Thoughts on Overcoming the Fear of Flying

July 14, 2010

Editor’s note: This was originally intended as a response to a question on UK’s version of Yahoo! Answers. You can see the original post here. In it, a user asks about getting over a paralyzing fear of flying. I saw a mention of it on my aviation list on Twitter, though I cannot find the original Tweet now. I started answering, and, well, it got incredibly long. I’m posting it here, as poorly-written as it is, in case it can be of some use to someone, ever.

I’m afraid if I start replying to this, my answer might get quite long. But I will do my best.

I am recovering from a life-crippling, encompassing, visceral fear of flying that I had for about 20 years. It was so bad that I once took a boat from NY to the UK. I had recurring nightmares. Even scenes in movies shot inside airliner cabins could spur a panic attack.

Toward the end of my ordeal I felt like I had tried everything. Prescription drugs, shrinks, various courses, books, audio recordings.

First, I want to tell you, there is no single light switch you can throw to get over your fear, rational or irrational. I tend to be wary of programs that advertise guaranteed results or that they are the magic bullet.

What’s My Point?

Getting through the kind of fear of flying I had is not a quick affair. I tried many things before I was successful. But here’s the good news: I did overcome it. And the mix I think is the key? Commitment, patience, focus and practice, using many tools.

When my husband first read this post, he suggested I might want to edit it to make it not sound like working on a fear of flying is a monumental undertaking. But the thing is, it is. If you’ve got minor nervousness, you are not my audience. I’m talking about a fear that makes any element of air travel, even the notion of it, terrifying.

So, I might chase some folks off. But if you really want to overcome your fear, here’s my point: it is work. But it may also free you like nothing else. And if any of my rambling notes can help you in any small way, I consider myself successful.

Steps To Consider

  1. Identifying the sources and triggers of the fear; self-reflection. Why are you afraid of flying? What parts of the experience terrify you? Noises? Acceleration? The feeling of being unsupported in the air? The feeling of turbulence? Social anxieties like freaking out in front of other passengers? The feeling of “no return” when the cabin door closes? This is the piece of the phobia that some people find success in exploring with a counselor or other mental health professional. In my case, I was able to work through it on my own, but it took immense commitment and concentration. I found that writing in a journal and taking some time to think, deeply, alone, was very helpful in this step.
  2. Gathering information and building your support arsenal. This is the hole that certain types of courses, books or audio books can really help out with. It’s important to know that the fear is not rational, and that this step on its own will NOT cure you. But an understanding of aviation physics, the way the industry sort of works, what to expect from certain aircraft–it can be useful later when you’re applying some of your other tactics.Based on the things that I discovered, through self-reflection, were the scariest for me, I started gathering my tools. This involves broader-reaching things like meditation audio books, or Web sites that focus on aviation or fear of flying. It might mean involving a close friend or relative who can support you. I’ll list some Web sites, books and courses that I found useful in this step in a bit.

    A certain amount of prescription anti-anxiety medication makes sense for some people, but not all. It’s controversial. Some fear of flying programs rail against any chemical crutches. A lot of them—for good reason—make loud noises about how dangerous it is to combine these anti-anxiety drugs with alcohol, and the drugs can be very addictive for some people. A very low dose of a drug in the benzodiazepene family is part of my toolset, but it is absolutely not a primary tool.

