a
good idea to try that medication at a time when you are not flying just to be
sure you don't experience any adverse side effects. If you have a fairly relaxed
attitude about sleeping on the plane--and what I mean is that you not demand
that you be able to go to sleep--it may be easier for you to relax and sleep.
There are a number of people who do not have a lot of anxiety associated with
flying, but they find it difficult to sleep on a plane because it is not always
the most comfortable position, other people may be up and around, the lights may
be on or off and it may not be a restful environment, so you may simply have to
accept that it is difficult to sleep on a plane.
Can hypnotherapy work for people who don't like to fly?
That can be very helpful. In the techniques that I use with anxious
flyers, we do a great deal of relaxation and some hypnosis, including
self-hypnosis. Many people can learn the technique of self-hypnosis, which can
make them feel as though they have a great deal of control over their reaction.
What are some other techniques we can try?
There are a variety of relaxation techniques that can be very
helpful. If you also are able to identify specific aspects of your anxiety about
flying such as a fear of heights, for instance, you can work with someone who can
help you to be more comfortable going up in an elevator or standing at the top of
a building and looking out at the horizon. If the fear is related to being in an
enclosed place, you can work on going to places that are more crowded, perhaps
starting out by sitting close to the door and gradually moving forward and being
able to sit in the middle of a row at a movie theatre. Certainly for some people,
looking at issues about being away from home and finding ways to be more
comfortable as you think about leaving home may be more helpful. It is really
important to look at the associated fears that go along with flying.
For those with this phobia, do you recommend that they sit in a
particular location on the airplane that is less anxiety producing?
This certainly can be helpful for people. You may have to experiment
to decide what location is best for you. Many people find that if they sit
in an aisle seat they have a sense of being able to get out of their seat more
easily or are able to stretch their legs out more comfortably. Other people feel
more comfortable sitting by a window. Again, it depends on the particular person.
Generally speaking, sitting slightly forward or over the wings is a more
comfortable place. If you sit back towards the tail section, you may have more of
a sensation of motion and be more uncomfortable.
Can reading be a good idea as a distraction?
Another anxiety associated with flying is motion sickness. These
people usually experience discomfort because of the motion, and it's not the
flying itself that produces their discomfort. These people are equally
uncomfortable in the back seat of a car or in a boat. People who have motion
sickness will often report that trying to read while in a moving object makes
them very uncomfortable. If you are not subject to motion sickness and are able
to read, it can be extremely helpful, especially if it is something that is very
compelling and interesting to you. You may find that you hardly notice that
you're flying because you are so absorbed in what you are reading.
Can you give some tips on meditation or other relaxation techniques that
can be used while in the seat on the plane?
I think those are excellent techniques to use. There are some
commercially produced relaxation tapes that can be purchased. I think the secret
is to practice with them faithfully for several weeks before you take your
flight. This is true in general about meditation and relaxation. It is important
to practice before you actually need it so that your body and mind respond
automatically. If you get into a situation where you are experiencing extremely
high anxiety, it may be more difficult to use the relaxation if you have not
practiced at other times. What we are doing when we teach relaxation is that we
are starting to change the connections. When you are anxious about flying, you
associate feelings of anxiety with the flying experience. We are trying to
re-associate feelings of relaxation with the flying experience. I mentioned
earlier that perhaps the most prominent reason for the fear of flying is the
feeling of loss of control. I would agree that as passengers, we are not in
control in a plane the way we are if we are driving a car. While we cannot
control what is going on in the cockpit, we can control how we think about the
experience and by using relaxation techniques and thinking differently about the
experience, we can control some of those disturbing sensations in our body, such
as our heart beating rapidly, feeling shaky, or trembling. Some people will
experience feelings of dizziness or sweating, any number of reactions associated
with feelings of fear. The relaxation techniques help us to calm those feelings
and give us something we can control. Some of the other things we do as part of
our training to manage the anxiety associated with flying involve getting more
accurate information about flying itself, such as how airplanes fly and what some
of the noises are that disturb us. When we don't understand something, we tend to
be afraid of it. One of the things that we do in helping overcome this fear is to
have what I call "Ask a Pilot" sessions. If you are in a large city with airline
service you might want to contact the airline to ask if they have any programs
to help fearful flyers. They may be able to give you permission, for instance, to
board a plane that is parked and just sit in a cabin and note that your feelings
of anxiety will gradually subside as you sit there. There are some cassette tapes
and books that also are helpful for self-help. That there are a
number of things that people can do to help themselves, and there are therapists
who are able to help people overcome their anxiety about flying.
