In Fear of Flying, ‘Hypervigilance’ and Expectation of Anxiety


One of the results of the auto-feedback loop between negative interpretation and anxiety at the root of fear of flying is that it primes us to expect and experience further anxiety.

In effect, on the one hand there is then a subconscious bias toward seeking out aspects of reality which could seem threatening to us – a state psychologists have termed hypervigilance. On the other, there’s an actual conscious expectation that we are going to experience anxiety. Both of these things in turn increase the activation of the involuntary sympathetic nervous system responsible for anxiety symptoms such as elevated heart rate, sweating,  or difficulty breathing. This activation can also have the effect of redirecting this hypervigilance inward toward ourselves, so that we’re closely monitoring our own feelings and sensations – something psychologists term self-focused attention.

So for those who experience fear of flying, from the moment they know they need to board a flight, this hypervigilance and expectation of anxiety start kicking in, predisposing them once aboard, via stimulation of their unconscious nervous system, to experience one of two things, or sometimes both at the same time:

  • To interpret anything that happens on board in negative terms, as potentially leading to an accident, thus multiplying anxiety.
  • To interpret the slightest change in our own sensations as a sign that our anxiety levels are going to shoot up.

In either case, the result is a strengthening in the auto-feedback loop of negativity and anxiety that feeds our fear of flying. And understanding that is half the battle.

image | ihtatho