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How to Overcome a Fear of Flying

If you have a fear of flying, you are likely extremely frustrated with yourself. You can’t understand how you suddenly developed this fear after such a long time of being completely fine, if not enjoying, your time on planes. Perhaps your frustration is heightened by the fact that despite your best efforts to rid yourself of the fear, anxiety, worry, and dread, you simply can’t seem to pull it off.

Even more frustrating is the reality that, despite all the things you’ve tried to combat these intense feelings, your fear of flying has only strengthened over the years. This is all incredibly discouraging. You may even feel hopeless in the face of these years of pain, fear, panic, and tremendous discomfort on planes.

You’re likely wondering what you can possibly do to fix this?

To understand what to do, let’s first look at the why. The answers lie in our brains.

Key Brain Facts

There are two areas of the brain most crucially connected to our fear of flying: the amygdala and the cerebral cortex.

The amygdala is the emotion center, responsible for our fight-or-flight response. When faced with potential danger, this area of the brain turns on, and quickly does what it must to prepare us for swift action to keep us alive. While this part of the brain is terrific at achieving its goal of survive, its accuracy is poor.

As a result, we are prone to see problems that don’t exist. So, a big reason we develop a fear of flying is our amygdala inappropriately assigns life-threatening danger to planes.

Stats on Airplane Safety

I say inappropriate because the reality is this: it would take you flying each day for 20,000 years to be certain you’d die on a plane. You have, at the low end, a less than 1 in 7 million chance of dying in a plane crash.

Not only is flying the safest form of travel, it’s one of the safest activities us humans engage in – period. By comparison, each year, there’s about 40,000 automobile-related deaths.

Image of passengers boarding an airplane outside during sunrise

In the 20,000 years (where you flew each day) it would take you to certainly die on a plane, in that same time, about 800 million people would die in automobile crashes.

Back to the Brain

Meanwhile, the cerebral cortex is the thinking, analytical part of the brain. It is far too slow to respond in emergencies. It’s like a committee of old guys.

When we get preoccupied with anxiety, fear, and dread about an upcoming flight, and we try to plan for all the “what if” scenarios, we use our cerebral cortex. Here, we are trying our best to resolve our anxiety and fear. The problem is it has no chance of working. The reason is twofold.

Why We Can’t Reason with and Resist Our Fear/other Negative Emotions

1. There is no pathway from the cerebral cortex to the amygdala

Since this is the case, all our efforts to logically talk ourselves through those “what if” scenarios, reminding ourselves of the facts about plane safety, etc., do not make their way to the amygdala. The amygdala is where all our negative emotions live and get triggered (fears, anxieties, dread, etc.). Since there is no roadway from the cerebral cortex to the amygdala, much of our efforts to logically reason our way out of it all will not help reduce the fear, anxiety, dread, panic, and so on.

2. What we Resist Persists

In the external world of people, places, and things, the harder we try to do something, the more we struggle, the more likely we are to get what we want. For instance, if you see a soda bottle on your lawn, you can pick it up, recycle it, and ultimately get rid of it.

Meanwhile, in our internal world of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, the more we oppose something, the more we will have of it. Try not thinking about a pink elephant; I bet all/most of what you thought about just now was that pink elephant.

When we try to resist, argue with, avoid, and/or distract ourselves from our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, they only get stronger. And, in the case of your fear of flying, this process of trying to tackle it through the gut-instinct, external world approach, is what transforms it into a phobia.

Knowing this, what can we do to overcome a fear of flying?

1. Eliminate Safety Behaviors

Safety behaviors are efforts we take to try to control and eliminate our fear, anxiety, stress, and so on.

Here are some examples:An image of a woman anxiously waiting inside the airport at her gate looking out the window at the airplanes on the tarmac

  • Checking the weather for the day of your flight
  • Taking a Xanax while on the plane
  • Gripping the arm rest throughout the flight
  • Checking crew members’ faces for signs of worry

The problem with these safety behaviors is each time we resort to them, our amygdala takes careful notice. It sees these attempts at protection and, as a result, continues to regard planes as something dangerous for which you need these protections.

2. Practice Responding Counterintuitively

Consider and write down as many steps/actions you take when you book your flight, prepare for your flight, and are on your flight. For each, detail your current intuitive response, as well as your likely best counterintuitive one.

For instance, when you reserve a flight, you might normally get the information for the flight but postpone the purchase to avoid thinking about it and experiencing the fear and anxiety. This only serves to strengthen the anxiety and fear.

A counter-intuitive response might be to purchase the flight at the same time you reserve it, feel the anxiety and fear, and work through it using deep breathing and acceptance.

3. Ask Yourself: Is it Danger or Discomfort?

If you remember this question when you become afraid, panicked, anxious, or stressed, you will become far more skilled at responding in much more helpful ways.

Remember, the amygdala is not built for accuracy and so, often, you might get tricked into thinking you are in danger, when, in reality, you are just experiencing discomfort. By getting savvy at noticing this reality, you can get practiced at not giving these negative emotions the same kind of power over you.

4. Practice Using the AWARE system

AWARE stands for Acknowledge and Accept, Wait and Watch, Act, Repeat, and End.

  • Acknowledge and Accept: First, practice noticing and experiencing your symptoms (fearful, anxious, and/or scary thoughts, physical sensations, etc.). Second, allow yourself to feel these emotions/experiences without struggling, denying, or fighting with them (to the best of your ability).
  • Wait and Watch: Remind yourself that the smoothest and fastest way to move through your emotions is to wait through them. Watch which role you take on (observer or victim). Work to maintain an observer role, where you notice your various symptoms with interest and try to take an impartial attitude towards the discomfort you feel.
  • Act: Practice belly breathing. When we breathe into our chest, we only get shallow breathes, we don’t get enough oxygen to the brain, and therefore, we worsen our anxiety, panic, and fear. When we breathe into our belly, though, we are able to get a lot more oxygen, which will reduce, if not pull us out of, a negative emotion state.
  • Repeat: It’s common to experience repeated waves of fear and anxiety, so work to embrace that reality and start at the top of the A in AWARE when you do.
  • End: Remind yourself that your feelings and the experience will end. During it, it can feel endless, so you want to proactively remind yourself that it will conclude (in all likelihood within 15-30 minutes at most).

Are You Ready to Overcome Your Fear of Flying with Anxiety Therapy in San Diego, CA?

At Stress Solutions, I can help understand the way your fear of flying started, how it worsened over time, and the right tools and approaches to use to eliminate it as quickly as possible. You deserve to have a life free of this kind of crippling fear, anxiety, and panic, and we can work together to help you achieve it.

To get started, you can give me a call at 619-881-0593.

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