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They Really Are Friendly Skies:
Overcoming the Fear of Flying

By Captain Ron Nielsen

You can’t avoid all business air travel, even with teleconferencing. If you are a fearful flier, nausea and panic attacks can turn an ordinary business trip into disaster. Or, perhaps you do not consider yourself a fearful flyer but one who isn’t particularly enthused about flying. That same trip can cause uncomfortable feelings that zap the confidence you need when you land. Many bright, successful people lose promotions and career opportunities because they would rather not fly. The good news is that becoming a more comfortable flier can be accomplished in a few steps.

The Role of Trauma in Phobias: Some people fear flying because of a traumatic event unrelated to flying that instills a fear of being out of control. The brain copes with trauma by disassociating itself from and trying to forget the trauma. But a “bad” flying experience, something like unexpected and intense turbulence, can trigger the sense of being out of control and lead to a fear of flying response. Regardless of how the fear began, flying phobia is one of the easiest to overcome.  

Fearless Flight Tip #1:  Change Your Mind, Change Your Flight. Your beliefs and resulting perceptions drive your fear. For example, fearful fliers believe that flying is inherently dangerous and interpret every unfamiliar sight, sound, and sensation as a sign of impending doom. Fearless fliers, on the other hand, ignore or accept those same sights, sounds, and sensations as part of a routine flight. Fearful fliers react negatively based upon their faulty beliefs; fearless fliers respond matter-of-factly based on the real truth about flying   Change your mind about the way you view flying, and you’ve become a fearless flier.

Fearless Flying Tip #2: Learn All You Can About the Basics of Flight. We all tend to fear anything that we don’t understand, so learning about the way airplanes work and why flying is so safe can help a fearful flier immediately. Learn about the three most feared aspects of flying—takeoffs, turbulence, and landings.

It’s a fact: the more you know about what’s happening on an airplane, the less fear you will have. First, consider which parts of flying scare you the most. Terrified of turbulence? Consider this analogy: the plane traveling through the wind’s currents is like a ping-pong ball moving along in a stream. While following the course of the stream, the ball may bounce around a bit but remain unharmed by the flow. Likewise, an airplane in turbulent air will not be harmed either, but will “go with the flow” in the stream of air through which it is flying. Both the ping-pong ball and the airplane are designed to withstand the forces that Mother Nature can deliver—and a whole lot more.

Fearless Flying Tip #3: Use Distraction To Your Advantage. The main difference between fearless fliers and fearful fliers is what goes on in their heads. A fearless flier thinks everyday thoughts such as the upcoming business deal, the latest sales figures, increasing customer satisfaction. A fearful flier thinks catastrophic thoughts:  feeling out of control, crashing, and dying.  

Visualization and relaxation strategies are great if you can focus—something easily accomplished in the comfort of one’s living room but ineffective on an airplane with all the sensory inputs. An alternative is to find something that bypasses conscious thoughts and directly accesses the unconscious. Distraction accomplishes this by momentarily diverting one’s thoughts.

Purely mechanical forms of distraction such as sucking on a tart candy or snapping one’s wrist with a rubber band can briefly divert fearful thoughts. More subtle and potentially long lasting is using audio stimulation such as a portable listening device (CD or MP3 player or even the airline’s headphones) for listening to music or audio books. It works best to turn the volume up as loud as you can tolerate and allow the sound to occupy your mind. Choose audio programs and music that are unfamiliar to you so that your brain will not recognize the sound and return to those thoughts that trigger your fear.  

Fearless Flying Tip #4: Breathe! You may be surprised to learn that the single most important tool for overcoming your anxiety is managing your breathing. To achieve the desired outcome, however, breathing rate is the focus rather than the quality (as is the case during visualization and relaxation).

During anxious moments, breathing rate naturally increases. During a non-stressful time away from flying, count the number of breaths (inhale plus exhale equals one breath) that occur in a minute to establish a base for comparison. Then, monitor your breathing during times of stress to compare rates. If your rate is above normal, take action and focus physically and mentally to slow your breathing rate to a normal one. Monitoring your breathing rate slows you down physiologically and becomes an additional form of distraction from your fear.

Fearless Flying Tip #5: Acknowledge Your Fear. Believe it or not, many fearful fliers pretend not to be afraid or attempt to hide their fear. This tendency can be the result of a coping strategy for dealing with negative emotions learned in childhood. Often times well-meaning adults attempt to talk children out of their pain and fear. As a result, adults repress rather than manage those feelings. Instead of diminishing them, repression tends to amplify the focus—much the same as trying not to think of a pink elephant brings into mind the very image of one.

Fearless Flying Tip #6: Know That You Are Not Alone. In our culture, we tend to feel shame about our fears, so we keep them secret and isolate ourselves from others, thinking that we suffer alone. In reality, a recent Gallup poll indicated that 18% of those surveyed admitted to being very afraid to fly, and another 26% reported that they are somewhat afraid. That means that nearly half of the people on any given flight are experiencing some fear. So as you look around the plane, know that many of those people who look as if they have their act together, in fact are not that calm on the inside.

Fearless Flying Is Possible: Taking action and trying something different is the key to fearless flying. Challenging irrational beliefs can lead to changes in your behavior and change in your life. While there’s no pill or magic potion that will heal you, by repeatedly working on these steps, almost everyone can alleviate some or all of their fears and even recover fully from a flying phobia. Soon, you may find yourself volunteering for business trips instead of avoiding them!

Read other articles and learn more about Captain Ron Nielsen.

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