How Does Fear of Flying Develop?


In order to resolve something, you need to understand it. You see this in everyday life, but also when it comes to your fears. In therapy you’ll work to sort out the history of your fears and create a narrative that will help you make sense of it. You’ll also examine the foundations on which the problem was built, although some of them may be more complicated than others. 

Here we want to help you understand what happens inside you when these fears emerge. For each person there will be a different origin and a different way of understanding how those fears were created. It’s important to dig into your own history: how could your fears have developed? Let’s look at some possibilities:

 Learning from Others 

In psychology, “vicarious learning” means that you learn and acquire behaviours or new ways of reacting based on what you see in other people. How does this apply to the fear of flying? If as a child you saw how people close to you (parents, uncles, grandparents, etc.) were very nervous and anxious when thinking about taking a flight, you could have interpreted that flying is something dangerous. So although for you a flight seemed like something fun you could have eventually come to interpret it as something risky, so you gradually started generating strategies that “get you to safety.” But instead of helping, they simply put limits on your life. 

Traumatic Past Experiences

Having experienced traumatic, complicated, or embarrassing moments puts your brain into survival mode. Therefore if in the past you had an upsetting experience on a plane, your brain is activated and tries to move you away from the situation that it interpreted as dangerous. Even if it’s a survival strategy, it’s important to try to question what happens, as your brain tends to overestimate traumatic memories; especially since planes are one of the safest methods of transportation. 

Trying to Give Meaning to Things You Don’t Understand 

 We talked about the brain being very wise, and it deploys interesting strategies to help you survive. For their peace of mind, humans need explanations for things. Therefore when there’s something that you don’t understand (such as turbulence or a strange sound during the flight) your mind create explanations that you end up believing and that generate alerts in your survival system. What can you do if the first thing you think of is that something bad is going to happen? Accept that it’s a little part of you that tries to get you to safety, but understand it as something “external” that’s not always correct. 


Emotions Affect You when You Remember 

 Have you ever heard that learning is much easier when emotions are generated at the same time? Well, something similar happens with flying because your emotions carry a lot of weight and leave a lasting impression. So if at some point you had an upsetting experience on a flight and you felt fear, it’s much more likely that in your memory you’ll connect flying with that emotion. 

You’re Not ‘Designed’ to Fly 

 It’s true that human beings are not born to fly. And your senses sharpen and you may feel out of control when there are things outside of your routine, and flying is something that’s outside the biological norms of your brain. So if you’re prone to aerophobia, your senses may go into overdrive when there’s something that’s not going as it should or as you’re accustomed to. Therefore if your senses notice that something is different and that you have “lost control,” they will activate your survival mechanisms and this will lead you to think of ways to get yourself to safety. Humans need the feeling of security, and even if you don’t experience it physically, your mind will try to get you to safety mentally. 

Linked Phobias 

There are many phobias which are related to each other. For example, aerophobia coexists with claustrophobia in many patients who come to our clinic, and sometimes one can even lead to the other. If you have anxiety about being in enclosed spaces and there are delays during a flight (which aren’t dangerous but only extend the journey a little longer) and you’re forced to stay on the plane for longer than you expected, you might feel anxious. You may then interpret that planes are not a safe place. But this is just an interpretation or a thought, and not everything you think is real.

Information Overload

Now more than ever in the past, we’re constantly flooded with information – and misinformation. So if you are an anxious flyer, some news or other content online or in the media may lead you to overdramatise and prioritise it. Thus if you read about an accident or see it on TV or online, you might jump to the conclusion that this kind of thing is common, although the statistical data tells us this is completely untrue. 

Do you recognise any of these as part of your own mindset?

by guest blogger Psicoline