Julia Dobmeier is currently completing her master’s degree in clinical psychology. Since the beginning of her studies, she has been particularly interested in the treatment and research of mental illnesses. They are motivated in particular by the idea of enabling those affected to enjoy a better quality of life by imparting knowledge in a way that is easy to understand.
In people with Fear of flying (Aviophobia), the very thought of getting on an airplane triggers anxiety. This can be enormously stressful for those affected, especially if they have to fly for professional reasons. In many cases, however, the fear of flying can be quickly overcome with the help of therapy. Read here everything important about fear of flying.
Fear of flying: Description
Fear of flying (aviophobia) belongs to the specific phobias. Experts speak of this when a person has a fear of certain objects or situations – in this case, of flying.
Many people have a queasy feeling when boarding an airplane. Even though the plane is statistically the safest mode of transportation, the fear of crashing remains. Especially after major airplane accidents, many air travelers find it difficult to relinquish control and trust the pilot and the aircraft.
However, people with aviophobia have such a strong fear of flying that they cannot bear the situation at all or only in agony. The mere thought of a flight causes them to feel nervous and sweat. However, not everyone is necessarily afraid of a crash. There are other reasons why some people are afraid of flying:
- Some suffer from claustrophobia or fear of heights.
- Others are afraid of the technology and the complexity of an airplane.
- In some cases, the "passenger syndrome" triggers a crash the fears from. They have problems with entrusting their own well-being to someone else, in this case the pilot.
- Others have had a bad experience flying because they got caught in turbulence or a plane had to take off again on approach. In such cases, the fear of flying arises from the expectation that similar frightening events will occur on the next flight.
Fear of flying is often accompanied by other fears. Various psychological disorders can also occur together with aviophobia, for example, depression.
Fear of flying: symptoms
When people with aviophobia are confronted with an airplane, certain thoughts, behaviors, and physical symptoms occur. As a rule, the fear quickly becomes stronger and only slowly diminishes again. If the fear is very strong, panic attacks can also develop.
Flying is very unpleasant for people with a fear of flying, especially due to the pronounced physical symptoms. The heart beats faster, the muscles tense up. Sufferers breathe quickly and shallowly, causing them to emit excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. As a result, dizziness and feelings of suffocation may occur. Typical symptoms of fear of flying also include diarrhea or a strong urge to urinate, abdominal pain, trembling and weak knees.
The closer the flight gets, the stronger the physical symptoms become.
Negative thoughts and selective perception
Negative thoughts start the vicious circle of fear. Even before the flight, the affected person imagines everything that could go wrong. These thoughts alone cause their pulse to rise. The affected person interprets such bodily changes as a threat. The fear becomes stronger as a result.
If a plane crash happens somewhere, people with a fear of flying see this as confirmation of their fears. They do not perceive that most flights go well because the focus is on the negative exceptions. Experts refer to this phenomenon as selective perception.
Symptoms of a panic attack
A fear of flying can escalate to such an extent that the affected person suffers a panic attack. In a panic attack, the fear is even more intense. Those affected often even fear dying from the physical symptoms. Breathing difficulties, palpitations, feelings of suffocation, dizziness and fainting can be signs of a panic attack. These attacks usually peak after ten minutes and then subside again. They create great discomfort in the affected person and the fear of another attack.
Fear of flying: causes and risk factors
Fear is a mental and physical reaction to danger and therefore something quite natural. The body releases stress hormones and reacts with either a fight or flight response. If there is a real threat of danger, these reactions are vital for survival. The fear prevents people from exposing themselves to life-threatening situations.
It becomes problematic when this fear is excessive and occurs even when there is no real threat. This is exactly the case with a phobia.
Fear of flying: learning from the model
Often, the fear of flying begins as a result of an experience in childhood or adolescence. When children see their parents fear flying, they too can develop a fear of flying. Even if adults do not express this fear, children notice the tension and nervousness and adopt the behavior. They can therefore develop a fear of flying even though they have never boarded an airplane themselves.
Fear of flying: conditioning the fear
A specific phobia – such as fear of flying – can also result from a traumatic experience. An emergency landing, for example, can trigger fears of death. The affected person associates the negative feelings during the emergency landing with air travel. All smells and perceptions that the person registers at that moment are stored in the brain and linked to the fear. The next time this person sees an airplane, the feeling of fear comes up again. One speaks here of Negative conditioningThe airplane is no longer neutral for the person affected, but is instead associated with negative feelings.
