A Sense of ‘Control’ – a Treacherous Flying Companion


We live in an age when everyone at the tap of a screen or trackpad enjoys practically instant access to almost any type of information (as well as, unfortunately and increasingly,  disinformation), which when accurate can help us learn amazing things as well as overcome formidable challenges. So it would seem that in the case of the fearful/nervous flyer, this kind of power gives him or her a welcome feeling of control over uncertainty, fear, and other unpleasant feelings.

Not a bad thing, of course. However, when he or she comes to overly rely or focus on this form of perceived “control”, we can lose touch with something important: feeling our emotions to the fullest, to listen to what the body is saying. So what you might think of as control is not always your best ally.

If you’re facing the a flight – thus producing feelings of fear, anxiety, and tension – sometimes to “switch off” these unpleasant sensations you might deploy a series of control mechanisms: For example: choosing a certain seat that you feel allows you to escape “danger” more easily; checking all the nearest emergency exits and keeping an eye on them; continually scanning the faces of the cabin crew to try to read what is happening during the flight; or even taking medication or drinking alcohol to deaden adverse reactions.

But all these behaviors can actually prove treacherous, because while in the short term they might give you the illusion of security, relief, and a sense of being able to better control the situation. But in the long run they can perpetuate or even increase those fears and insecurities, because if you use them as a crutch you’re preventing your body from learning to tolerate the unpleasant sensations.

If you get too used to controlling everything that you don’t like to feel, the moment we can’t for whatever reason, we will very likely experience even greater distress, possibly including anxiety attacks.  So it’s essential to learn to put up with these unpleasant emotions and sensations – and that means letting yourself feel them rather than suppress them. For this, it is important to understand that the body reacts at three levels (physiological, cognitive and emotional) in order to warn us of possible dangers or give us information, and this does not mean much less than what we think will happen.  Not only that, but focussing all your effort and attention on these avoidance mechanisms to sustain the illusion of control is likely to distract you from what is really happening on your flight – and that’s never a good thing.

Managing Fear Without the Illusion of Control

First off, fearful flyers really need to learn to some extent tolerate the unpleasant emotions and sensations caused by aerophobia And tolerating implies feeling, allowing emotions to be present without having to do suppress them. So it’s important to understand that the body reacts at three levels (physiological, cognitive,  and emotional) in order to warn us of possible dangers or give us information.

Opening our “window of tolerance” for discomfort (a very normal human response) can actually be very helpful in some situations – in this particular case when it comes to accepting that there are things in life, such as flying in a commercial airliner, that are simply beyond your control, and you can convince yourself to have the confidence that everything will turn out just fine. One thing that may help is to keep in mind several liberating mantras, such as “when something happens, I can handle it”, “this, too, shall pass”, and “I have the strength to put up with this for a time”.

Try this on your next flight, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how a little short-term discomfort can improve your long-term situation – and your attitude toward flying. Happy trails!  ✈️😊

by Crea Sentido