It is important to emphasize that any fear is maintained by avoidance.
As long as people continue to avoid fearful situations, they will find it very
difficult to decrease their fear. On the other hand, one of the
things we need to look at is the role of the media and the kind of publicity that
is given to a plane crash which, in fact, is a very rare event, which is why it
is newsworthy. We live in an age now where we have instant graphic pictures when
any kind of disaster occurs. Those visual images are replayed over and over for
days and days in excruciating detail. By constantly replaying them, it reinforces
the idea that this is a very common event and that every time you get on a plane,
you are in eminent danger of a disaster when, in fact, that is very far from the
truth. As we said before, flying is extremely safe, particular in the United States, Canada,
and Western Europe. Therefore, if you are flying on regularly scheduled airlines,
you will find that airline safety is extremely high. It is also important to
realize that the airlines have a great investment in making flying safe because
when there is the rare accident, there is an immediate effect on the
number of cancellations and the number of people who then decide not to fly. The
effort to improve airline safety is an ongoing one. Pilots are very vigorously
trained and aircraft are built to very high safety standards. There are over
40,000 flights per day in the world, and very, very few accidents.
By way of summary, we might talk about some other things that are helpful when
you are planning a trip by air. I think it is important to optimize the
possibility of a successful experience. Obviously, leaving yourself plenty of
time is very important. If people are rushing around, trying to get to the
airport, they are going to find themselves feeling more anxious and they are
going to set themselves up for more distress. Plan carefully in advance so that
you leave enough time for doing what you need to do at home before you leave,
perhaps packing the car the night before or early the next morning, getting to
the airport early and selecting a seat near the front where it will be quieter
and smoother. It is important to eat appropriately, not going on an empty stomach
but also avoiding a very heavy meal, which may make you uncomfortable if you are
sitting for a long period on the plane. You may want to bring along a good book
or magazine to read. You can distract yourself by watching other passengers at
the airport and on the plane, observing people who seem to be relaxed. You may
also enjoy bringing along a portable tape or CD player for the flight.
My husband fears flying, what shall he do?
Your husband needs to decide how important it is to overcome this
fear. It may be helpful for him to look at the positive aspects of being able to
fly. How would it make his life more enjoyable? He also may want to look at the
things he is missing out on because he is not able to fly. Then, the next step is
to look for a professional who has experience in helping people overcome their
fear of flying and making an appointment to talk with that person. Sometimes
people find it very helpful if they have a supportive friend/partner who goes to
the fear-of-flying group with them and helps them in planning some ways to expose
themselves to flying situations. Sometimes it is helpful to actually build what
we call a hierarchy of situations associated with flying, starting out with the
thing you fear most, which might be the flight itself, and then looking at some
aspects that are less frightening, like buying a travel magazine or going to a
travel agency and looking at possible trips. Another step would be driving to an
airport and just watching the planes land and take off, just to get used to being
in that environment. Another step would be sitting in the lobby at the airport,
imagining yourself taking a flight and then using your relaxation training to help
manage the anxiety as you think about that step. This is a common technique in
relaxation in which we ask people to imagine themselves planning a trip, leaving
home, arriving at the airport, and standing in line for their ticket and so
forth. It would be very helpful if he books his ticket early and is assured
of a window seat. If he can work with someone who will help him learn to
relax, he may be able to control his physical reactions and he may also, with
good information, be less likely to have such a strong thought that every time he
gets in the airplane he will crash. We are really working in a number of areas
when we are tackling a fear. We are working on our thoughts, which then affect
the feelings we have, but most importantly, we are making a change in our
behavior. As that behavior changes, we usually find that our thoughts and
feelings will change as well. One of the comments I would like to make about the
fear of flying, or the anxiety associated with flying, is to have realistic
expectations. What I mean by that is being willing to accept some degree of
anxiety associated with flying rather than believing you must be perfectly calm
and relaxed or you have not been successful.
What I would like to say in closing is that the fear of flying is
extremely common. It is estimated that 25 million people in the United States are so
frightened they will not fly at all. An additional 50 million experience
substantial anxiety whenever they do fly. However, we also know that a great
number of people have been able to reduce their anxiety and to fly more
comfortably and experience the benefits of being able to do the things they want
to do. One of the people that I worked with found that as she began to overcome
her fear of flying, she found that many other fears also decreased and her
feelings of empowerment and confidence markedly increased. I will encourage all
of those people who have joined us today to think about challenging their fear of
flying because they may find many other benefits as well. I would like to thank
all of those who have joined us today.