Flying Phobia: What is it?
November 5, 2019
Do airports make you feel anxious? Does the thought of getting on a plane make you think twice about going on vacation or visiting friends far away? If so, you’re not alone. Many people feel nervous about flying.
Parts of plane travel can make people feel a little uncomfortable. For some, it’s the thought of being so high off the ground. For others, feeling a lack of control over being in an enclosed space for an extended period of time can cause anxiety.
Even though they may feel a little nervous about flying, most people are still able to enjoy plane travel without much discomfort. For those who get a little nervous about flying, distraction and self-soothing techniques might be enough to cope. Understanding how planes work can also help overcome the fear of heights. (Check out our tips and tricks to stay calm, and article on turbulence.)
However, some people find flying very distressing. They may feel very afraid, they may notice their heart beating faster, shortness of breath, trembling, an upset stomach, or even faintness. They may simply avoid flying altogether.
If this sounds familiar, you may have a flying phobia. A phobia is an intense or unreasonable fear of a specific situation, object or activity. More than one in 10 Canadians experience phobias, and fear of flying is one of the most common types of phobias.
The good news is that specific phobias such as fear of flying are considered to be the most treatable of the anxiety disorders. Studies have shown that exposure-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is highly effective for treating specific phobias. This form a therapy focuses on taking small steps toward slowly and safely exposing a person to their feared situation until they no longer feel afraid. A mental health professional trained in the CBT approach will guide you each step, and can also teach you coping skills.
For example, if visiting an airport makes you just slightly anxious, that may be a starting point. The next stage may involve gradually moving towards sitting on a plane for increasingly longer periods of time. Actual exposure to these situations is ideal, but imagining these situations can also work.1 For situations that are harder to replicate, like flying, virtual reality exposure can be very helpful.2
While a greater number of therapy sessions generally increases effectiveness, even a single session of treatment has the potential to be helpful.3 Though the process may take some time, the benefits are life-long and can open many opportunities for new experiences and more enjoyable travel.
Whether you’re a seasoned traveller or white-knuckle flyer, there are therapies and techniques to help you get the most out of your travel experience. If you’d like to learn more about overcoming air travel anxiety, contact your local Canadian Mental Health Association or talk to your health care provider.
Suggested further reading:
Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: Phobias
Why Some People Have a Crippling Fear of Flying — and How They Can Overcome It
1 Wolitzky-Taylor, K.B., Horowitz, J.D., Powers, M.B., & Telch, M.J. (2008). Psychological approaches in the treatment of specific phobias: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychological Review, 28(6), 1021-1037. Doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2008.02.007
2 Katzman, M.A., Bleau, P., Blier, P., Chokka, P., Kjernisted, K., Van Ameringen, M. & the Canadian Anxiety Guidelines Initiative Group on behalf of the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada/ Association Canadienne des troubles anxieux and McGill University. (2014). Canadian clinical practice guidelines for the management of anxiety, posttraumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders. BMC Psychiatry, 14(S1). Doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-14-S1-S1
3 Katzman, M.A., Bleau, P., Blier, P., Chokka, P., Kjernisted, K., Van Ameringen, M. & the Canadian Anxiety Guidelines Initiative Group on behalf of the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada/ Association Canadienne des troubles anxieux and McGill University. (2014). Canadian clinical practice guidelines for the management of anxiety, posttraumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders. BMC Psychiatry, 14(S1). Doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-14-S1-S1