Recently, I took an international trip with my family that required a 16-hour plane ride. Stuck in an uncomfortable middle seat for this unpleasantly long flight I had lots of time to think and reflect in order to make the most of this extended period of nothingness. One of the topics I thought about is how life would change if I had a fear of flying phobia and the trips and family adventures I would miss out on. Fear of flying is common and many of my patients talk to me about this very thing. You can learn how to overcome fear of flying phobia. There are many adventures that await you (or business trips). Don’t let the anxiety and fear that accompany this hold you back- get treatment and put the anxiety behind you.
Fear of flying, or aviophobia, is a type of “specific phobia” involving unreasonable and out-of-proportion levels of intense, persistent, fear of specific objects, situations, activity, or people.
Oftentimes, people with anxiety manage it by doing something that makes them feel in control. Anxiety causes such out-of-control feelings it’s a natural response to reflexively do things to feel back in control. Not all forms of “taking control” actually help us in the long run but they need to be recognized as attempts at self-soothing and anxiety management.
These attempts to regain control over anxious feelings may take the form of:
You aren’t flying the plane (well, I hope you aren’t!) and you can’t get off if you want to. If you have a panic attack you will be “trapped” in the airplane for the duration of the flight. It’s no wonder that so many people with anxiety have a fear of flying.
Avoidance is usually the coping mechanism that wins with fear of flying. People with a flying phobia will do whatever they can to avoid a flight. I have patients who are willing to drive for 24 hours to make it to an event that they could have flown 3 hours to get to. And 2 days later they have to turn around and drive back. Oftentimes, they insist this doesn’t bother them but I wonder how much that is a defense because the idea of flying is UNTHINKABLE to them.
Having a fear of flying phobia may sound like it wouldn’t cause many difficulties in one’s life since most people don’t need to fly often…. until you hear individuals describe how it has changed their life. I have had patients completely alter their professional trajectory out of fear they would need to travel. This includes declining promotions that they otherwise wanted because the jobs would involve distant business meetings or deciding to change careers entirely to one that will never require airplane travel.
This phobia interferes with family life when people end up staying home from family trips that require flying. Weddings missed and distant adventures never experienced, a flying phobia can be made into a whole family affair.
When people do acquiesce to taking a trip, their anxiety may skyrocket and they often fret and seek reassurance from the time the trip is booked until it happens… sometimes declining to go at the last minute. It can be paralyzing for them. If a trip is booked a year in advance, without treatment a person with a flying phobia may spend the majority of the year with anticipatory anxiety worrying about this upcoming vacation.
Many people seek out medication from their doctor to alleviate the terror they feel about flying. This usually takes the form of as-needed anxiety relieving medication they can take just before getting on the flight. Although this can reduce the person’s anxiety, and be the reason they agree to fly, there are more effective preventative treatments available.
In the situation of occasional airplane travel, using an as-needed benzodiazepine is possibly reasonable (I say possibly because it depends on the particular person’s history. Benzodiazepines are not appropriate for everyone even if the situation is a reasonable one to use it for). Oftentimes, when a person knows they have a medication that will reduce anxiety, this is enough for them to agree to travel. They may never love flying, but they know they can “white-knuckle” it and get through when they need to.
Solely having treatment be an as-needed benzodiazepine isn’t ideal if:
People can overcome this fear by doing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) specifically aimed at addressing their fear of flying.
Created by a pilot (he is also a therapist) who knows everything about airplanes, Soar is a great example of a successful program to address the fear of flying.
I love this program because it combines his flying expertise with specially created CBT programs to target fear of flying. He has DVD’s to listen to on your own time, and some packages include 1:1 counseling with him. He even has an emergency program called “Help Me Now” targeted to people flying the next day who need immediate intervention so they can get on a plane.
I have had patients terrified of flying use this program who can attest to its benefits. They now fly comfortably without the need for anxiety medication.
Watch these educational videos from Captain Bunn about fear of flying. They include pointers about how to get rid of it.
Don’t miss out on any other family vacations or work trips that are needed for your career. There are treatments available that can successfully treat flying phobia so you don’t need to avoid and worry any longer.
Get the help you need. Talk to your physician and/or check out the Soar program so you can eliminate this fear of flying permanently.
A version of this article first appeared here.
Dr. Melissa Welby is a psychiatrist that participates in people’s process of discovery, empowerment, and search for satisfaction and happiness. She treats a variety of illnesses including depression, anxiety & panic attacks, adult ADHD (Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorders), bipolar disorder, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and borderline personality disorder. She is also the current president of the Connecticut Psychiatric Association.She completed her Internship & Residency at Cambridge Hospital, affiliate of Harvard Medical School, 2000 to 2004. Dr. Melissa Welby is Board Certified in General Psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, 2005 to present.