How to overcome your fear of flying

Whether you have a nervous flier in the family or it’s you who dreads the moment your plane takes off, there are millions of people across the globe who share a fear of flying. But if you’re worried about it holding you back on your travel adventures, then fear not – qualified pilot and clinical psychologist Professor Robert Bor is here to help with his new book, Overcome Your Fear of Flying.

Featuring renowned cognitive behavioural therapy-based treatments, the book focuses on “the thoughts and sensations that people experience when they’re anxious to the point of being phobic,” says Bor.

He added: “The traditional approach to treating fear of flying was to help people understand the statistics, and teach them how aircraft actually fly. But appealing to people’s rational side is only helpful for some. The sort of people who go on a one-day fear of flying course hosted by an airline have quite low levels of anxiety; they don’t like being on aircraft but don’t avoid it. We tend to treat people who are too distressed to fly at all.”

For the anxious fliers among us, here are Bor’s top tips for overcoming your fear.

Don’t avoid the issue

“We try to make ourselves feel safer by avoiding things,” says Bor, “but it doesn’t help to deal with your problem. Avoiding flying can inhibit your career if your work involves travel. It can affect relationships: most people want to go on holiday, many of them abroad. And some family events require us to travel.

“You shouldn’t avoid it because it’s such a treatable problem. Fears and phobias have one of the highest success rates for treatment of any psychological problems. If you’re willing to give it a bit of time, you ought to be able to fly comfortably. You may still be gripping the armrests, but at least you’ll get to Majorca.”

Think about the destination, not the journey

“Focus on the positive reasons for taking your flight,” says Bor. “Perhaps you’re going on holiday, visiting family or friends or just doing your job well. These all give you a purpose for taking your flight and added motivation to overcome your fear and move forward with your life.”

Challenge your negative thoughts

Not a huge fan of turbulence? Us neither. But, says Bor, “that’s where a little bit of education can help. Turbulence arises because of air currents, that’s all. People might be alarmed by the sensation and worry about the structural integrity of the aircraft, but technically speaking it’s a non-issue.

“However, turbulence is a ‘trigger event’; it switches on people’s anxiety. It’s uncomfortable, but fearful passengers translate that into danger – and there’s a big difference between discomfort and danger. You might spill your hot coffee, but the plane isn’t going to fall apart … It’s important to identify such negative thoughts while flying and question them.”

Learn relaxation and distraction techniques

“When you start having negative feelings during a flight, redirect this energy,” advises Bor. “Focus on the external environment: for example, strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger or watch the crew as they go about their duties. Do something which will distract you from the negative thoughts, such as listening to your iPod, reading a book or watching a film.

“If you start to feel unsettled, sit back, fix your line of sight on the seat back ahead or something in the distance and breathe deeply in through your nose for five seconds and slowly out of your mouth for five seconds. Your heart rate will decrease almost immediately and within a minute or two, you will start to relax.”

Don’t be embarrassed to tell the cabin crew

If you’re feeling anxious, then grab a member of staff. “Cabin crew are trained to support fearful flyers and very willing to help,” says Bor. “When you board the plane, tell one of the crew you are anxious about flying. Outing yourself is very positive, because otherwise you become ashamed of it – suffering in silence makes it worse. Tell them how they can help: by dropping by to reassure you the flight is proceeding normally, by explaining unfamiliar noises, or by reminding you to use relaxation or distraction techniques. If you’re travelling with someone who knows you are anxious flyer, tell them how you plan to manage your fear and ask them to help.”

Stay hydrated

Professor Bor advises against drinking alcohol to induce sleep. “People use alcohol, medication, recreational drugs, but although they may allay some symptoms of fear briefly, they actually tend to intensify the problem. Alcohol has a different effect at altitude and with low humidity. One glass of wine on the plane is equivalent to nearly two on the ground. You get drunk more quickly, but even if you doze off for 20 minutes, your anxiety levels may increase afterwards. So you start to drink more and more to overcome the problem.

“Before and during the flight, it’s important to keep blood sugar levels up. Stick to water and juices to keep hydrated and remember to eat little and often to maintain your energy, which can help control anxiety levels. Rest if you can, though sleep is not essential.”

Practice relaxation techniques ahead of time so you’re “a pro”

Start by enjoying short-haul flights before taking that ambitious around-the-world trip – then learn relaxation techniques while your feet are still on the ground.

“If you wait until you’re in a stressful situation to learn relaxation, it’s not as effective. Learn which techniques work for you before flying. You’ll then be able to invoke them much more easily when you need them. Remember, you can’t just click your fingers and magically never have to worry again. But if you give it time, the chances of overcoming your fears are incredibly high.”


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