The American Psychological Association (APA) defines phobias as “a persistent and irrational fear of a specific situation, object, or activity (e.g., heights, dogs, water, blood, driving, flying), which is consequently either strenuously avoided or endured with marked distress.” An aircraft could be a perfect storm for a cocktail of triggers that would exacerbate one’s fear of flying.
Although air travel is the least likely cause of fatalities when it comes to modes of transportation, fears, and phobias surrounding flying are common. Gaining an understanding of your specific fears can lead to a better understanding of how you can cope and manage symptoms.
This article highlights some common phobias associated with air travel and ways you could prepare and cope with related fears of flying.
Aviophobia or aerophobia is a fear of flying or being on an aircraft. Individuals may experience anxiety around being on a plane, take-off, landing, catching a disease on the flight, or getting locked in the plane.
While individuals with this phobia can comprehend that their fear is irrational, the symptoms of anxiety surrounding the experience of a flight can make it seem like a real threat. Aviophobia can be exacerbated by feeding into your irrational fears or may develop in people who have never had issues with anxiety but may have had a bad experience on a flight.
Acrophobia is an anxiety disorder marked by an intense fear of heights or intolerance for visual heights, which could impede many activities you engage in. People with a fear of heights find it challenging to imagine or go through the experience of being on a flight several thousands of feet up in the air.
Common fears associated with acrophobia include a fear of falling from a height, being trapped, or an unavoidable impulse to escape being in the situation. According to a study in 2016 in the Journal of Neurology, acrophobia is often comorbid with anxious or depressive conditions, where women are approximately twice as likely to experience the phobia than men.
Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder in which individuals meet specific criteria as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V):
Marked fear or anxiety about two (or more) of the following five situations:
- Using public transportation
- Being in open spaces
- Being in enclosed spaces (e.g., shops, theaters, cinemas)
- Standing in line or being in a crowd
- Being outside the home alone
About 2% of the U.S. population have agoraphobia, which often develops in early adulthood before the age of 35, being more common in women. Etiological factors that could contribute to developing agoraphobia include:
- Having comorbid anxiety or depressive conditions
- A history of early-life grief/loss, trauma, or abuse
- Highly neurotic or obsessive-compulsive personality traits
- Genetic predispositions
Individuals with agoraphobia often feel an impending sense of danger in unfamiliar environments outside their homes, where potential escape seems difficult and/or unavailable.
Another phobia related to agoraphobia or social anxiety is anthropophobia which is a fear of people themselves regardless of the social situation. This is most common among teenagers and women.
While it is not a formal diagnosis, anthropophobia is a stress response either to past trauma or the result of a hormonal imbalance in the adrenal glands in which there is a disproportionate release of stress hormones.
Claustrophobia is a fear of enclosed spaces and/or physical restriction from being able to escape a space. Approximately 12.5% of the U.S. population is reported to have this phobia, with it being most common among women.
Chances of developing claustrophobia are higher if you:
- Experienced being trapped in an enclosed space as a child
- Were bullied or experienced abuse
- Had a parent with claustrophobia
Being in an enclosed space such as an airplane or a tunnel is the primary trigger of anxiety attack-like symptoms where you may feel a loss of control and an overwhelming sense of constriction.
Mysophobia is an intense fear of germs and/or contamination. Individuals with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are at a higher risk for developing mysophobia due to the nature of the compulsions of the disorder.
Those with mysophobia may exhibit behaviors such as excessive handwashing/cleaning and a refusal to be in an environment where they may be ‘contaminated.’ This specific phobia may be developed due to past trauma, increased awareness of germs and anti-germ products, and a genetic predisposition to developing the phobia.
Ways to manage and cope with travel-related phobias
Whether you are struggling with one specific phobia or a combination of several, the first step would be to educate yourself on what the signs and symptoms you are experiencing mean.
Below are effective means of resolving air travel-related phobias and fears. Preparation ahead of time and identifying healthy coping strategies would enable you to find what best works for you before and during your flight.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
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 and change your thought patterns and perceptions of a situation.
An effective form of CBT in treating phobias is exposure therapy. As you anticipate an upcoming flight, engaging in exposure therapy with professional help or self-learning may help you better prepare for your journey. Exposure therapy consists of skills designed to gradually desensitize your fears and anxieties toward a trigger, which would be, in this case, being in an airplane.
Virtual-reality-based exposure therapy has been particularly helpful in treating specific phobias such as aviophobia. With professional help, you would learn to overcome irrational and disproportionate responses to stressors that trigger anxiety symptoms.
Consulting a doctor or psychiatrist could help assess your need for medications that would mitigate the intensity of anxiety symptoms. Professionals may prescribe either an SSRI or an SNRI. The prognosis of overcoming phobias is higher among individuals who engage in a combination of psychological therapy and medication, making it easier to engage in other de-escalation techniques.
Mindfulness breathing techniques
You could practice mindfulness breathing techniques before and during your journey. Specific techniques include color breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization of a safe place.
Color breathing is a relaxation grounding technique in which you visualize a ‘color balloon’ in your abdomen expanding throughout your body as you breathe. It helps in being aware and controlling physiological sensations while being able to bring yourself to the here and now.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a great technique to gain awareness of and actively relax your body. This skill progressively targets muscle groups tensing and relaxing parts of your body from head to toe while maintaining rhythmic breathing.
These skills are effective in stress management and grounding oneself during an episode of high anxiety.
Several days before your journey, you could engage in visualizing what the experience would be like. Visualization helps in the anticipation and preparation of what to expect. A study conducted in 2003 found that visualization through virtual reality as a treatment for aviophobia was effective even three years post-treatment.