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In Part One, I discussed my experience of developing a severe fear of flying, and my attempts to do something about it. I ended that piece by saying that I can now fly quite happily again, and promised to share what worked for me.
Towards the end of Part One, I wrote that by forcing myself to fly, “(gradually the) exposure to the phobia helped it become a little less all-consuming, and this 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 the ideas/techniques that have really helped”.
The first of these ideas was to realise that trying to counter something which is inherently irrational with rational, statistical arguments is probably a losing battle.
Look at it this way:
You’re 30,000+ feet up, hurtling through the air at 550+ mph in a narrow tube strapped to huge quantities of fuel… and you’ve rarely been safer!
It reads like the blurb for a terrible novel. Although the conclusion is statistically accurate – it still appalls ‘common sense’.
No amount of additional statistics can be expected to resolve the fundamental conflict between something you already rationally understand to be extremely safe, and your body’s physiological response to a situation it still, on some level, deems dangerous. Looking back, this now seems obvious, but it took me years to really understand it.
If trying to fight irrational fear with rational argument is the wrong approach then, is there a better way?
I believe so, and at the substantial risk of suddenly sounding all ‘new age’, the best way I can think of putting it is to embrace the fear.
Imagine you’re on a plane, the engines are beginning to roar ready for takeoff. Your heart beats faster, your palms are sweating, adrenalin is shooting through you, you could start to panic – but instead ask yourself a question: Where else could I get a thrill like this, while being this safe?
I began to see take-off as a sort of infinitely safe ‘reverse skydive’, or as the world’s best theme park ride. The trick was to stop thinking of the fear as something negative and unwelcome that had to be controlled and defeated, but to see the adrenalin rush as something exciting and life-affirming, something desirable.
Once my attitude towards the fear changed, even heavy turbulence, which I had found extremely difficult to deal with before, just became part of the ride.
After a few relatively short flights with the new approach, I noticed that apart from take-off and turbulence (which were still a real buzz!), I was actually starting to relax during the rest of the flight. This opened up the possibility of long-haul travel for the first time in years, and I haven’t looked back since.
This might all sound a little glib, so I need to underline that there was a process to reaching this stage. I don’t think I could ever have just woken up one morning and convinced myself to start thinking like that. Reading about aviation, forcing myself to fly in order to get used to it, and having a few drinks before flights, were probably all necessary steps along the way.
If you think that you’re at a stage where trying to shift how you perceive ‘The Fear’ might help you as well, there are a few more things I’d recommend, at least to begin with:
- Keep it positive, don’t put pressure on yourself to ‘get it right’ or anything like that. You’re trying to flip how you experience stress and make it fun/thrilling, so piling an additional sort of pressure on yourself isn’t sensible.
- Travel with someone you trust, and who is a confident flyer if possible.
- Most people are probably best avoiding a window seat to begin with.
- Having a stiff drink before you board and listening to some loud music through your headphones (after the safety briefing!) is a great way to help get in the right frame of mind for takeoff.
- If you’re ready to try a long-haul, use the tips on InsideFlyer to get enough Miles to fly in Business or First Class. It’s a lot more comfortable, and really adds to the sense of fun/excitement.
After quite a few years and a lot of flights, I think my experience of flying is now broadly similar to non-phobic peoples’. I still find take-off exciting, love looking out the window, and actively enjoy travelling in Business or First. For the most part though, it’s just a (usually) efficient way to get around.
I think it’s important to finish by emphasising that fear, and how we deal with it, is incredibly personal. There are all sorts of different techniques that might help, and lots of good resources online. Some will work well for some people, but not at all for others. I’ve only shared my own experience here, and am in no way trying to say that ‘this is the right way’ or anything like that.
If you’re really struggling and need to fly, it might be worth considering a course like the ones offered by Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. They seem to be quite well regarded, but I have no personal experience of either, so please share in the comments if they’ve helped you, as well any other tips you might have.
I can still remember all too well how overwhelming a fear of flying can be, so please be generous with your advice – it really might help someone.