Articles written by me on Self-care and Palliative Medicine
On Self-Care & Palliative Medicine

Plane Scared

Vacation time is here again. We’re at the shank of summer fun as we approach the Fourth of July Holiday. And, millions of Americans are flying to resorts, foreign countries, and family reunions. Did you know that one of every three Americans is either afraid to fly or will not fly because of their fear? With the zenith of summertime travel approaching, and the significant incidence of flight fright, it seems appropriate to examine this topic.

Fear of Flying can encompass several distinct phobias or fears. It is common for a person who is afraid of flying to combine several apprehensions into the bigger picture. . .such as fear of the plane crashing, fear of heights, and/or fear of confinement for extended periods of time. The take-off and landing are often the most critical moments for anxious flyers. . .and it’s very difficult to convince these folks that their fears aren’t well-grounded.

In sheer numbers, driving is by far more dangerous than flying. In 1999, there were approximately 42,000 automobile-related deaths in this country alone. During the same year, there were 674 multi-engined aircraft-related fatalities world wide. While there were 14 fatal jet liner accidents in the world in 1999, there were 37,000 fatal automobile crashes in the United States that same year. These statistics put the relative lethal possibilities into perspective, but may do little to comfort the Flight Fright populous.

Often, there is a lopsided perception of the danger in flying. A big factor here is the media attention given to plane crashes; the “sensational messages” can leave folks with the misconception that the overall risk of flying is extreme. Additionally, this perception is certainly rooted in the “loss of control” feeling that is inevitable in a fearful passenger who boards a plane. The passenger is neither free to “drive” the plane, nor is he/she able to exit the plane if mental anguish becomes unbearable. For those of us fortunate to fly without fear, we’re just as happy to “leave the driving to someone else” and acknowledge the clear advantage of air travel in getting us rapidly to distant destinations. Certainly, this last statement overlooks the very common delays in airports and on runways these days.

So, if you are one of the many who suffer from flight fright, several specific suggestions may help to defuse your anxiety. First, schedule as many nonstop flights as you can. . .minimizing your take off and landing occurrences. Two, book your flights on large planes and reputable airlines. Third, plan ahead to have a “relaxed” flight agenda. . .giving yourself ample time to get to the airport, park, check luggage, etc. so you aren’t racing from place to place with no time to spare. Our bodies efficiently assist ‘rushing’ by providing additional adrenalin to our hearts, pulse rates, and blood pressures. . .and the added ingredient only accentuates the feelings of anxiety and fear. Xanax, a prescription tranquilizer, has been very beneficial in moderating anxiety in many folks. And, remember, to have a ‘support person’ accompany you on flights whenever possible. Finally, fearful flyers and some pilots giving advice to passengers with aviophobia, suggest that you introduce yourself and ‘meet the pilot’ as you board the plane. Sighting who is actually flying the plane can promote an increased sense of confidence for many folks who are apprehensive flyers.

Professional counseling using desensitization imagery has helped a large number of people. . .but remember the ‘fix’ isn’t quick. The therapists need to address the mistaken beliefs and negative self-talk which fearful flyers have for each of their specific phobias that make up the totality of their personal Flight Fright. Unfortunately, sensational media coverage of plane crashes can make it difficult for phobic flyers to avoid exposure to such negativity while they are working to desensitize fears. Additionally, after a person seems to have mastered most of their fears with a successful, minimally traumatic flight, it’s beneficial for them to take at least one flight every two to three months for a year to minimize the likelihood of relapse. So, such ‘therapy’ can be costly far above the professional fees of the counselor.

In any case, I hope my flighty ideas have generated some helpful suggestions for those of you who want to travel but are paralyzed by the fear of flying. Overcoming the negative self-talk in a variety of areas can allow you to take to the skies for all manner of exciting destinations. Ultimately, the fears lessen and resolve when one can trust that the pilot is competent and cautious, that planes are constructed and maintained with vigilant FAA scrutiny, and that ‘turbulence’ is a natural phenomenon created by a rolling effect of slower-moving air in the vicinity of the fast moving jet stream. Though the up and down rolling motion doesn’t bother airplanes at all, it can create sheer terror in passengers who think it does. With appropriate support and reinforcement over time, no one should have to live a life Plane-Scared.

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
July 2001

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