Fear of flying - Anxiety and Panic Attacks

People experience fear of flying for many individual reasons. They may have experienced extreme turbulence or other adverse weather during a flight; it may have been a sensationalised media report that caused the fear.

Many develop a fear of flying linked to a more generalised feeling of fear and anxiety.

The shocking events of September 11th 2001 caused many to feel anxious about flying.

Statistically passengers are safer in an aircraft than they are in a car, but that does not prevent those who are frightened of flying from experiencing intense anxiety, nervousness and even panic attacks just at the thought of taking a flight.

No-one is born afraid to fly! Fear of flying is a learned fear.

The imagination can be a wonderful friend or a self-sabotaging enemy. The sub-conscious mind has no way of differentiating between reality and imagination; it just accepts all inputs from every sense and files them for future use. Our minds have no way of differentiating between what we watch on the news and what we watch during the film that follows the news.

At a cognitive level, we can rationalize; we can look at statistics; we can read books; we can talk to pilots and we know that flying is safe. However, communication between the rational brain and the reptilian part of the brain, that keeps us safe, is not good and it doesn’t matter what our logical mind knows if our self-protection mechanism believes us to be in danger.

A short physiology lesson may help.

In broad terms the brain is divided into 3 distinct areas. The reptilian brain is our earliest brain it operates quietly in the background always assessing situations and people. It looks at everything in a very basic way – Can I eat this? Will this eat me? Can I reproduce with this?

We have no control over the reactions of our reptilian brain, but it has a lot of control over us. It is the reptilian brain that makes us jump back from the path of an oncoming 10 ton truck – we don’t have to think about how we feel about the truck and we don’t have to stand and assess the closing speed, we just jump. It is the reptilian brain that stops us walking down dark alleyways at night. The reptilian brain is able to trigger automatic responses within the body – particularly the fear based fight or flight response – without any conscious input or thought.

You will have experienced that sickening feeling as adrenaline rushes through every cell of your body whenever you find yourself in a frightening situation – it happens even if your rational brain knows you are not in danger.

The next area is the limbic brain – the seat of the emotions – and the third and final area is the cognitive brain – the logic powerhouse.

When fear is experienced, for our purposes we are discussing fear of flying, it is the reptilian brain that is triggered. Your cognitive brain can read as many safety statistics as you like – they will not affect the reptilian brain. It only knows how to keep you safe and, for whatever reason, it has determined that flying is not safe!

In extreme circumstances as well as feeling nervous and anxious it is possible for those who fear flying to experience panic attacks that cause palpitations, dizziness, nausea, hyperventilation and, in extreme cases, loss of consciousness.

The only way to overcome any fear and in particular to overcome fear of flying is to re-programme the reptilian brain. It is important to get the message through to this part of the brain that flying is safe.

Guided relaxation and imagery or even hypnosis is a good place to start. In a state of relaxation it is possible to by-pass the cognitive and limbic brain and begin to communicate directly with the reptilian brain. Over time, the message it holds becomes changed and the fear of flying is replaced with a more positive reaction.

Fear is the mechanism that keeps us safe. We do not want to do away with all fear – we want to retain the capability to react without thinking, when appropriate.

Another technique to employ is the emotional freedom technique. It is important to be patient with yourself and to take daily consistent action to overcome your fear of flying by utilising techniques that you can also employ whilst flying. There is an audio file here that you can listen to on line or download as an MP3 file – use this every day to reprogramme your reptilian brain appropriately and overcome your fear of flying.

If there is a specific traumatic experience to overcome, explore ways of shrinking and reframing the memory of that trauma to release yourself from the paralysis it may still be causing. You may find the rewind technique helpful for this.

Make use of the many resources on the site here to reinforce the new message you are sending to yourself.

Take the steps you need to take to overcome your fear of flying

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The articles and resources provided at the Fear of Flying Help website are provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended and does not in any way replace professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health care practitioner if you have any medical conditions or questions related to your health and wellbeing. If you rely on any information provided by this website it must be solely at your own risk.