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3 Cognitive-Behavioral Tips for How to Manage Fears of Flying

Anyone can relate to fear. (They’ve had it, have it, hate it.) Sometimes it is one time and gone, sometimes many times, sometimes every time in response to a situation, stimulus, or challenge.

Fear is a very important and useful emotion because when it provides an accurate (keyword) read of the situation, it can be a helpful survival mechanism. When a situation registers as dangerous, mind and body go into overdrive in a fight for survival.

For many people, though, fear is less a handy survival mechanism and more of an enemy that can compromise the quality of life and impair daily functioning. (Learn more about how treatments at FHE are helping people overcome their anxiety and improve their quality of life and daily function.)

How Flying Can Be Scary and Anxiety-Producing for Some People

Fears of flying are a common example. Traveling on a plane can be a big thing, even though it’s much more common in our modern world. There’s the whole process of preparing for air travel and then the actual act of getting somewhere, from finding a parking space at the airport to negotiating security lines, flight delays, and other potential mishaps that are out of one’s control.

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Air travel can be uncomfortable, because in a very real sense you are true “just along for the ride,” and this can be anxiety-producing. For many people, after all, being in control is the only way they can feel safe. Hence, if we are not in total control, something bad could happen, or we think “it will happen.”

Depending on what we think about flying, we may either be excited to visit Grandma and think “This is going to be fun!” or we may anxiously worry. We may say to ourselves “I hate flying. It’s so dangerous. We’re going to crash, and I won’t get to see Grandma.”

Of course, any person who equates flying with crashing and dying is going to be fearful of flying.

There may be many reasons why someone is afraid of flying. Some people have had a bad experience that triggers fear. Some may be anxious to begin with or may have an underlying anxiety disorder. Others hate the uncertainty of being out of control. Whatever it is, there can be a real fear, and this can be tough to live with.

How Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy May Help

The good news is that a therapy intervention like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy may be able to help. In fact, I have treated many people with this specific fear (also known as “aerophobia”). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is a very effective and research-proven treatment for anxieties and fears. It is a talk-based therapy that focuses on changing thought process to achieve a different emotional response.

The truth is that thanks to CBT, many people overcome fears and anxieties every day. What it means is that the debilitating fear of flying is not just a matter of being hard-wired for anxiety or something you have to live with for an entire lifetime. There are things you can do to manage and even overcome this type of phobia.

Of course, it requires effort to change a pattern of behavior or a set of beliefs. Think about other times when you’ve faced a fear, such as public speaking. You have to do it, so you do, and life does not end, and our worst fears very rarely come true. In fact, the more you talk and do public speaking, the less scary it becomes.

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The fancy therapeutic term for this habituation is “exposure therapy.” When you do something enough times, and nothing bad happens, you can’t be as terrified of it. Sometimes you just white-knuckle it, because you have to. In the end, though, you get through it. With a little thought, anyone can find an example, however small, of a time when they tried something that they were afraid of and it became less scary.

3 Lessons from CBT for Addressing Fears of Flying

What follows are some tips, techniques and principles from CBT that anyone can try, without having to go see a doctor or therapist. You may be surprised at how looking at something differently and challenging thoughts that are wrong or unhelpful can affect and change your feelings on things….

Watch your words

If you use words like “terrible,” “awful,” and “horrific” (or similar) you are generally overstating a concept. Very few things are that black and white (as in 100 percent good or 100 percent terrible). Consider the expressions “I am starving” or “I am famished.” Usually, when a person uses that expression, it’s because it has been a few hours since breakfast and they are feeling very hungry. They’re not literally starving.

Some people might say, “That’s just semantics.” Actually, studies in linguistics have revealed that certain words are emotionally charged and can trigger a neurobiological response. Think of words like “love” or “hate.” If someone says they love you, the brain releases happy chemicals; if someone says they hate you, the brain reacts very differently.

If someone says, “planes crash all the time” or “I am going to die on the plane,” they are going to experience more fear and anxiety.

Beware of emotional reasoning

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When a person feels something and then builds a story around it, they distort the situation and get lost in their thoughts and fears. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy helps people become more aware of this tendency to make up thoughts from a feeling, however unhelpful it might be. For instance, say I am feeling scared. I then need to find out what is dangerous (and inevitably there is always something).

Think about “I worry because I love you.” Worry is not loved. These are two separate words. Must everyone who loves someone worry about them? No, in fact, many people don’t. So, worry and fear are not intertwined. However, it may feel that the two go together, and we can justify our actions based on that. In reality, it is not a universal truth, but rather a thought process that can lead to thinking something bad could happen. If anything, rather than love it sounds like fear—so avoid just feeling something and thinking that it is accurate.

What are the facts? Use a scientific approach

Feelings are not facts. In reality, when we look at the statistics about flying, the death rate is very low. A person with aerophobia has a statistically higher rate of death from car travel but is more afraid of flying than riding in a car. They may avoid flights, but do not avoid being in a car, being around cars, or traveling in a bus. They may believe they can turn out of a dangerous situation when they are driving or break just in time.

Meanwhile, the same person may find all sorts of ways to catastrophize an experience of flying, but that does not compute. Arm yourself with the facts.

The next time your hands get clammy on a plane and your heart begins to race? Watch your words, beware of relying on your feelings to a reason, and instead recall the facts.
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This article was provided by Dr. Beau Nelson, DBH, LCSW, who is Chief Clinical Officer at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.

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