How Your Thoughts Can Affect Your Fear of Flying



By Crea Sentido

Throughout each day, all of us have many thousands of thoughts which influence the decisions we make; how we face various situations; and how we behave toward other people and ourselves. Often these thoughts just flit, we do not pay too much attention to them. And thank goodness for that – can you imagine being actively aware of the nearly 70,000 notions flickering through our brains daily?

But of these thousands of thoughts, the ones that stick most with us are those related to a danger to ourselves, loss of control, or fear of suffering or dying. This is a mechanism the brain deploys to ensure our survival that sets in motion a series of physiological responses with the function of mobilizing us. Thus it increases our adrenaline and cortisol causing physical symptoms that put us in a state of vigilance in the face of a threatening stimulus. Among these symptoms would be, for example, the acceleration of the heart rate, dilation of the pupils, increased oxygen, sweating, muscle contraction…

A Good Example

A nervous or fearful flyer perceives the flight as a threat, presenting thoughts such as “I am in danger” or “this is something I cannot control”. And these thoughts often become more intense in the days just before departure, so they begin to feel even more true for the nervous/fearful flyer. All of this stimulates more symptoms and bodily responses since the “danger” is getting closer and more real – this might include hyperventilation, which raises the flow of blood to the heart, gaining more strength in the extremities – to prepare the body to flee from possible danger.

Of course, problems arise when that danger is in fact not real and is just a figment of the person’s imagination, cobbled together through experiences and irrational beliefs. And because the body generates the same response at a physiological level as if that danger were real, this translate to hyperventilation, tremours, nervousness and the like, which can even lead to a panic attack.

That’s why it’s important to recognise and identify relevant negative thoughts which can initiate a response in the face of perceived potential danger: if you’re aware of these thoughts and are able question them, you may be able to prevent the unpleasantness they can lead to later.

Does flying really mean putting yourself in danger? If you feel this way but then question these feelings, we realise that the danger is in fact not genuine, since we’ve read studies and statistics that show that commercial aviation is one of the world’s safest means of travel – far more, for example, than cars, which most of us use all the time without thinking twice.

It’s also true, however, that just questioning these feelings will not necessarily make your discomfort completely disappear, since they stem from deep-seated aspects of our personal history. And sometimes telling yourself to fight the thought and simply stop having it can perversely have the opposite effect. So the best approach is to strive to tolerate any unpleasant sensations – not fight them, but learn to live with them, in part by trusting in the science of flight proven for a century and in the highly trained professionals guiding your flight, as well as some key strategies (see below).

A Useful List of Coping Strategies

So to sum up, here are seven key points to help you get through your next flight with minimal discomfort:

  • Identify the thoughts that cause unpleasant sensations in you.
  • Try to determine where these thoughts are coming from. Are they learned beliefs- perhaps from a certain particular experience in the past? And are they perhaps related to the need to have control?
  • Question these thoughts: are they reality-based? How likely are these dangers really likely to come to pass?
  • Listen to your body and try to pinpoint where the first symptoms appear, in order to better respond.
  • Try to accept that throughout your flight there are various factors that are beyond our control, and depend on other people.
  • Create an inner dialogue during your flight, in the form of phrases or self-instructions that promote security – such as for example, “I trust the professionals who are in charge”, and “I can tolerate the discomfort I’m feeling, I have resources”.
  • Make use of those resources, such as strategies for managing your emotions, immersing yourself in relaxing music playlists like the woman in the photo at the top of this post; using various apps which can help distract your mind/alleviate stress – and by the way avoiding alcohol or mood-altering drugs.


So give all this a try on your next flight, and you’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel!