If you find yourself saying a silent prayer to your loved ones each time your plane pulls out onto the runway, you’re not alone. From slight jitters to full-blown anxiety attacks, a fear of flying is a common problem. Given how often many of us have to fly for work these days this anxiety can be hard to avoid.
Termed ‘aerophobia’, a fear of flying may be something that has troubled you your whole life, or has seemingly come on out of the blue. For many, fear starts to develop as we get older or once we start a family.
In reality, flying is a very safe form of travel. In fact, a study by the US National Safety Council found that flying was 22 times safer than driving a car. Not twice as safe, or a little bit safer, but 22 times as safe. And how carefree are we driving around in our cars each day?
Unfortunately, for many people such statistics aren’t enough to ward off the nerves, so here are a few common fears examined.
“Turbulence is a problem for people only because people think turbulence is a problem for planes,” says pilot and therapist Captain Tom Bunn. “Commercial jets are built the same as planes that fly weather reconnaissance in hurricanes, so turbulence isn’t a problem for planes or pilots,” he says.
Even knowing this, we can still feel anxious. This is because while we can distract ourselves with a book or a movie during a smooth flight, turbulence jolts us back into reality. We start to imagine something terrible happening and there’s the problem – we start imagining.
“When the difference between imagination and perception is not understood, what’s in the mind and what’s reality becomes confused,” says Bunn. “So if we can imagine the wing falling off, we believe it’s possible and start worrying about it. But in reality, wings never come off jet airliners.” Keeping your mind from running away is key; just ride those bumps out.
Not being in control
If you run your own business or head up an organisation, you probably like being in control. On a plane, all control is taken away from you, potentially triggering feelings of anxiety.
In this scenario, Bunn states that training your mind not to release stress hormones is really the only way to dissipate your fear.
He explains that the most effective way to do this is through the Social Engagement System (SES), which involves identifying a reassuring figure in your life, even from childhood (such as a parent), and using that person’s face as a means of quelling anxious thoughts.
Air travel can make you feel like you’re stuck in a sardine tin – which is a nightmare if you don’t like small spaces. For those who get claustrophobic, it may be useful to either position yourself on the aisle, so you can see some empty space, or sit near a window, so you can see that there is a world outside, whichever works best for you.
“And remember the engines constantly pump air into the aircraft, so there’s no need to worry about a lack of air,” says Bunn. If you need reassurance, open the vent above you so you feel a stream of air, he suggests.
Strange sights and sounds
For most of us, the concept of an enormous lump of metal travelling through the air at great speed over extended distances is mind-boggling. And herein lies the root cause of many of our fears – we simply don’t understand what’s going on.
Takeoff is often when we start to stress as so many strange things seem to be happening. Bunn explains that it’s normal for the engines to whir loudly as they speed up, for the baggage compartments and food trolleys to rattle and to temporarily feel light-headed just after take-off. Then there’s that almost deafening silence when it sounds like the engines cut out.
“When the engines sound like they’ve quit, that’s actually routine noise abatement,” explains Bunn, just like a truck has to switch to low gear in residential areas. As for the light-headed feeling, “that’s the sensation you get when the nose lowers to allow for noise abatement, and is just like when an elevator slows,” he says.
When it’s time for landing, you’ll see the flaps being put down, and these can sound something like a blender, says Bunn. “Then you’ll hear a loud clunk as the gear locks into place,” he says.
So while there are plenty of unfamiliar sights and sounds, most of them are just routine mechanics and nothing to be concerned about.
If you’re a fearful flyer, the following courses and resources can help you conquer your fears:
- Fearless Flyers Inc, a not-for-profit organisation supported by Qantas and Airservices Australia, runs courses in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth
- Flight Experience offers individual and group courses across Australia
- Captain Tom Bunn has authored a book titled The breakthrough treatment for fear of flying (paperback and kindle) and has developed a smartphone app which can guide you through your flight
- The VALK Foundation also offers an app to keep you at ease