How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, the Savvy Psychologist covered 5 ways to get to your destination without leaving fingernail marks in the armrest.  Today, we’ll learn why you freak out at 30,000 feet and do a 10-second test to see if you’re prone to panic. Plus, the skinny on Xanax and what to do next.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #12

Use Habituation to Overcome Flying Fears

First, your body.  If you know a particular sensation is your Achilles’ heel, practice feeling that sensation before you get on the flight so you can get used to it.  Seriously.  If you’re worried about feeling dizzy, practice spinning around in a desk chair.  If you don’t like feeling lightheaded, practice by breathing through a coffee stirrer.  Racing heart?  Bring on the treadmill.  Practice until the sensation is boring, which will take a few sessions.  The sensations may be uncomfortable, but they’re not dangerous.  You’re always in control.  Finally, on your first Xanax-free flight, welcome in all body sensations.  You’ll be trained and ready for them.

This process is called exposure, and it’s the most effective way to kick any phobia, from heights to spiders to public speaking to flying.  Yes, it can be tough at the outset, as anyone who’s been through it can attest, but the results are both powerful and liberating.

Next are the airplane and the flight itself.  Start small and work your way up—habituation shouldn’t have to be white-knuckled.  So first, surprise all your out-of-town visitors with a personal airport pick-up to practice simply being inside the airport.   

Move on to YouTube to find videos specifically for flying without fear that show typical take-offs and landings, explain turbulence, and demonstrate the source of weird airplane noises.  What not to do: don’t watch a YouTube video of extreme turbulence through your fingers and then slam your laptop shut.  That will only reinforce your phobia.   Most of the videos won’t win any Oscars, but can help you get used to seeing typical flights and know what to expect. Watch them until you’re bored. 

There are also a number of paid programs including apps, websites, and live courses.  I haven’t experienced them, so I won’t recommend them by name, but you can find them with an online search.

In sum, practice your feared sensations, habituate your phobic brain, review the 5 tips from Part 1 of this series, and you’ll pass the test of your next flight with—you knew this was coming—flying colors.


IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.  (2012). The Use of Medicines in the United States: Review of 2011.  Danbury, CT: Author.

Vanden Bogaerde, A., Derom, E., & DeRaedt, R.  (2011).  Increased interoceptive awareness in fear of flying: sensitivity to suffocation signals.  Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49, 427-32.

Wilhelm, F.H. & Roth, W.T. (1997).  Acute and delayed effects of alprazolam on flight phobics during exposure.  Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35, 831-841.;


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.