Many fears that we experience are natural and adaptive, and built in, in order to protect us. We all know that unlike birds, we weren’t naturally born to fly.

Fears are a warning signal and can be useful when they give us pause to consider and protect us from accidents or danger. Our distant ancestors who were afraid of heights didn’t fall off cliffs.

Our fears make sense from an evolutionary perspective. However, when the perception of threat becomes our reality we have a problem.

New-er developed fear of flying

You might say “I didn’t have a fear of heights or flying or closed spaces until last year, why wasn’t I afraid before?

A fear of flying can develop slowly after many small uncomfortable flights or suddenly after a particularly rough turbulent flight.

One way to look at fears is that there is a threshold effect. Some of your fears won’t come out until your brain has matured, you have accumulated stress or you experience one very stressful event.

Avoidance of flying

Many people feel slightly anxious when flying. However, if your fear of flying becomes severe, you may avoid flying and therefore experiences like holidays or business opportunities.

The problem with fear is that we have a physical response to it caused by the stress hormone adrenaline. Our body goes into a fight or flight response which makes us feel panicked. When we feel this response we often feel the need to escape or avoid the situation. This is a primitive instinct from our ancestors who often had to decide whether to fight off an attack or run away. The body response includes increased heart rate, shallow rapid breathing and trembling.

Regulating the breath through slow deep breathing can relax the nervous system and your mind and make you more able to face your fears.

The problem with avoiding is that you don’t ever learn how to overcome the fear or learn the skill of how to fly comfortably.

Treating a fear of flying

  1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) People are generally able to identify what makes them feel fearful and so by exploring your thoughts and beliefs calmly (perhaps with a therapist) you may be able to break down and separate your actual fear from its physical response. This is best done when you are not anxious as in an anxious state your rational response is temporarily impaired. CBT can assist you to manage your fear. It starts with understanding its cause, looking at all the evidence and assisting you to understand that thinking something might happen is what you are afraid of not the situation itself. As you explore your fear of flying you begin to understand the underlying issues that have led to your fear and you learn to challenge and reframe your thoughts and beliefs.
  2. Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) is beneficial in treating phobias and fears, by processing past distressing or traumatic experiences, and/ or focussing on your performance for a future flight.
  3. Relaxation techniques such as controlled breathing and mindfulness meditation provide soothing techniques to calm and prevent the flight fight response.

This article was written by Clinical Psychologist, Linda Johnson. If you would like to book an appointment with Linda or any of our other Psychologists, please feel free to contact us here or call us on: 6381 0297.