Fear of Flying, Explained (And How You Might Be Able to Overcome It)5 min read
When he was 17, John E. DiScala was at the airport, getting ready to board a plane for “a dream trip” with his mother to visit his sisters in Australia. But he just couldn’t get on the plane.
Ultimately, he did, but the panic attack he had before getting on the plane led him to not fly for three years. Just before this trip, DiScala, who is better known as the travel writer and blogger Johnny Jet, had been diagnosed with asthma and his physician prescribed him a lot of medications for it.
“The doctor put the fear of God in me when we told him we were going to Australia,” says DiScala. “My biggest fear was being out of control.”
And he isn’t alone – the National Institute of Mental Health says aviophobia, the fear of flying, affects about 6.5 percent of the U.S. population.
“[The fear of flying] is almost a misnomer. People who are afraid of flying really have a variety of different fears, anxiety and triggers,” says Dr. Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and Connecticut. He also runs a program called “Freedom to Fly.”
The vast majority of people with a fear of flying would also describe themselves as claustrophobic.
“There are those with a fear of panicking and not being able to get out of the plane. Those people would be very happy flying if they could open a window or get out of the plane,” Dr. Seif says.
Then there’s another group of people with a fear of flying that have a fear of heights.
“They don’t like the height the plane flies at – they would have no problem flying if it wasn’t so far up,” he says.
Claustrophobia and a fear of heights account for about 80 percent of those with a fear of flying, he says. But there are also people who are afraid of turbulence, afraid of taking off and landing, or panic about terrorism.
“There’s the fear of being in a plane and it crashing. And there are people who have traumatic fears about September 11, or those who know someone who died in a crash. But the real point is that you really have a very large group of triggers that set people off,” Dr. Seif says.
DiScala’s fear stemmed from a loss of control. He was petrified that he’d have an asthma attack inflight. From about age 18 to 21, he simply did not step foot on a plane.
“You couldn’t get me on a plane. I was actually afraid to even leave the house,” he says of his anxiety levels at the time.
But anxiety over flying doesn’t become this intense for everyone. Just like each person afraid to fly has different fears and triggers, the intensity and severity of the fear varies as well.
“There are people afraid of flying who still fly regularly. There are people who will only fly with extreme motivation. And some are so afraid they avoid flying completely,” says Dr. Seif.
But, the important thing to know about aviophobia is that it’s something you can overcome. DiScala is proof of that.
“All of my friends were traveling and I felt like I was missing out, but I was too scared to do it,” he says. He wasn’t sure he would ever fly again.
“After that trip to Australia, my parents took me to a bunch of different shrinks, but nothing worked,” DiScala says. It wasn’t until he had a visit with a homeopathic doctor who told him he was taking too many medications for his asthma.
“He started weaning me off, cutting the dosage down, and that’s when I was able to travel,” he says. But it wasn’t just the change in medication that helped – DiScala found ways to cope to overcome the fear as well.
His friend’s mother invited him to fly out to Arizona to visit his friend. And he made that trip. And since he had already flown to Arizona, DiScala decided to fly to California, just a short trip away. And he didn’t stop there.
“When I finally got over [my fear of flying], my first international trip was to Hong Kong. It was such a relief to land and realize that I could do it,” he says. Now, DiScala travels an average of 150,000 miles a year around the world.
In order to work on overcoming his fear, DiScala read every statistic out there about flying.
“I realized it was safer to fly than drive,” he says. He also found that listening to music and reading the sports section of a newspaper took his mind off of his anxiety while waiting to board and before takeoff.
DiScala’s ability to get over his flying fear was most certainly a feat, but not a miracle. According to Dr. Seif, it is quite possible for anyone to get over the fear.
“There’s no magic to it…it takes courage. The active ingredient is exposure. And it has to be done willingly in manageable steps
without avoidance. Avoidance keeps anxiety alive,” he says.
Some people, like DiScala, can figure out ways to work on their fear on their own. While others may seek out the help of a professional or one of the many fear of flying programs out there.
“The fear of flying is something people who have it know they need to work on, but it takes courage,” Dr. Seif says. One of the toughest factors in overcoming the fear is that it requires you to actually get on a plane and fly.
“You either get on a plane and fly or you don’t. You’re kind of committed to the flight and there’s a huge amount of anticipatory anxiety that comes with flying because it’s an all or nothing experience,” he says.
But, it’s absolutely not a lost cause.
“I think a lot of people should know that it’s an anxiety that can be overcome. There are a lot of programs to help you. It does take a lot of courage and a lot of effort, but it’s worth it,” Dr. Seif says.