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How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying (Part 1)

About 40% of all Americans have a fear of flying. That's more than 120 million people! If you're one of them, the Savvy Psychologist has 5 tips to get you in the air without a pit stop at the terminal bar.  You’ll never love the middle seat, but you may not mind getting on the plane.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #011
cartoon scared on plane

Tip #3: Don’t Confuse Possibility with Probability

Images of US Air 1549 floating in the Hudson River, the Asiana crash at SFO, and of course, September 11, are rightfully seared into our collective memory.  However, the detailed media coverage of these tragedies makes us perceive that crashes, hijackings, or terrorist attacks are common and likely to happen. 

This is called overestimation of threat, a common misstep of the mind.  We misjudge the potential for catastrophic consequences based on highly visible, but extremely rare, outliers.  We confuse possibility with probability—a crash is possible, but it’s definitely not probable.  Crashes make the news precisely because they are rare.

Specifically, in 2012, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for the airline industry, recorded just 1 accident per 5 million flights on western-built jets.  Even if you’re on that one-in-5-million flight, of all passengers involved in U.S. plane crashes from 1983-2000, a full 96% survived.

Tip #4: Tune into What's Going on Around You 

Take a page from the mindfulness book to root yourself in the safe, present moment.  Keep yourself from spiraling into imaginary worst-case scenarios by looking around you and describing what you see.  Look at each person who files past you down the aisle, describing them without judgment.  Describe the interior of the plane.  Look internally as well—scan sensations but don’t interpret them.  “My heart is beating quickly” is fine but stop short of “and that means I’m going to have a heart attack.” Absorb yourself in what is, and you’ll have less room for hypothetical what ifs.

Tip #5: Use Good Old-Fashioned Distraction

To get your mind off a racing heart or catastrophic imaginary thoughts, tune outward, not inward.  Soothing music works for some, but for others it reminds you that you’re trying not to be nervous.  So rather than trying to soothe yourself, which can feel too “therapeutic,” engage yourself with a riveting movie, captivating book, or addictive app. 

Plan ahead and bring something you’ve really been wanting to read or watch so you’re not limited to in-flight entertainment or whatever’s in the airport bookshop.  And although the research says distraction doesn’t help you get used to flying; I say do whatever gets you through to baggage claim.  Remember, zero judgment.

Test out these 5 tips, and after a while, you might even like to fly.  As for liking airline food or baggage fees, well, we’ll leave that to the crazy guy trying to jimmy the door.  And we’re not done yet! Join me Part 2 of this series next week where we’ll tackle in-flight panic attacks and the truth about Xanax.

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References

Stinson, F.S., Dawson, D.A., Patricia, C.S., Smith, S. & Goldstein, R.B. et al. (2007).  The epidemiology of DSM-IV specific phobia in the USA: results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.  Psychological Medicine, 37, 1047-59.

How to Survive a Plane Crash (BBC News).

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