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There was an interesting post (and discussion in the comments) about fear of flying over at US Points/Miles/Travel megablog One Mile at a Time recently. Ben (whose blog it is) flies hundreds of thousands of miles each year and aviation is clearly his passion, so it was intriguing to read that even someone like him can struggle with ‘The Fear’.
Pretty much everyone who is even remotely anxious about flying is well aware that “flying is the safest way to travel”. In fact, the worse someone’s phobia is, the more they usually know about how unlikely being involved in a serious incident while on a plane is. Statistics and rational understanding just don’t seem to help all that much.
My own experience is as someone who was fortunate enough to fly a lot when I was young, but then in my mid-teens developed a phobia so acute that I couldn’t even think about flying without getting nervous. Now in my late 20s, I’m back to flying more than ever before – and very happily, most of the time!
Fear of flying can have all sorts of causes, so I’m not going to go into that side of things too deeply. In my own case, I have a few theories but the truth is that I don’t really know for certain where the fear came from or why it developed at that particular time. What I do know is how real, how physical, the fear can be. I wasn’t a ‘nervous flyer’, I was terrified – just the thought of having to get on a plane filled me with dread.
Travelling had always been a big part of my life, so after a few years with no flying at all, the phobia was something I felt I had to try and deal with.
Finding a solution
I started off by experimenting with meditation and breathing exercises, but it seemed that while they might help take the edge off the sense of panic, flying would still be an incredibly stressful and uncomfortable experience. Everyone is different though of course, and many people do find similar techniques extremely useful.
The next thing I tried was a session with a hypnotherapist. It was a relaxing and interesting experience, but I wasn’t convinced that further sessions were really going to help.
I discussed other options with my GP, but was reluctant to take medication unless there really was no other way.
The first thing I did that seemed to make a small but genuine difference was reading about aviation – understanding more about the physics of flight, how planes are manufactured, and the stresses they can withstand was substantially more reassuring than cold statistics. Strangely enough, I found watching videos of planes landing in cross-winds and ‘go-arounds’ (aborted landings) particularly reassuring. Being able to see in a very physical way just how impressive modern aircraft are, and how skilful pilots are, was definitely useful. Understanding the different noises a plane makes – engines, wing flaps, landing gear etc – can be reassuring too.
At this stage the idea of flying again was still very frightening but not beyond the realms of possibility, so when the opportunity came up to fly somewhere that I really wanted to visit, I decided to give it a go. The flight was only a couple of hours, so it seemed like a reasonable way to start.
Some Dutch courage…
Sometimes the simplest advice is the best, and I’m only mildly ashamed to admit that having (perhaps more than…) a few drinks at the airport probably made the difference between me getting on the plane that day rather than just going home.
I’d be lying if I said that the flight wasn’t extremely stressful – it was awful, but a steady stream of gin and basic meditation techniques got me through without any major embarrassment!
After that, short flights became something that I knew I could force myself to do, but force was still definitely the word. Flying sent my stress-levels through the roof, and there was no way I could contemplate putting myself through more than a few hours of it at a time.
Comfort through exposure
I kept making myself go on flights though because there were places and people I wanted to visit. Gradually, flying became slightly less terrifying. The problem was still definitely there, but it didn’t have quite the same level of intensity after a while.
In my case, exposure to the phobia helped it become a little less all-consuming, which gave me the space to think more analytically about it.
Being able to analyse and think about the fear, even as it was happening, ultimately led me to some ideas/techniques that have really helped.
I now happily take regular long-hauls and can even manage to get a good night’s sleep on planes – well, in Business or First Class anyway!
I’ll write in much more detail about my own ideas, tips and solutions in Part Two, but fear of flying (and what to do about it) is one of those things that seems to vary a great deal between people, so please share your own experiences and tips in the comments for others to read.