Aerophobia: The Fear of Flying

Symptoms, Related Conditions and How to Overcome It

Businessman sitting in airport lounge, holding head
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Aerophobia, or the fear of flying, may be associated with numerous other phobias, but sometimes it appears on its own. The fear of flying is estimated to affect as many as one in three people, although a full-blown phobia is significantly less common. Travel delays, common when flying at popular times, can make the fear of flying worse. Whether or not your fear of flying has developed into a phobia, it can have devastating effects on your quality of life.

Fear of Flying Symptoms

The symptoms of aerophobia are similar to those of any specific phobia. Physical symptoms of the fear of flying may include:

  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Heart palpitations
  • Flushed skin
  • Feeling disoriented
  • Clouded thinking
  • Irritability

Some people with a fear of flying are reasonably comfortable at the airport, but begin to experience symptoms just before boarding the plane. Others have difficulty that begins as soon as they reach the airport. Anticipatory anxiety, in which you start experiencing the fear of flying long before a scheduled flight, is extremely common.

Phobias Related to Aerophobia

Fear of flying may be caused or worsened if you have certain other phobias, including:

  • Claustrophobia. People with claustrophobia often experience a fear of flying due to the confined quarters and lack of personal space.
  • Social or germ phobia. Those with social phobia or fear of germs often develop a fear of flying because they will be forced to spend long periods of time with strangers.
  • Fear of heights. A general fear of heights can also lead to a fear of flying.

Physical Conditions Related to Aerophobia

Additionally, some physical disorders can lead to a fear of flying, including:

  • Sinus or middle-ear blockage, which can cause pain or dizziness during flight.
  • A cold, chronic sinus problems or conditions such as vertigo or ear disorders can cause a very real fear of developing physical discomfort.
  • Cardiovascular disease or other conditions that increase your risk of blood clots, which can cause concerns about developing deep vein thrombosis during a flight. Talk to your doctor about any physical conditions prior to your flight to develop a plan of action to minimize risk and discomfort.

Causes of Aerophobia

Fear of flying that is not caused by medical concerns or other phobias may be caused by a range of factors, including:

  • Experiencing a traumatic flight or plane crash. Even watching extensive news coverage of airline disasters can be enough to trigger a fear of flying. For example, much of the country developed at least a minimal fear of flying in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
  • Environment. If your parents suffered from a fear of flying, you may have internalized their trepidation. This is a particularly common cause of aerophobia in children, but affects many adults as well. You might pick up the fear of flying from another relative or friend, but parents seem to have the biggest influence on phobias.
  • Other related circumstances. Your aerophobia might also be rooted in an entirely different conflict. For example, a fear of flying that develops soon after a job promotion that requires travel could be caused by concerns about the job itself or its impact on your daily life. Likewise, children who must fly frequently to visit divorced parents sometimes develop aerophobia as a coping mechanism for the trauma of the divorce.

Overcoming the Fear of Flying

Fortunately, the fear of flying is relatively easy to treat, even without knowing the underlying cause. If you do not suffer from other physical or psychological disorders, you may be a good candidate for a fear of flying course. These classes typically last two or three days, often over a weekend, and use techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat a large group simultaneously.

Individual cognitive-behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy and newer virtual reality techniques are also effective treatments for uncomplicated aerophobia. If you are experiencing a fear of flying, it is best to make an appointment with a qualified mental health professional. He or she can diagnose the phobia, determine whether you have any concurrent disorders and develop an individualized treatment plan

The fear of flying can have a devastating impact on your quality of life. With proper treatment, however, you can learn to manage and even beat this common phobia.

Sources:

APA Online. "New Virtual Reality Technique Helps Conquer Fear of Flying, Say Researchers." August 2000. Retrieved April 15, 2009 from http://www.apa.org/releases/flyingfear.html

Haq, H. "Can a fear of flying be cured?" BBC.com (2013).

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