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How to Cure Your Fear of Flying

People with fear of flying know the statistics on how safe flying is, they have heard them a thousand times, but still, that doesn't make them feel any better.

Quick tips on how to cope with the fear are also likely to fail. Some say: get distracted, eat well, arrive with plenty of time, etc. Others can be more inadequate: take a glass of wine, try these tranquilizers... All with good intention, but with poor results.

The most important step towards overcoming your fear of flying is understanding why you feel this way. It's not possible to fight anything back without knowing how it works (and this does not only apply to fear of flying).

Some people have always suffered fear of flying, others develop it at a later stage in life. The latter is actually very common. When you mature, you realize that you are no longer the immortal being you thought to be during your childhood, death is something that happens, and it could happen to you. Those taking the riskier actions tend to be teenagers rather than grown ups, not because they are more athletic, but because they have a lower perceptions of risks.

Another factor that can reinforce your perception of risk is a sudden sense of responsibility. For example, the one you get when having a kid. Now you simply cannot afford anything bad happening to you since you need to care for someone more important, and this puts you more in the alert.

There are many other reasons on why one could develop fear of flying. Bad experiences (traumas), are also a common cause. So it’s important to not blame oneself thinking “I must be so weak”, there is always a explanation behind what caused your fear.

But why can't you get better by reading the impressive statistics of aviation safety?

The reason for this is that your brain has been generating so many negative thoughts that it's now hardwired to continue with that thought process. Statistics, descriptions on how planes fly… they simply cannot get through. Your brain will immediately discard this information without you being conscious about it. You will not process that data, and this is why it doesn't help.

The key to get better is to change that thinking pattern. But this cannot be done overnight. In an analogy, you cannot expect to go to the gym one day and get stronger, you need weeks (if not months) or continuous training. The same applies for your brain. You need to bombard it with positive input about aviation, talking it out loud with your friends and family, exposing your irrational fear in sentences such as “this fear of mine is of irrational because this and that…”. The repeated mantras will eventually become truth.

Succeeding on this, and making it in the shortest amount of time, is not an easy task. Luckily, there is an entire field of study that has been working on how to achieve it: psychology. They even found the optimal approach, and named it Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

There are many approaches to CBT, but most of them will tend to follow this structure.

The first step, the Cognitive one, is to identify what your fears are and what exactly triggers them. This is usually done talking to a therapists, but you might also be asked to take notes throughout your day and mark the situations where you felt anxiety. Once identified, the fears are ranked in a hierarchy and you will begin to question each one of them, starting from the ones that trigger the least anxiety, since those will be the easiest to tackle.

This is where the contradiction comes in. At the beginning of this text I wrote that knowing more about aviation safety does not really help. But it actually does. When the therapist questions one of your fears, you will need to counter them with facts, so if you have learned them beforehand, the process will be more efficient.

For example, let's say you start discussing your fear of the loud noises inside the plane. If you have not done your research, you will not know that those noises come from the hydraulic system, and that they are actually a sign that everything is working as it should.

More knowledge is always good, but for it to be helpful against your fear it needs to be discussed in a systematic and continuous manner as in CBT. Continuity is essential to change your negative thinking pattern. Much so, that you will likely get homework after each CBT session to continue practicing similar discussions with your friends and family where your fears are put under questioning.

The next step of CBT is the Behavioral one. Here, you will be physically exposed to your fear. The goal is to teach your stress response system (clinically known as the HPA axis) that flying is fine.

This system cannot be domesticated in a classroom. For example, you can spend hours understanding the speed and safety of a roller coaster, but when you get to it for the first time, your body will immediately deduce there is a danger and send you an adrenaline rush to keep you alert. After 10 rides, your body has learned that all is fine, and the roller coaster will no longer be that much fun.

Understanding the need for exposure therapy is important since many people that have taken courses on fear of flying are shocked when they see themselves with a panic attack when they are back on the plane. This happens because the HPA axis has not been trained.

As you probably guess, gradual exposure is better than going on a 10 hour flight for your first try. This is a problem for fear of flying since you can't really take 10 minutes of a flight (let's do only the takeoff today), you either go for the whole experience or nothing.

There are different options to tackle this problem. Some might suggest tranquilizing techniques that will help you out in your first flights, others might go for virtual reality or plane simulators where you can really calibrate the amount of exposure. Both of these have their pros and cons, so ultimately a combination of both would be the safest option.

Once the exposure therapy is completed, you can consider yourself cured. Your brain has been bombarded with so much positive input that the negativity loop is gone, and the multiple exposures have thought you stress hormones that there is no need for alarm.

Now you can enjoy your flight.

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