Can a fear of flying be cured?
(Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
If travel, like life, is a journey, not a destination, then as many as one in three travellers are in for a bumpy ride.
That’s because psychologists estimate between one in three and one in five people suffer from aerophobia, or fear of flying. For some, it is a debilitating phobia that can make a nightmare of a dream vacation, especially given the recent reports of eerie plane crashes, increased air turbulence and fewer operational US air control towers.
For others like Julia Cameron, a creativity expert who flies monthly to lead workshops and teach writing classes, it is an unbearable and embarrassing fear that gets in the way of work. But after decades of suffering from the condition, Cameron tackled her fear and wrote Safe Journey: Prayers and Comfort for Frightened Flyers and Other Anxious Souls. Released 18 April, the book details her slightly unorthodox approach to confronting the fear that keeps some would-be travellers homebound.
In addition to dialoguing with yourself in a journal and writing a prayer for each step of the journey, Cameron recommends distraction – especially in the form of trashy magazines – as a tactic for alleviating flight anxiety. According to an interview in the New York Times, she totes about $30 worth of tabloids on board. “There’s something vastly comforting about worrying about celebrities’ cellulite,” she said.
For Cameron, the phobia was related to a lack of control and an anxious mind that spooled out dire scenarios, like engine failure. In fact, aerophobia, also known as aviatophobia and aviophobia, is a broad condition that is often a combination of related phobias, including claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights) and agoraphobia (fear of having panic attacks in certain spaces out of one’s control).
Unfortunately for those who suffer from aerophobia, the associated fears are many, ranging from a fear of crashing to a fear of turbulence – even a fear of flying at night, or over water. And as unhappy flyers know, it can make trips miserable, with symptoms ranging from anxiety to hyperventilation, even panic attacks or vomiting.
Over time, and with the right combination of cognitive and behavioural therapy, a fear of flying can be cured, according to psychologists who offer treatments at such aerophobia clinics like Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders.
"The treatments we have for this are so effective… that upwards of 80%, and sometimes even more people, who get the treatment can fly," psychologist Todd Farchione of Boston University told Fox News.
Traditional treatments often consist of identifying a patient’s fears and the thoughts that lead up to them, then having patients gently confront fears by imagining flying and eventually flying – whether on flight simulators or on actual airplanes.
Books on anxiety and fear of flying can help fearful travellers understand the mental and physical process taking place when a phobia strikes, thereby helping them control anxious reactions. Psychologists even recommend watching videos of planes taking off and landing to help anxious flyers become more comfortable with the process.
Just as athletes visualize making the perfect basket or sinking the perfect hole-in-one, those suffering from aerophobia should visualize themselves taking a smooth flight, from arriving at the airport and boarding the plane to fastening their seatbelt and landing safely. Visualizing is a form of practice that helps prepare and soothe people ahead of high-stakes experiences.
Nip negative thoughts
Once on a flight, psychologists recommend stopping negative thought processes immediately by saying the word “stop” to oneself and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Focusing on breathing – taking long, deep breaths and slow exhalations – can also help.
Finally, for severe phobias, medication may be a good option. Doctors can prescribe anti-anxiety medications to help fearful flyers calm their nerves ahead of a big trip.