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Overcoming a Fear of Flying: Treatment & Self Help

written by: Rose Kivi • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 5/20/2011

Some occasional apprehension about flying is normal, but an irrational and debilitating fear is a phobia, called aviophobia (or aerophobia). Learn about aviophobia treatment options in this article and seek a doctor's advice for the fear of flying treatments best suited for you.

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    If you are afraid of flying, you are not alone. The University of Florida estimates that about "six-and-a-half percent of Americans" have aviophobia. There are medcations, therapies and self-help treatments are available to help you overcome you fears. Some treatments aim to temporaily relieve anxiety, while others aim to cure your phobia all-together.

    Interesting Tidbit

    Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Aretha Franklin and John Madden all suffer aviophobia, according to the 2004 "US News and World Report."

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    Medication

    Medication can help reduce anxiety associated with phobias such as aviophobia, but they are not a cure and do not take away the fear of flying. Antidepressants are sometimes useful in reducing anxiety associated with the fear of flying. However, beta blockers take several weeks to several months to work and are therefore usually only appropriate in treating people with aviophobia who fly often or who have other anxiety disorders as well.

    Benzodiazepines, such as ativan, valium and xanax, are quick acting medications that produce a mild sedative effect. They can be taken one to two hours before a flight to reduce anxiety symptoms. Benzodiazepines are habit forming and not appropriate for long term use. Beta blockers are another class of medications used to treat phobias. They are used on a short term basis to reduce physical symptoms of anxiety, such as sweating and trembling, according the National Institute of Mental Health.

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    Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

    Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is a type of therapy that teaches a person how to cope with feelings of stress and anxiety. The therapy gives the person the tools to defeat undesired thoughts and responses. CBT is not just the therapist giving the patient advice on dealing with their fear, rather it is the therapist teaching the patient how to recognize detrimental thinking processes and replacing the destructive thoughts with constructive thoughts. The Mayo Clinic lists CBT as a common and effective type of treatment for aviophobia and other "specific" phobias.

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    Exposure Therapy

    London Stansted Airport Exposure therapy, also called systematic desensitization, is a type of therapy that desensitizes the person to their fear in a safe and controlled environment. The therapist does not force a person with aviophobia to get on an airplane to face their fears, rather the therapist uses a gradual, step by step approach to reduce the fear of flying without causing extreme distress to the patient. An example of exposure therapy steps a person with aviophobia may take are:

    1. Draw a picture of an airplane.
    2. Read about airplanes and flying.
    3. Look at pictures of airplanes.
    4. Watch videos of people flying on airplanes.
    5. Go to an airport and look at airplanes through a window, while standing inside.
    6. Close your eyes and visualize flying on an airplane.
    7. Stand outside and look at airplanes from a distance.
    8. Walk close to an airplane.
    9. Touch an airplane
    10. Sit on an airplane for a few minutes and leave, without going on a flight.
    11. Fly on an airplane.

    The steps a person takes during exposure therapy and the speed in which a person advances from step to step are customized to the individual according to anxiety levels.

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    Virtual Reality Therapy

    Virtual reality therapy is a newer type of therapy used to treat aviophobia. It is similar to exposure therapy, except instead of relying on the patient's ability to use their own imagination, it uses a computerized virtual simulator to create a more realistic experience.

    One type of virtual simulator described by the 2003 Harvard Mental Health Letter uses a helmet, earphones and goggles that "display three-dimensional images provided by a computer graphics workstation". The virtual reality scenarios can be customized and changed according to the patient's needs.

    For instance, the first session can start with a virtual scenario where the person is looking at an airplane. The next session can have a virtual scenario of the person sitting on an airplane. Another session can have a virtual simulation of the person actually flying on an airplane. Virtual reality therapy puts the aviophobic person in a realistic, yet safe and non-threatening situation, where the patient has close-to-reality experiences, while maintaining the knowledge that the situation is not real.

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    Self-Help

    There are a couple of self-help treatments that you can practice at home. HELPGUIDE.org recommends that people learn about their phobia and practice combating negative thoughts associated with it. You can learn about aviophobia by going to the library or book store and picking up some books that have information on aviophobia and offer advice on how to tackle a fear of flying.

    One good book on aviophobia is "Flying Without Fear" by Duane Brown. To combat negative thoughts about flying, replace negative thoughts with positive ones. For example, replace "What if the airplane crashes?" with "Flying is one of the safest modes of transportation."

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    Helpful Resources for Finding Treatment

    Therapists

    To find a certified cogntive behavioral therapist in your area, visit the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist website, where you can search for therapists in your locale.

    Medication

    Visit a doctor if you are interested in taking medication to reduce your anxiety. Some general practioners wiil prescribe the medication, but psychiatrists have more training and experience in treating anxiety disorders. Locate can find a psychatrist in your area at the LocateADoc website.

    Therapy

    If you are interested in learning more about virtual reality therapy (VR therapy) for phobias, read this article by Hunger G. Hoffman in "Scientific American." The article gives a detailed explanation of how the therapy works on the brain. One place that offers VR treatment is the Center for Virtual Reality Therapy, located in near Los Angeles, Calfornia.

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    References

    Learn to Fly; University of Florida; http://newsdev.health.ufl.edu/heartbeat/heartbeat.aspx?ID=8309

    "US News and World Report"; December 6, 2004

    Phobias and Fears; HELPGUIDE.org; http://www.helpguide.org/mental/phobia_symptoms_types_treatment.htm

    What Medications are Used to Treat Anxiety Disorders; National Institute of Mental Health; http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/mental-health-medications/what-medications-are-used-to-treat-anxiety-disorders.shtml

    Virtual Reality Therapy; Harvard Health Publications; Harvard Mental Health Letter; 2003; http://www.cybertherapy.info/Virtual%20Reality%20Therapy_Harvard.pdf

    Phobias; Mayo Clinic; http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/phobias/DS00272/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs

    Picture by Oxyman - released into the public domain under GNU Free Documentation License