Fear of flying is one of the primary barriers to a life of happy travel, yet courses designed to dispel that fear are abundant, affordable, and effective. You can even design one yourself, based on a typical program offered through many airlines and counseling offices. You’ll need to include these 3 easy steps.
Step 1: Get an Education
Most fear of flying course begin with education. Knowledge is power, and the more you know, the more powerful you’ll feel. The educational component in Fear of Flying courses usually centers around two subjects: 1) the safety of the aircraft and the professionals who run it and 2) the normalcy of the fear response under certain conditions.
The airline courses are going to emphasize the “planes are safe” part of this. That’s where their expertise is. They know how well planes are maintained. They know that the kinds of things most of us worry about, like say, a wing falling off, aren’t going to happen. No way. They know they’re qualified and competent, and they’ll give you the details to emphasize how safe you are when you fly (and you are) even when it feels like you’re not.
But they’ll probably also have a psychologist or counselor explain the fight or flight response and reassure you that panic isn’t dangerous. They may tell you about the autonomic nervous system or the vagus nerve since polyvagal theory is the current Big Thing in mental health. But what they’re really trying to say is that the body is a sound machine, just like the plane is. And even though you may feel some turbulence in there, you’re not in any danger, even when it feels like you are.
I’ve told you the salient features of the educational component of the program (planes are safe and fear won’t hurt you), but if you need to do your own research about either of these topics to reassure yourself, do what you need to do. A word of warning though: Don’t wait until you’re boarding to start thumbing through Google’s search pages for proof.
Start your search now. Be thorough in your investigation. And beware of the confirmation bias, that part of every person’s consciousness that looks only for facts that confirm what you already believe, even when your beliefs are contrary to most of the evidence. Don’t get online and google “plane crashes,” for example; look for something like “What if the engine on a plane goes out?” instead. You’ll find that planes can operate just fine if one of their engines goes out. Write that down, along with other reassuring facts you’ll find, and review the information daily. Remind yourself as often as you need to that planes are safe (and fear can’t hurt you).
Step 2. Learn Anxiety-Reducing Techniques
You’ll also learn some anxiety-busting skills in the course, and if you’re designing your own course, teaching yourself a relaxation skill or two is a good place to start. I cover several of these in my book and you can find examples online as well. Some of the most common ones are breath-focused meditation or breathing exercises, the body scan, and mindfulness.
Don’t get too caught up in worrying about the “right” way to relax your body. Lots of relaxation practices work and all of them work better when they are regularly practiced, not pulled out of the sky after you start panicking. Choose one that feels comfortable to you and work with it often enough that your body becomes conditioned to relax the moment you shift your attention to the breath, or to the spot in the middle of your forehead, or to the task of warming up your hands and feet. Become a relaxation ninja.
Step 3: Expose Yourself to Your Fears
The most common treatment for phobias (and the one best supported by the research) is systematic desensitization. Systematic desensitization has an educational piece, just like Fear of Flying courses do.
It involves teaching yourself how to relax, just like Fear of Flying courses do. And when you’re able to relax, you can think things through based on a rational assessment of risk, the kind you internalized in Step 1 when you were getting an education about how safe you are on a plane.
Then systematic desensitization helps you to overcome your fears by exposing yourself to them in manageable bites. You might start by relaxing yourself while looking at the airline’s websites for tickets, for example. Later, you might drive to the airport while practicing your relaxation skills. Most Fear of Flying courses desensitize anxious flyers by allowing them to get familiar with the inside of a plane and many end with an actual flight, accompanied by a professional who reminds you to utilize your skills.
That’s a piece you may think you’ll have a little trouble with doing alone, because you probably don’t have access to a plane. But no worries; you’ve got access to something even better. You’ve got an active imagination. That’s how you’ve been able to conjure up all those totally unlikely scenarios about fiery crashes and plummets to the ground.
And Captain Dave Wallsworth has graciously given you access to his plane (well, British Airway’s plane) so you’ve got some visual aids, too. When you watch these videos, it’s easy to imagine yourself flying safely in a plane that is in no danger of going down. Just look at those confident pilots!
Exposure is mostly about imagining yourself on the plane; it’s about “being there” and experiencing a problem-free flight (almost all of them are). But by watching, you can also pick up some more information to add to the education you got in Step 1 of this process, too.
For example, you’re told that because this flight is a long one, an extra pilot has been added. The three of them can take turns resting and being on the alert. Did you imagine an exhausted pilot nodding off in the cockpit? Here’s your chance to correct that image and replace it with something more comforting, something more accurate.
You’ll probably also notice the near constant communication with the tower during takeoff and landing. Did you imagine that the pilots were guessing when to head down the runway? Guess again.
Relax. Watch. Relax. Watch. Every time you relax, your fear diminishes. You prove to yourself that you’ve got some control over your emotional reactions.
Relax. Watch. Relax. Watch. Every time you watch, you’re teaching yourself that flying is safe. It is, you know. You’ve just got to give your body a chance to experience that truth.
And what do you know? Another safe landing. Happy flying!