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Aerophobia: Fear of flying

Aerophobia is a type of specific phobia that involves a fear of flying or air travel. While statistics suggest that air travel is actually safer than traveling by other means including car and train, flying remains a common source of fear.1

Research suggests that between 2.5% and 40% of people experience flying-related anxiety each year.2 Estimates on the low end likely represent instances where the condition is diagnosed by a mental health professional, while those on the higher end are likely the result of self-rated symptoms of flying anxiety.

So while many people are afraid of flying to some degree, only a much smaller proportion actually meet the criteria for a phobia diagnosis. Whether or not your fear of flying has developed into a phobia, it can have serious effects on your quality of life.

People who struggle with aerophobia will experience symptoms similar to intense anxiety at the thought of flying or as they’re in flight. Often, symptoms of aerophobia present in similar ways as the symptoms of other phobias like claustrophobia or acrophobia.

Symptoms of aerophobia include:2

What Causes Someone to Be Scared of Flying?

The exact causes of aerophobia remain to be elucidated, but studies suggest that there may be multiple reasons.4 For instance, someone with a fear of flying may have underlying physical conditions like heart disease or sinus problems that become more irritated in the air.2 They could also exhibit an underlying physiological or psychological issue like trauma or germaphobia.

Possible causes of aerophobia include:

5 Tips to Get Over a Fear of Flying

Aerophobia is a treatable mental health condition, and in many mild cases, you may be able to get over your fears from the comfort of your own at home.

Five practical tips for coping with aerophobia are:

1. Educate Yourself

Often, fears are strengthened by mystery. Learning about safety measures, including about plane mechanics and turbulence, may help alleviate your anxiety.2 You can do online research, watch YouTube videos, read books, or attend group classes for people who struggle with fear of flying. These resources are offered by many airline companies.

2. Recognize When Your Thoughts Are Becoming Irrational

Work to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. For instance, if you find yourself thinking about what might go wrong, try thinking about the wonderful things you will experience at your flight’s destination. Whenever you catch yourself slipping back into negative thoughts, tell your mind to “stop” and shift focus to something positive.2

3. Recognize Your Triggers

When you find your fear and anxiety peaking, observe your environment and thought patterns so you can better understand what is triggering your fear responses. Triggers include certain thoughts, sights, memories, sensations, or even smells.1

4. Practice Relaxation Techniques

You may be able to better cope with aerophobia if you develop techniques to help calm yourself down. Try breathing techniques, visualization, or progressive muscle relaxation to help relieve your symptoms. Some people find journaling, meditating, or praying helps them get through their fears.2 Try to practice these techniques two or three weeks prior to boarding a plane. The more practice you have, the more effective these techniques will be.

5. Distract Yourself

Figuring out a way to distract yourself can help alleviate feelings of fear. Bring along relaxing elements to immerse yourself in such as a soothing playlist, a comfort movie, or your favorite book.

Related Conditions

The fear of flying may be caused or worsened if you have certain other phobias and anxiety disorders. Some of these include:

In many cases, addressing these underlying conditions can help relieve symptoms of aerophobia. The treatments for these related fears are often the same as the treatments for other types of phobias.

Some physical disorders can contribute to a fear of flying, including:

Talk to your doctor about any physical conditions prior to your flight to develop a plan of action to minimize risk and discomfort.

Causes

The exact causes of a fear of flying are not known, but a number of different factors may play a role. One review found that the fear varies greatly from one individual to the next and is influenced by a complex array of physiological, psychological, and social factors that are unique to each person.

Some of these factors may include:

Research also suggests that triggers such as bad weather, take-off, and turbulence tend to be the most anxiety-inducing aspects of flying. Travel delays, common when flying at popular times, may make the fear of flying worse.

Treatment

Fortunately, the fear of flying is a treatable condition, even without knowing the underlying cause. Some common treatments include:

Psychotherapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is usually the first-line treatment for phobias including the fear of flying. CBT is an approach that focuses on changing the negative thoughts that contribute to fearful behaviors. Many specific treatments for phobias are based on CBT, but other treatment options are sometimes used as well. Some of the most frequently used approaches include:

Group Classes

If you do not have other physical or psychological disorders, you may be a good candidate for a fear of flying course. These classes typically last two or three days, often over a weekend, and are sometimes offered by airlines. During classes, you may meet pilots, talk about airline safety, and even get a chance to board a real plane. Sometimes just becoming more familiar with the process and environment can help you feel more comfortable.

Medication

Medications may sometimes be prescribed to help alleviate certain symptoms associated with the fear of flying, such as nausea or anxiety. For example, your doctor might recommend that you take a medication designed to reduce motion sickness before your flight. They might also prescribe an anti-anxiety medication such as Xanax (alprazolam) or Valium (diazepam). 

While medications can be helpful, they are usually a short-term solution. They may be used in combination with psychotherapy.

Coping

In addition to getting treatment for your phobia, there are also things that you can do on your own to help cope with the fear of flying.

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