According to statistics, one in four people have a phobia of flying. However, the causes vary from one person to the next. For some it is a fear of heights, for others claustrophobia; being trapped and not able to get off a plane once the doors shut. It can be fear of turbulence, crashing, a feeling of not being safe, or a basic loss of control. Very often there is an overlap between all of these triggers.
People often worry that flying isn’t safe, but did you know there are over one hundred thousand flights per day that land without a hitch? When you do hear of an accident, it’s precisely because they are so rare. Regardless, you can know the facts and figures and still be afraid; that’s the human condition.
Often, trying to work on your fear of flying through logic alone will not be enough. In this article, we will explore some methods I’ve used with clients that will work with your emotional response and really challenge the negative associations you have picked up over time.
How does a Phobia get Created?
People react to various situations in both positive and negative ways. Certain tastes and smells, locations or objects can take us back in time to a memory and the feelings that went with it; the song you listened to with your first love for example. If you are in a strong enough emotional state, ten years later you could hear this tune and the positive feelings will come flooding back. This also works the other way round; another song might recall a painful relationship etc. Many stimulus responses are created throughout our life, and they can often affect us without us knowing why. This is exactly what happens with a fear of flying; one negative association cements that link forever. Perhaps you saw a movie with a plane crash when you were little, or you cried on a theme park ride, your mind then linked this with turbulence and the fear grows.
If the trigger was strong enough it may only take one event to create this fear. Once your brain has created this neural pathway (what is known as a stimulus response), whenever you experience or think about aeroplanes in the future, your body immediately fills with adrenaline, preparing for either fight, run or freeze. This is a useful response if we want to avoid danger, but when our brain has wrongly linked danger to something that isn’t really that dangerous at all, it creates unwanted emotions and responses that stop us seeing the world.
So what can you do to change your fear of flying?
There are three areas you can focus on when dealing with your fear:
- You can work on the past, looking at the trigger events that created the fear in the first place and work on those emotions and beliefs;
- You can work on the present, and how you respond in the moment when you’re getting on a plane;
- You can work on the future and counter the anticipation of an upcoming flight.
These seven tips will also help:
Working With Past Triggers
1 – Ask the Right Questions
Start by asking yourself these questions:
- What is it I’m really afraid of when it comes to flying?
- Is it the height, being trapped, turbulence, being out of control or something else?
- What is it I believe about flying in order to be afraid?
- What evidence do I have that this belief is true?
- What evidence do I have to believe it is not true?
- What memory or memories do I have from the past may have contributed to my fear of flying?
- What was happening at the time?
2 – Scrambling the Old Memories
Once you have asked yourself the questions above, bring your past events to mind. Think about what you were seeing, feeling and doing at the time.
Take the image you had of this first event and play with the colour. Make it dull or black and white. What would it be like if you made that image small or imagined that event in your mind as far away? Imagine running the whole event backwards like you’re rewinding a movie, five times as fast, then play it forwards. Do this several times. Imagine calmly sitting in a chair and watching this event as if it were on a TV screen. Imagine the fearful event or events as a classic black and white comedy. Keep playing it forwards and backwards and add funny characters. Include a tune like The Benny Hill theme or any other music that makes you laugh. Maybe your favourite comedian has added a director’s commentary. Notice what happens to your feelings when you play with these images and sounds.
3 – Cross Lateral Stimulation
Another way to reduce triggers from the past is through cross lateral stimulation.
- Start by looking straight ahead, find a fixed position so the eyes stay at the same level of focus;
- Now, whilst thinking about the past event linked to flying, focus on the feelings and write down a number to show how bad the fear is, ten being the worst and zero being nothing;
- Now allow your eyes to move slowly from left to right passing between the bridge of your nose. Do it slowly to start with then get faster;
- Do this for a few minutes then check in on the number;
- Keep repeating this left to right process until your fear in that past event is a 0;
- Repeat this with the next event if necessary.
Working With the Present
Start by noticing what you feel, think and do when you get on an aeroplane. Your fear will normally have a pattern to it and you will be thinking, feeling and breathing in a certain way.
4 – Self-Love
One way to start breaking this pattern, is to do something soothing while focusing on your fear. Since the mind cannot hold two emotions at once, the fear will normally reduce.
A very simple way of doing this, is to take your hands and place them on your temples. Slowly move them down your face in a stroking motion, and then back up again. Do this for a few minutes, as if you are lulling a baby to sleep. This motion releases endorphins, which counteracts the adrenaline caused when the fear is heightened.
5 – Spin the Feelings
Notice where in your body you feel fear. How heavy or light is it? If you put more focus on the feelings does this increase or decrease the feeling? Do they feel like they have a direction? Now imagine the feeling outside your body, in front of you and imagine them moving in the opposite direction. Speed them up, then pull it back into the body, spinning it in the opposite direction. Spin it faster and faster until it disappears.
6 – Focus on Your Breathing
When you are fearful, the first thing that changes is your breathing, which becomes fast and shallow. To change this take deep diaphragmatic breaths, breathing in through your nose for five seconds, holding the breath for five seconds and then exhaling through your mouth for five seconds. Keep repeating this sequence until your breathing is regular.
Often the worst part of flying for people is not the flight itself but the build-up or anticipation that can come up weeks before the event. When people have a fear of the future (anxiety) they are usually saying ‘what if?’ and imagining the worst-case scenario. Here is one way to deal with the build-up or fear of the future.
7 – Make the Flight How You Want It
A key thing is to focus on your outcome. Rather than focusing on the parts of the flight that scare you, instead think about why are you taking the flight in the first place. How will you feel after the completion of your flight when you’ve reached your destination? Imagine you’re enjoying the view with a cocktail. Make that image bright and vivid, add beautiful relaxing music and keep re-enforcing the image. Now, when you think about flying, focus on the positive images, feelings and sounds you’ve imagined. Some people doubt that visualising has any effect on them until they realise that they have been doing this all their life, it is just that they have been visualizing only the negative and what can go wrong.
Once you are aware of this you can replace the fears with positive visualizations instead.
Unlike other methods people use to try and get over fears such as drugs or alcohol, these processes are not harmful and you can never over practise them. Use them whenever the fear of flying surfaces and soon you will be able to travel the world with the freedom you deserve.