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Business News/ Specials / How to get over your fear of flying
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How to get over your fear of flying

wsj

Many people are afraid when they get on a plane, and the Alaska Airlines door-plug blowout hasn’t helped. The good news: They have several options to deal with it.

Sometimes just sucking on a sour candy can provide enough of a distraction to take people’s mind off their worries. (Image: Pixabay)Premium
Sometimes just sucking on a sour candy can provide enough of a distraction to take people’s mind off their worries. (Image: Pixabay)

Choosing the most anxiety-producing thing about modern air travel can be, well, anxiety-producing. For some, it is the crowded, confined space of the plane cabin. For others, it is the sensation of turbulence, or intrusive thoughts about the plane crashing—not helped by incessant coverage of incidents like the recent Alaska Airlines door-plug blowout.

Travel company Upgraded Points found in a recent survey that a third of Americans profess to have a fear of flying. But the nature and intensity of the fear can vary, says Mitchell Schare, a professor of psychology at Hofstra University and founder of its Phobia & Trauma Clinic. “This is a continuum, from a hassle or an aversion, to a fear, all the way up to a phobia," he says.

Likewise, there are a range of tactics for dealing with these feelings. Jenny Matthews, a therapist who has overcome a fear of flying, suggests that sometimes just sucking on a sour candy can provide enough of a distraction to take people’s mind off their worries. Others benefit from the support of other travelers, or from understanding the mechanics of flight, how airplanes work and what safety measures are in place. Another option is exposure therapy, which comes in many variations, from watching planes from the ground to spending time in a flight simulator with a pilot to see how he or she handles situations like turbulence and windy landings.

Here are some techniques and tips for fearful fliers.

Exposure therapy

One way to defang fear and anxiety is by confronting it—admittedly, easier said than done. Exposure therapy typically tackles this daunting task by doling out confrontation in small, manageable bites. For the truly phobic, these bites, says Schare, can begin as simply as driving by an airport, or just watching planes take off and land.

From there, exposure to the entire flying experience can be gradually increased. For instance, the Kansas City International Airport gives fearful aspiring passengers a taste of plane travel in its Kansas City Air Travel Experience Room. It features a section of an Airbus A321 fuselage with a fully outfitted interior, and the experience includes a 15-minute audio and video sequence that includes flight-attendant safety announcements, plane sounds and video visible through the windows that gives the sense of taxiing.

Even people without plane tickets can use the room. More than 600 people have used it in the year that it has been open, says Melissa Cooper, director of aviation for the Kansas City Aviation Department.

Virtual exposure

Virtual-reality technology has been found in studies to be an effective way of gaining therapeutic exposure to triggering situations. Many therapists and treatment programs use the technology, including Schare.

Once prohibitively complex and expensive, the technology is now available through smartphone apps like oVRcome and ZeroPhobia. OVRcome, for example, uses lessons in techniques like mindfulness and visualization along with virtual immersions in airports and aboard planes. The approach requires just a few minutes a day, and uses low-cost headsets.

Talk to a pilot

How statistically likely are crashes? How can a plane fly in a rainstorm? Sometimes being able to directly ask a pilot your questions, your way, can help allay nagging fears. That’s the premise behind Dial a Pilot, a service launched last year by commercial airline pilot Kyle Koukol that connects fearful fliers with someone from his roster of active and retired airline pilots. They offer explanations of what pilots and aircraft designers do to make air travel safe, even in the event of scary situations like severe turbulence or engine loss, Koukol says. A 15-minute call costs $50.

Sit with a pilot

To get even closer to the experience of air travel from a pilot’s perspective, fearful fliers can step into a cockpit in a flight simulator. At facilities like Dream Aero near Washington, D.C., and AviaSim, with locations in Canada and Europe, pilots demonstrate perfectly uneventful preflight checks, taxiing and takeoffs, in-flight turbulence and emergencies. And because simulators can be set to virtually any airport in the world, it’s possible for fliers to rehearse a specific trip.

Mutual aid

In the Fear of Flying group on the community-forum website Reddit, members can use in-flight Wi-Fi to stay connected with others on the ground, who will track their flights using information from sites like FlightAware to post encouraging updates like “You’re over halfway there!"

That can help trackers who are anxious about flying as well as passengers, says one of the group’s moderators, who goes by the handle ThePeanutMonster. “It’s like a mild form of exposure therapy," he says. “Watching flights, normalizing flying and seeing that—surprise, surprise—the flight landed without incident is great to reinforce the fact that flying is safe."

Breathe easy

Studies have shown that mindful, structured breathing—like so-called box breathing, in which you inhale, hold, exhale, and again hold your breath for equal amounts of time—can reduce anxiety in stressful situations. Meditation apps like Calm and Headspace (some of which are offered on some in-flight entertainment systems) also offer exercises that use breathing techniques to help manage flight-related anxiety, as do free resources like the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Pucker power

Sometimes all it takes to break a mounting cycle of panic or anxiousness stemming from turbulence or other in-flight discomfort is a distraction. Matthews says that can come in the form of a sensory surprise like a temperature shock (load a cup with ice before boarding and press a piece to your face or neck as needed) or a shock to the palate, with something like a tart candy. (One recent study found that sour tastes increase one’s appetite for risk.) In either case, the idea is that your attention will momentarily turn to the new, intense stimulus and away from your source of anxiety.

Matthew Kronsberg is a writer in New York. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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