Why Conquering the Fear of Flying Can Be So Difficult

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ThinkstockPhotos-450232591Generally speaking, phobias are easy to treat for psychologists. We make sure we know exactly what object or situation the person is most frightened of and then, working alongside the patient, we gradually start to increase their contact with that situation in a step-by-step process. At the same time, we also teach skills to reduce the anxiety symptoms and build the person’s confidence at coping. We call this exposure therapy or systematic desensitization, but laypeople often refer to it as a ‘small-steps’ approach, largely because we move the frightened person closer and closer towards their fear along a series of equally challenging steps.

When we treat needle phobias, for example, we’ll often start by looking at pictures of syringes and of people getting injections before moving on to the more difficult challenges of being in the same room with and later handling actual syringes. We’ll help the person find comfort with each step in the process and wait for their okay before moving on to the next, more difficult parts. Over time (usually it’s just a few minutes to a few hours), the person becomes able to handle the syringe, use it to pierce the skin of an apple or banana, touch the needle to the arm and feel ready to consider booking an appointment to meet with their physician. Simple phobias, like needles, animals/insects, heights and enclosed spaces can usually be treated in as little as a few hours using this same series of small and equally spaced steps.

But imagine a situation where some steps are double or even triple the height of some others. The result is uneven and can put people in situations where they have to face challenges they may not feel ready for. Flying commercially can feel like that for anxious people, making the entire process of overcoming your fear more difficult. It’s easy for fearful flyers to find pictures and videos of airplanes online and there are usually streets around airports where people can park their cars and watch real jets take off and land, but it’s mush more difficult to get close to actual planes or board them without committing to the cost of a ticket or a flight. Also, people who have taken our programs very often tell us that when they do successfully board a plane the actions of closing the cabin door and pulling away from the terminal both feel like too much and they wish the crew would just wait a few extra minutes until they ‘felt ready’. In the end, many fearful flyers avoid flying altogether and lose out on the opportunity to learn that it’s easy and fun.

We get around these issues in our Non Flyer program by holding a portion of our course aboard an actual aircraft. After a day and a half of in-class work, where people begin to understand what their bodies are doing to stay safe and learn a variety of coping tools to manage any anxiety or fear that does come up, we move the class to a local airport and spend several hours working at those steps people can’t easily do on a typical flight. Because our flights aren’t on a schedule, we take all the time we need for people to feel comfortable before we close the cabin door and we can spend as much time as necessary with the engines running so people feel comfortable and ready for takeoff. By the time we’re ready to taxi from the terminal to the runway, most people feel confident that they will fly in comfort and any leftover fear fades away within 5 – 15 minutes. Moreover, everyone flying with us that day is in the same boat and has the same issues and concerns as everybody else, which creates a strong sense of safety and support.

Get in touch about our September and October 2015 programs or leave us your email address and let us keep you informed of what we’re doing. Anyone can fly without fear and we’d like to help you discover that you can too.



Fear of Flying Courses in the Toronto Area. www.afraidtofly.ca