Added to Saved items
How to manage a fear of flying and flying anxiety

How to manage a fear of flying and flying anxiety

Aerophobia is officially classed as an anxiety disorder. It is also referred to as aviophobia in the United States or known as fear of flying or flying anxiety. It is believed that 1 in 10 people are scared of flying. However, some studies suggest that the proportion is much higher.

Why might someone develop a fear of flying?

Fear of flying could stem from having an anxious parent, whom someone has seen have panic attacks during flights. Flying can be a nerve-racking experience if someone has been involved in a traumatic incident, whether this is bad turbulence or a crash.

Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), explains how a fear of flying often stems from a lack of control.

"If you are on a train and you need to get off, you can do so at the next stop. If you're in a car, you can get out almost anywhere. But once you get on an aeroplane, you cannot leave. This sense of losing all authority over your actions can be very frightening," he says.

Nippoda adds that people are used to feeling their feet on solid ground. Therefore, the idea of floating in the sky can lead to imagining worst-case scenarios.

"If catastrophic situations, such as engine failure, bad turbulence or a hijacking occur, the plane could crash. This fear of death can cause major flight anxiety, even if someone knows deep down those things are extremely unlikely. Their mind can go into overdrive."

Has fear of flying increased?

A survey carried out by National Geographic in 2017 revealed that ⅓ of people in Britain are more scared of flying now than they were 10 years ago. It's likely this figure has now increased, with the recent global pandemic meaning people are flying less and those who are flying now have additional concerns in relation to health and safety. For example, in Britain, 48% are now relying on guidance from health experts before they travel by air.

When discussing the reasons for their flying anxiety, respondents recalled famous disasters, such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in 2014. Figures show that 8 out of 10 British flyers worry about engine failure and plane crashes. ⅓ admitted that reading about plane crashes, disappearances and terrorist attacks in recent years has increased their fear. Anxiety is thought to be worst in 25 to 34-year-olds.

National Geographic says the survivability rates of plane accidents are much higher than people think, but survival can sometimes depend on how much you pay attention to the safety briefing. Despite growing fears, just over ⅓ of those surveyed said they do not watch the safety demonstration at the start of a flight.

How does a fear of flying present itself?

Fear of flying can present itself in a number of ways.

Before a flight, someone could have panic attacks just thinking about their flight.

While actually on the flight, a person could start:

What triggers flying anxiety?

Since everyone's fear of flying will likely derive from different situations, there are countless triggers.

Information about flight accidents in general (such as watching a documentary about an accident) can cause someone anxiety. This could even happen during a fictional film containing a flight-related catastrophe.

Nippoda adds that long-haul flights can be more of a trigger for flying anxiety than short-haul flights. Passengers know they aren't going to be sitting on the plane for as long during a short journey, whereas a long-haul flight allows more time for disastrous thinking.

In addition, if people have acrophobia (fear of heights) or claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces) in general, these can be heightened when on an aeroplane.

How to calm flying anxiety and fear of flying

Nippoda stresses the importance of breathing exercises to remain calm before flying.

"There are many techniques but, in general, it's important to inhale for a short period (5 seconds) and exhale for a longer period (7 or 8 seconds). People can inhale naturally but exhale until they have emptied all the air from the lungs, which helps to keep the rhythm of breathing," he says.

He says it can help to check out the flight information before boarding for reassurance. By doing this, you know what kind of aircraft you will be on, where your seat is, where the toilets are, and the general layout. Familiarising yourself with the aeroplane before you fly can mean the boarding experience feels less daunting.

Fear of flying vs reality

Nippoda adds that educating yourself on what is reality versus what your brain fears, or what you've heard in movies, can be useful in overcoming fear of flying. He suggests studying accurate information, such as the points listed below, to help you feel safer on a flight and put things into perspective.

  • The odds that your plane will crash are one in 1.2 million, and the odds of dying from a crash are one in 11 million, according to Harvard University.
  • Your chances of dying in a car accident, on the other hand, are one in 5,000.
  • 2017 was the safest year for commercial air travel since records began, with more flights undertaken than ever before and zero fatal accidents.
  • A person could fly once a day for four million years before being involved in a fatal crash.

How to deal with panic attacks on a plane

If you start to feel flying anxiety in the middle of a flight, it's likely this panic will worsen quickly if you feel trapped and aren't able to use an emergency exit. Therefore, starting breathing exercises straightaway can help calm you down.

You may want to close your eyes and visualise something that puts you at ease and eases your fear of flying. Perhaps this is you lying on the beach at your eventual holiday destination, or a peaceful landscape.

"Allow yourself to relax. Remind yourself that you are in control within a limited space, even if you feel out of control. By practising your anti-anxiety techniques, you can start to feel empowered," says Nippoda.

You can also practise simple distraction techniques such as:

  • Listening to music.
  • Listening to podcasts.
  • Watching a comforting film or TV series.
  • Doing a puzzle.
  • Reading a book.

If you feel extremely uncomfortable, do not hesitate to call for the staff on board, who have been trained to deal with passengers who struggle with anxiety.

If you have been prescribed medication for anxiety or panic attacks make sure you have it on hand.

How to support someone with a fear of flying

If you do not suffer from a fear of flying or flying anxiety but have a loved one who does, it can be difficult to know what to say, perhaps because you fear making the situation worse.

"Acknowledge that flying can be a scary thing, without invalidating how they feel," says Nippoda, adding that this is especially important if you (or they) are not a frequent flyer. They need to know they are not alone.

"Mention that other people on the same flight might have similar flying anxieties. You can also explain that, although there is not a zero per cent chance you will encounter a catastrophic situation, the probability is minimal as thousands of aeroplanes fly every day, but there are hardly any incidents. You can be realistic while being reassuring simultaneously. Reducing their belief that flying is scary by explaining probability like this can be helpful."

It might be useful to practise positive affirmations with your loved one. As you recite these, you should ask the other person to repeat each phrase. These phrases can be:

  • I am safe.
  • I am in control.
  • I am in good hands.
  • My fears are not realities.
  • There is no cause for alarm.
  • Planes make noise and that is normal.
  • Turbulence is just like a pothole in the road.
  • I am going to enjoy my trip.

How to manage a fear of flying following the pandemic

Fear of flying can come with an added layer of unease following the pandemic. Not only is there the fear of being up in the sky and unable to leave the aircraft, but passengers might have a fear of germs or contracting COVID-19.

What's important to remember is that airline companies have worked hard to implement procedures to ensure the health and safety of their passengers.

You should ensure you and your loved ones are following COVID-19 guidelines and taking your own precautions (such as using hand sanitiser and wearing a face covering) and raising any concerns you have with the staff. If you require clarification on the rules in place, contact the airline to put your mind at ease.

Where can someone find support for fear of flying?

If you know somebody who has flown recently, you could ask about their experience. If you wish to speak to professionals who treat fear of flying, UKCP has a list of practitioners who offer support.

There are courses you can take to help you overcome your fear of flying and flying anxiety. They are offered by various airlines such as:

You can find support for flying anxiety by visiting:

  • Anxiety UK.
  • Mind.
  • Your GP for a formal diagnosis, anti-anxiety medication or a referral for therapy.
Read next

Are you protected against flu?

See if you are eligible for a free NHS flu jab today.

Check now