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The Not-So-Friendly Skies: Letting Go of Flight Fear

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This morning, I boarded an airplane confidently, breathing normally and lacking a queasy stomach even well after take-off. After landing, I walked out of the airport feeling exactly as I had just a few hours earlier—calm and collected. This might sound mundane to you, but for me, it was a revelation. 


See, I’m what you’d call a nervous flier. Luckily, my love of travel far outweighs the fear, but flying has never been a good experience, for me or any of my flying companions. (I once left claw marks on a friend’s arm during a rough bout of turbulence, if that’s any indication of my angst.) But on my way out the door today, I vowed to arrive at my destination cool as a cucumber instead of the usual shaky, anxiety-ridden mess. All it took was a little research into how others got over their own flying fears. 


A Shared Fear
I’m not ashamed of my aerophobia because I know I’m in good company. Various polls over the years have estimated anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of people have at least some unease associated with flying. All phobias—fears that tend to be irrational and especially intense—vary in degree and cause, but flight fear tends to stem from the same kind of other phobias. For example, a claustrophobic person might be scared of air travel because of the enclosed, cramped spaces. Someone who’s afraid of losing control might not feel comfortable putting his or her life in the hands of an unknown pilot. When it comes to ridding oneself of the fear, it’s important to pinpoint exactly where it’s based. 


Being scared of danger in the air is mostly irrational. Airplanes are equipped to handle severe conditions and pilots go through rigorous, routine training sessions before they’re placed in the cockpit. That’s hard to remember at 20,000 feet in the air when gusts of wind jostle the plane and our nerves in the process. But when it comes to flying fear-free, having the right knowledge is an important first step. 


Knowledge Is Power
Notice the emphasis on the word “right”—that’s because popular media recognizes that disasters equal higher ratings, so when rare airplane accidents happen, we know about them ten times over. The constant stream of crash footage is enough to make anybody afraid, but the reason they’re covered so extensively is because of their rarity. Car incidents on highways, which cause many more fatalities than airplanes do (according to the book, Flying Without Fear), don’t receive as much attention because they’re more common. 


A great deal of fear is based on unknown or incorrect facts, especially when it comes to flying. Books like Flying Without Fear work to change that by providing readers with ample statistical information and basic flying protocol to ease worries. For example, one of the biggest triggers of anxiety attacks on airplanes is turbulence. The author, an actual pilot, assures us that planes are built to withstand turbulence and, though bumpy, it’s nothing pilots can’t handle. He likens it to an ill-paved road; it makes for an uncomfortable ride, but the driver won’t lose control as a result. 


There are courses designed to help people get over their fears that focus on educating clients. Some are affiliated with airlines and airports, such as Qantas Airways’ Fearless Flyers program and the Cleared 4 Takeoff sessions at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. There are also private clinics around the country offering the same kind of teachings. They instruct participants about different relaxation techniques and show them the way airplanes work, even simulating evacuation drills so that they feel prepared. Depending on the course, some graduates finish their programs with a short flight to test out their newly-developed coping skills. 


From Destructive to Productive
For those who want to teach themselves, adopting a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy seems to be the best bet. In fact, a 2006 study published in Behavior Therapy came to the same conclusion after testing 115 aerophobic volunteers with various treatments. Proponents of this type of therapy believe that, instead of avoiding scary activities, people should change their way of thinking about them. This involves education about the situation (realizing that air travel is safe, that pilots are skilled professionals, etc.) and finding ways to switch from irrational panic to constructive actions. Some people focus on taking deep breaths and relaxing each muscle group one by one. Others find ways to distract their thoughts by listening to music, reading, and so forth. 


Reading about the way airplanes work and what each noise signifies can be a tremendous help as well. The Web site Flying Without Fear has informative fact sheets and a page where you can listen to different sounds you might hear in an airport and on planes and what causes them. 


Best Advice Ever
Earlier this year, I was about to embark on a fourteen-hour overseas flight. I was stressed and nervous to the point of tears, so I called a friend right before the plane took off and he gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received: “Just picture yourself in your happy place. Don’t think of anything but that.” Sounds simple, but as soon as I allowed myself to do just that, I felt the anxiety melt away and I stayed in that safe place until the plane leveled in the air. 


After having such a low-maintenance flight this morning, I realized how silly it is to spend hours agonizing over the what-ifs of a situation. Freaking out about things that haven’t happened is pointless; when we’re flying, there’s nothing we can do but wait and see how things turn out. It helps going in armed with knowledge, relaxation methods, and distractive materials. (I’m a fan of MP3 players and trashy magazines, but you should use whatever floats your boat.) With the right tools at your disposal, even the most nervous of fliers can sit back and enjoy the ride—or at the very least, a brief vacation to your own personal happy place.

Related Story: Celebrity Phobias: What They Fear the Most

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