How Your Thoughts Work When You Have a Fear of Flying

by David Lanza


Are flyers who board a plane in fear reasoning clearly?

When we feel intense anxiety, this conditions our higher mental functions, such as attention and conscious thoughts. And as you can imagine, this in turn has an effect on our emotional state and therefore our ability to feel safe is considerably reduced.

Ok, then what happens inside someone who has a fear of flying?

Imagine a lighthouse atop a rocky bluff, casting its potent, revolving light over the sea to help ships safely navigate as they approach port. Now imagine that this light instead of revolving stays fixed in just one direction – perhaps illuminating one patch of land  The ship’s crew would see only that patch rather than more of the shoreline.

That’s how those suffering anxiety feel – their capacity to focus on various different stimuli is suddenly reduced to one single stimulus – and one that more often than not they perceive as dangerous. When aerophobes board a plane, their “lighthouse” stops casting light on the whole picture and concentrates on one particular aspect – a common example being the routine noises the aircraft makes in the course of its operation. So they start thinking, “is that sound normal? Do I need to worry? Wait, did that noise just get stronger? Why did that happen? Am I safe”?

With all these thoughts growing inside and feeding on the “light” of their attention, fearful flyers can barely perceive how peacefully their seatmates sleep, the blue sky outside the window, the calm and matter of factness with which the flight attendants go about their tasks, and so forth. So this becomes the first “trap” that anxiety sets for them when they board a plane. It focuses exclusively on factors they consider potentially dangerous (whether they are truly dangerous or not) and avoids any hint of normality that confirms the fact that flying is in fact perfectly safe. So after this point, most of what fearful flyers experience throughout the flight are negatively conditioned enough to make it an unpleasant one.

But it’s important to remember that what they fear isn’t the experience of flying itself, but the narrative that their minds process and interpret from a fear-biased place in order to validate those fears.

So why is it that their their minds can’t give them a more realistic interpretation of flying? Basicallym it’s because the mind always likes to be right. So even if these thoughts are unpleasant, it gives the fearful flyer a sense of control – something along the lines of, “I know that this is dangerous, so I’ll avoid it and that will make me feel safe, whether or not it’s actually dangerous”. What it boils down to is that it’s harder for their brains to change the belief that “flying is dangerous” to “flying is safe” than to continue feeling afraid and avoid airplanes, “just in case”.

That’s why if you’re a fearful flyer, logical explanations of how safe it is to travel by plane don’t calm you down as much as you’d like, because with your thoughts distorted by the effects of anxiety, it’s not a matter of logic, but rather of emotion. And it’s here that therapy which takes that emotional component into account can make a diference.

If you find yourself in this situation, I hopre that now you have a little more insight on how your mind works when you face a flight, and I sincerely hope that it helps you to broaden that “focus” the next time you get on a plane.

Happy flying!


Founder of the Instituto Lanzas in Madrid, David Lanzas is a psychologist specialising in anxiety and trauma.