  3. Looking at the bigger picture; finding meaning and motivation. For me, an anxious reaction was not limited to flying. I’m an anxious person! Finding some relaxation techniques and lifestyle changes really helped me in this area. Examples are yoga, breathing exercises, spirituality or meditation.Why do you want to get over your fear of flying? What is really driving you to work on this fear? Is it important to you? For me, it was my true love of travel and exploring amazing new places. But being able to feel that strongly enough to face my terror took patience and focus.
  4. Planning your attack. Figure out how you can face this thing down. Schedule it out if that works for you (I like schedules and to-do lists, at least to a certain extent). I scheduled, quite literally, a full hour per day over the course of a few months, solely to work on this issue. During this time, I’d use items in my support arsenal, I’d visit Web sites and supportive chat forums, I’d read books about airplanes, I’d meditate, I’d write down my thoughts and concerns. Finally, I built up the courage to book my first flight. I prioritized the things that really scare me about flying, and then tried to find a flight that was the most appropriate. The idea of flying at night or in bad weather or a small plane really freaked me out, so my first flight was PDX -> LAS (Portland, Ore., to Las Vegas, Nev.) during a summer day. I also made sure to get a window seat and also treated myself to first class. The idea with my first flight was to remove as many stressors as possible while still making sure I was taking a huge step.
  5. Taking small steps; staying committed. One of the hardest things for me about desensitizing myself to flying was that I saw it as one, monolithic thing. Either I was on the plane or I wasn’t, right? But I did find some things that really, honestly helped, but they required commitment, repetition and dedication. I started hanging out in the local airport, just outside security, listening to flight announcements and boarding calls. I practiced relaxation techniques there. I spent a lot of time on, looking at the interiors of Alaska Airlines 737 aircraft, to become more comfortable with them. I watched home videos people shot on airplanes, watching them look calm and comfortable. I spent a lot of time looking at stuff that started to convince me, slowly, of the everyday nature of commercial airline travel.
  6. Knowing what to expect. Accept and love that this fear is not rational. But neither are many of the important things in life, like love or beauty. Let go of judging yourself for it. I used to beat myself up a lot. I let that go. If possible, find a certain beauty IN your fear. Embrace it and get to know it. This is difficult. Being afraid is okay. Also know that your first flight will not necessarily be easy. Nor will it necessarily be terrible. And that one flight will not cure you. And that it will continue to get better, with ups and downs.Not every approach will be successful, either. I feel that is unlikely that any one single approach could work on its own, solo. It’s a combination of tools, commitment and practice.
  7. Finding the final key. This is the part I probably can’t advise to. I think it’s different for everyone. I will tell you what ultimately got me on a plane. Two things, actually. One: the excitement of being able to travel with my husband, and the thrill of making it a surprise for him. I concocted an involved treasure hunt for him using my personal Web site. I involved a few select friends and relatives. My first trip, to Las Vegas, was a total surprise to him. At the end of the treasure hunt–which I triggered upon landing in Las Vegas–he found a plane ticket for himself, for the following day. Two: Something finally happened from all of my focus and determination. I started believing that planes going from point A to point B simply were *going to get there*. This sounds fundamental, basic. But it’s one of those things our rational side gets, but our irrational side rejects. Somewhere in my progress my irrational mind started believing it. I knew that the plane going from PDX to LAS was going to leave PDX and land uneventfully in LAS. It always has. The choice left to me was whether I wanted to be on that plane. I knew parts of it would be scary. But I also knew that the plane was going to arrive safely, just fine.
  8. Persistance, practice: Don’t give up. Keep trying. Don’t feed the fear by canceling trips at the last moment (that rush of relief you feel that you don’t have to get on a plane? It’s just going to make it worse in the end). Believe and know that anything you imagine will happen, won’t. Keep flying, keep flying. Start knocking down the other elements that freak you out: night flying, an aisle seats, longer flights, turboprops, flying with other people, flying a multi-leg journey. You’ll start watching a magical thing happening: your brain will start to re-program its responses to certain, previously fear-inducing, stimuli. I now like airports. I find the cabin layouts of certain 737 configurations “cute.” The things I see through an airplane window are amazing things I could never see from any other vantage point.I “practice” every day. I’ve become excited by frequent flier programs (though I am seriously ignorant of them), and sometimes read the forum at I maintain an aviation-related Twitter user list. I read blogs written by flight attendants. I get very, very excited about packing efficiently. These are all manifestations of my commitment to get better and better. I’m still afraid of flying at night; I don’t know what I would do if I had to get on a flight quickly and didn’t have time for “preparing” myself. But I’m working on each and every one of these bits of fear: it’s like excising a persistent tumor. It feels so good to have almost all of it gone.

    I took my first flight just over a year ago. Since then, I have experienced 23 or 24 takeoffs and landings. I just got back from an epic, monthlong trip to Europe (Iceland, Ireland, France, the UK) during which I flew 7 times. It is not always easy. But it is exhilarating, amazing. Good luck, and bon voyage.


Here are some links to some lists of fear of flying books and programs that helped me:

It may be a bit difficult to follow, but here is the treasure hunt of my first flight (in reverse chronological order):

And, finally, a collection of photos from my most recent trip, made possible by my steps to conquer my fear:

Through all of this, I haven’t technically answered your question, which was about UK-based fear of fying courses. If you can find an appropriate one, I do encourage you to take it (perhaps someone based in the UK can chime in). I hope I don’t just seem insane for writing all of this, but my heart goes out to those who are afraid of flying, and I want to, in some tiny way, help.


  1. Lucy Waters says:

    Afternoon! I think I saw your answer on the Yahoo site because I remember being impressed with the time and effort you’ve put into really understanding the issues you had – and yay for you for getting on a plane! I really wanted to add one more tool that I’ve found incredibly effective – Thought Field Therapy (TFT) – it’s a tapping therapy that cancels out the negative emotions around thoughts and memories and is so effective I’ve had clients tell me it’s changed their lives. Google it or drop me a line if I help with more information. All the best, Lucy

  2. Josefina Argüello says:

    I hate flying. No, it’s not the frustrating obstacle course of shoe removal, sweeps and patdowns, oppressive crowds, interminable queues, perspiratory delays and airplane food (or lack of it) that makes every trip a challenge. (Though all of the above are worthy reasons to dread air travel.) No, for me, it’s the loss of control that accompanies my first footsteps into the claustrophobic cylinder that my fervid imagination assumes will be my coffin. For the next however-many hours, my life is out of my hands — and I can no longer find refuge in my delusion that my health and safety are 100 percent under my control.

    Josefina – best of mexico

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