cognitive behavioral therapy fear of flying

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What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as an effective, evidence-based psychological approach used by many mental health professionals to treat depression, anxiety, trauma, relational, and general mental health issues. 

In a professional setting, the course of treatment is approximately ten sessions; however, you could use the principles of CBT to overcome struggles in your daily life. Specifically, CBT techniques provide an effective framework to overcome anxiety around a fear of flying. 

CBT is based on the principle that dysfunctional behaviors or reactions result from distorted thought patterns and associated emotions. Simply put, if you would like to change an undesirable behavior, you would have to engage in introspection of and change your thought patterns and perceptions of a situation. 

This article outlines the basic premise of how you could use CBT to overcome your fear of flying

Thoughts on Flying

At the center of any fear-based reaction are pre-existing attitudes, rules, and assumptions about a situation. According to a study conducted in 2020, the four typical fear scenarios consist of the following:

  1. Encountering turbulence

  2. Claustrophobia

  3. Panic Disorder 

  4. Loss of control

To overcome any of the pre-existing fears, the first step is to take ownership of your decision to fly and accept the feelings of angst surrounding it. Next would be to challenge the associated beliefs surrounding the situation.

A strategy used in overcoming most phobias is visualization, which is a mild form of exposure therapy. Visualize what your upcoming journey will look like, but try to keep your mind from straying away into ‘worst-case’ scenarios. 

In a professional setting, a therapist would guide you through the visualization exercise. If you wish to engage in it yourself, keep repeating the visualization of the journey as many times as possible until you are comfortable with a ‘catastrophe-free’ situation. 

Another effective technique would be to engage in positive self-talk in the days leading up to your journey, even while you are traveling. The subconscious mind cannot differentiate between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ thoughts. This is why you have a reaction of anxiety even at the thought of flying, with no real threat present. 

Positive self-talk aims to reframe the idea of flying by allowing your mind to get comfortable with the situation, reducing the effect of your fight/flight response to no real threat. 

Emotions on Flying

With an increased awareness of your thought patterns around flying comes an awareness of your emotions associated with it. Emotions are a direct result of being exposed to a stimulus or, in unwanted cases, a trigger.

During the visualization exercise (mentioned above), it would be beneficial to take note of what specific triggers look like to you. These may be sounds, crowds, germs, smells, or even turbulence. In identifying triggers, you would then be able to prepare how you would handle an unwanted reaction to them. 

The first step in overcoming negative emotions is to accept that they are present. Understanding that you are feeling fear, anger, or unsafe would then help you identify the associated thoughts with that emotion. This is different from feeding into catastrophizing thoughts. You would accept the emotions present and actively move towards calmer, more manageable emotions. 

Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness breathing techniques before and during your journey could relieve overwhelming emotions. Specific techniques include color breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization of a safe place. These skills are effective in stress management and grounding oneself during an episode of high anxiety. 

Behaviors During a Flight. 

It is important to remember that the behaviors you engage in before and during your flight could have a massive impact on your journey. The best way to improve your experience is to be prepared with helpful behaviors based on tools that could regulate your mood. 

Having sources of distractions, including a book, pre-picked movie, or puzzles, are excellent ways of distracting yourself from triggers around you. Wearing loose, comfortable clothing along with noise-canceling headphones and an eye mask may help with grounding yourself from intense stimuli around you. 

If you begin to feel overwhelmed, try the mindfulness breathing techniques mentioned above, or if you prefer guided relaxation/meditation, apps such as Headspace and Calm could provide you with a guided experience. 

In the CBT model, thoughts, emotions, and behavior interplay to influence each other, so bringing your focus onto one aspect of the cycle would help you challenge and change the other factors. Practice makes perfect! The sooner you begin retraining your mind, the easier the process will be.


Written by
Shenella Karunaratne, Staff Writer

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