How to Ground Your Fear of Flying
Imagine you've just won a dream vacation to an island in the Caribbean. You can almost smell the fresh, salt air. White sand and turquoise ocean spread out for miles in front of you, sprinkled with coconut and palm trees. You're staying in a small cottage on the beach, listening to the soft hoot of grebes. There's just one small catch...
You're afraid to fly.
Usually it's not a problem. You can drive most places, or take a train in a pinch. And you're happy enough to vacation at home...or so you've told yourself.
But this trip is different. You really want to go. This fear of flying is in your way.
You're in good company
If you have a fear of flying – or of heights, tunnels, escalators, water, driving, dogs, or a host of other things – you're not alone. The National Institutes of Mental Health report that 19.2 million adults have some type of intense fear, or phobia. In reality, it's a rare person who isn't afraid of something.
The fear is real, and so are the physical symptoms that go with it – pounding heart, sweaty palms, upset stomach, feeling dizzy, and a bevvy of "what if's" that buzz around your mind.
The logical thing to do
Most people deal with these symptoms by avoiding the trigger – they stay close to home, miss out on vacations, and even turn down jobs. The anxiety can be intense, and avoiding the trigger seems like the most straightforward, logical thing to do. It's what Sarah did for years.
When Sarah came to my office, she'd had a fear of flying for almost a decade. Then she got a promotion at work. As a reward, her employer was going to send her across the country for a conference. She had just a few weeks to take on her fear and find a way to comfortably board the plane.
The promotion, something Sarah really wanted, was the first step in changing her ten year fear of flying. She could finally imagine a future compelling enough to motivate her to make a significant change. Now she needed an approach that would help her make the changes quickly.
It might not make sense…at first
The most common approach to fear is to avoid whatever causes it. But in the case of phobias, this has the paradoxical effect of making things worse. That's right - the logical, straightforward approach of avoiding what makes you anxious actually makes the anxiety worse.
Researchers believe this happens because responding to anxiety brings about a cascade of changes in the brain. By responding to the "alert," you're essentially sending a message to your brain's fight-or-flight center that says, "Hey, thanks for the warning. I'll do what you suggested. Good to know that the danger is real. Give me the same warning next time."
This works well when there is a real danger. It helps us swerve out of the way of an oncoming car, or decide not to climb down a steep cliff. But when the risk is small (the odds of being in a plane crash are one in 6,935,000), avoidance creates a feedback loop that puts restrictions on how you live your life.
Sarah needed to do something that didn't seem to make sense. She needed a way to ignore her brain's signal, reflect on whether the signal was accurate and helpful, and then move toward her fear of flying. But it wasn't going to be easy. When we started, even the thought of packing for her trip was stressful.
Develop confidence-building strategies
Changing her pattern of anxiety needed to happen in slow, incremental steps. The smallest step, for Sarah, was to imagine the days leading up to the flight, looking for places that carried emotional charge.
As we found these places, we developed strategies for how she would handle the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that emerged. Sometimes strategies were simple, like breathing intentionally and gathering information. At other times our strategies were more complex. We collected all of them in written form, so that Sarah could remember them easily when she needed them.
Sarah began to plan effectively for things that might come up as well as things that probably wouldn't. She had a "toolbox" of practical ways to deal with whatever came her way. By the time Sarah was ready to fly, she felt confident and excited. She had regained the ability to move through her life in the way she wanted.
The Path Forward
If you struggle with a fear of flying, there is hope. In a a relatively short time, you can make a big change in fear of flying. Start with these simple steps:
1. Write down your specific worries about airplanes, travel, or this particular trip. You might have two or two dozen - the number isn't important.
2. Choose just one of these worries. Brainstorm, perhaps with a friend, what you might do about this worry. Make a plan.
3. Notice your anxiety. Did you relax just a bit? If not, keep brainstorming - you need a better plan. There is some aspect of your worry that you still need to address.
4. When your plan feels right, write it on a 3x5" index card and store it. This is one piece of a strategy that can help you reduce your fear of flying.
Fine tune your plan
Once a strategy to reduce your fear of flying is in place, you might want to fine tune it while watching airplanes on the web, driving to the airport, even boarding a grounded plane.
If you need it, get support. An experienced guide can help you choose the right starting point, suggest strategies, and troubleshoot when things don't work the way you expected. You'll have an ally to help you plan a route through emotionally charged terrain, and move through tricky places without getting stuck.
Because Sarah was able to change the way she worked with her fear of flying, she was able to create a future in which she had more freedom. No, she didn't win a free trip to the Caribbean.
But she's already planning an island vacation - hiking with iguanas, snorkeling with green and hawkbill turtles in the warm waters of a reef. Her fear of flying is gone.