Aerophobia: A Look at the Causes and Symptoms of a Fear of Flying And Treatment Options

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When faced with boarding an aircraft, an aerophobic passenger feels intense anxiety and terror. Some people choose to avoid flying completely which limits how far they can travel and can lead to missed opportunities in life. For example, being too frightened to fly may result in declining a lucrative job offer that requires occasional long-distance travel, or it could lead to a demotion at work. The disruptive consequences of refusing to fly may nevertheless seem more appealing than actually having to board a plane.

What Causes a Fear of Flying?

There is not always a logical explanation or obvious reason for a person’s fear of flying, although it may be associated with other fears such as heights, death, losing control or being cramped in a small space. Fear of flying is often attributable to a previous bad experience on an aircraft, such as severe turbulence or a fire in the cabin.

Media reports of plane crashes, emergency landings and terrorism exacerbate people’s fears about flying, causing them to believe the risk of flying is far greater than it actually is.

Symptoms of Aerophobia

Symptoms of aerophobia can be physical or psychological, and may begin days or even weeks before an impending flight. Merely thinking about flying can bring on severe anxiety, and over time symptoms may worsen with each successive flight. A passenger who is aerophobic is unable to control the fear even though they know this fear is irrational. Symptoms typically include:

  • Intense anxiety
  • A sense of impending doom
  • Fear of having a panic attack
  • Feeling trapped
  • A knotted feeling in the stomach
  • A racing, thumping heart
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • A dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Light headedness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pains in the chest

Treatment for a Fear of Flying

Adult phobias do not usually go away on their own, but there are a range of treatment options available to help people permanently overcome their fear of flying.

  • Systematic desensitization is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy which enables passengers to lose their anxiety and gain control over their fears. It uses gradual, repeated exposure to the source of the fear alongside relaxation techniques. The first step may involve simply thinking about flying, followed by looking at pictures of aircraft. The next steps will be visiting an airport, sitting on a stationary plane and then boarding a flight.
  • Fear of flying courses are offered at many airports. These address issues such as how planes fly and stay in the air, security and safety, weather conditions, turbulence, emergency situations and terrorism. The courses also teach passengers how to deal with stress, anxiety and panic attacks.
  • Self-help strategies such as deep breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, meditation and listening to relaxing music are helpful for coping with anxiety and fear. There is a wide range of self-help books, DVDs and CDs available to help passengers conquer their fear of flying.
  • Some passengers use medications such as beta blockers, antidepressants or sedatives to temporarily relieve anxiety and calm their nerves when they fly.

Aerophobia is distressing and can interfere with daily life. If a fear of flying is causing work-related disruption or affecting career choices, it might be worth seeking help.

References Dr Luisa Dillner’s Guide to . . . Fear of Flying Phobias and Fears Phobias

USA Today: Even Frequent Fliers Sometimes Get Afraid to Fly