Many fearful flyers ask themselves why even after flying repeatedly they still can’t seem to shake their aerophobia.
There’s a very simple explanation: When you’ve had traumatic experiences related to airplanes – for example having suffered an anxiety attack on one – it’s necessary to work through these experiences beforehand in therapy so that they aren’t reactivated again and again when you get on the plane, so that travelling does not bring retraumatisation. And since many fearful flyers don’t do this, they have to try coping with strategies that make them feel secure in the very short term. But overdependence on such strategies is ultimately self-sabotaging and means that, without realising it, their fear of flying actually ends up increases and becoming chronic, despite traveling by plane frequently.
Here are three of most common of these problematic strategies:
Reliance on Medication
Many anxious flyers automatically reach for axiety medications such as benzodiazepine. But whilst yes, these can have calming effects, over time they can also become a problem in and of themselves, since they don’t lead sufferers to associate flying with safety and calm but rather with the drug in their bloodstream. Thus overdependence on drugs will not decrease your fear of flying but actually may end up helping entrench it further.
Always Flying Accompanied
Not surprisingly, another common way to help fear of flying sufferers alleviate their symtoms is to have friends or family members fly with them, and especially during takingoffs, landings, and tubulence can squeeze their hands to help calm themselves. And it’s certainly true that having the help of a supportive someone else can be tremendously beneficial, but as with medication, overreliance on others to help you through this can hold back your own development of internal strategies to manage the fears yourself – in other words, that other person becomes too much of a crutch.
To wean yourself off this crutch, I’d like to suggest that the next time you fly, you and your companion sit apart. This way you benefit from the knowledge that the person is there, without being tempted to rely on them when anxiety strikes; then at some point it would be beneficial to take a flight entirely on your own – but work up to this gradually, to let your nervous system become adjusted to the change.
Letting too much Time Elapse Between Flights
Finally, our brains are designed to protect us, which means that negative memory traces are much deeper than positive ones. In other words, the memories of experiences in which we’ve felt fear are like stepping on wet sand, while the rest of the experiences are more like stepping on dry sand. This makes continuous repetition over time of challenging experiences especially important so that the brain learns that we’re safe and compensates for that “negative imprint”.
When we let a lot of time pass between one flight and another, no matter how good a trip we have, our system will register it as “the exception”, keeping the mental programming that “flying is dangerous”. On the other hand, if we start flying more often (and we have previously addressed our phobia of flying in therapy), what the brain will register as an exception will be that negative experience that you had one day and it will understand that “flying is safe”. This is the basis for what we can exposure therapy. In general terms, the more you fly, the less you will come to fear it.
I hope these observations and recommendations can help you to make the small changes you need to overcome your aerophobia. Happy flying!