A life-threatening event is not always the trigger: turbulence during a flight can also cause fear of flying. The decisive factor is the evaluation of the event. Anxious people are more likely to perceive turbulence as dangerous than people who are generally more carefree about life.
Today, experts believe that movies or information about the dangers of flying can also contribute to a phobia. The fear can even arise after the flight. For example, many people find flying through a thunderstorm unpleasant, but not necessarily threatening. However, if they see a film of a plane crash caused by a thunderstorm afterwards, strong fear can suddenly arise.
Fear of flying: Biological roots of fear
As we know today, genes not only determine the blueprint of our body. Hundreds of them are also involved in increasing the risk for anxiety disorders. In interaction with certain environmental factors, the genes then become active. Some people are more susceptible to phobias than others as a result.
This susceptibility (vulnerability) is influenced by various biological factors. Family and twin research suggests that the risk for phobias is passed on in part genetically. Experts also believe that an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain can promote the disorders. In addition, upbringing and environment significantly influence how fearful a person is.
The neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine may also play a role in the negative interpretation of experiences. Drugs that influence the transmission of neurotransmitters in the brain can therefore also influence the strength of the fear.
Fear of flying: examinations and diagnosis
If you suffer from severe fear of flying, your first port of call should be your family doctor. The doctor will interview you about your thoughts, feelings and physical reactions to flying (anamnesis).
He will also examine them to rule out physical causes for the symptoms that occur. For example, he will use blood tests and ECG (electrocardiography) to check your heart and thyroid function.
If organically everything is fine and the suspicion of a specific phobia is confirmed, the family doctor can refer you to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Meanwhile, some airlines also offer seminars against fear of flying.
The psychotherapist can use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) to diagnose a specific phobia such as fear of flying. The following criteria must apply:
- The affected person has pronounced and persistent fear that is exaggerated and unfounded. The actual presence or expectation of a specific object (airplane) or situation (flying or sitting in an airplane) triggers this fear.
- Confrontation with the phobic stimulus (airplane) almost always elicits an immediate fear response or panic attack.
- The affected person recognizes that the fear is exaggerated or unfounded.
- The individual avoids the situation in question or endures it with intense fear.
- The symptoms (of fear of flying) significantly interfere with the person’s normal functioning or the phobia causes significant distress to the person.
- The phobia has persisted for at least six months.
Fear of flying: treatment
Various methods are available to help sufferers overcome their fear of flying. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly effective against fear of flying. It can be ambulatory. If the anxiety is not very severe, just a few therapy sessions may be enough. Central elements for the treatment of fear of flying are confrontation, restructuring of thoughts and relaxation techniques. Medications are rarely used.
Confrontation of fear
The fear of flying is so unpleasant for people with aviophobia that many prefer not to fly at all. Avoidance of what is feared, however, maintains the fear and may even increase it. Because people who avoid flying out of fear do not experience that nothing bad will happen to them in an airplane. Many know that their fears are exaggerated, but that does not change the phobia. Only by confronting the dreaded situation can you conquer fear of flying.
There are different ways of confrontation:
The graduated confrontation Introduces the client step by step to the feared situation. Often the therapist starts with the so called "confrontation in sensu". In this method, the client first imagines the flight situation in his mind and can get used to the idea. After some time, the affected person will find it easier and easier to imagine flying, and the fear decreases. The therapist increases the challenges in each session. In the end, the client confronts the real airplane, which therapists call "confrontation in vivo" designate. The disadvantage of the staged confrontation is that the process can take several weeks to months.
The so-called"massaged confrontation Immediately exposes the client to his greatest fear. In the case of fear of flying, this means boarding an airplane. This approach seems brutal at first, but is very effective. The affected person experiences in this way that nothing happens to him in the feared situation. An important experience is also that the physical symptoms such as palpitations or shortness of breath are not life-threatening. If the client is exposed to the situation for a longer period of time, the symptoms subside until they disappear completely. At first the therapist accompanies the affected person. At the end of therapy, the patient should have learned to cope with the situation on his or her own.
Restructuring of thoughts
Thoughts play an important role in creating and coping with fear. Negative thoughts can trigger and intensify fears. Therefore, an important step in therapy is to recognize and change such thoughts.
With the support of the therapist, the client learns to question exaggerated or unreal thoughts. A common thought with fear of flying is: "The plane is sure to crash". The therapist checks this assumption with the client. Is a crash realistic? Can you be sure that it will crash? How likely is a crash? With such questions, the therapist dismantles the client’s catastrophic thoughts. Over time, the affected person replaces false assumptions with realistic thoughts.