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Is Aviophobia Getting in the Way of Your Travel Plans?

“You’re far more likely to die in a car than in a plane…”

If you struggle with aviophobia, an anxiety condition that causes fear of flying, there’s a good chance you’ve heard these words, perhaps several times over. What the well-meaning people who say this might not realize is that flying in an airplane bears little resemblance to riding in a car, and it’s not just the height-of-travel distance.

While you’re driving, you’re in control and can stop the car whenever you choose; in an airplane, you’re in a tight space and can’t escape if you start to panic mid-flight. Cars may vibrate slightly when the engine is running, but it’s nothing to the jostling airplane passengers feel soon after a pilot’s telltale warning there’s turbulence ahead.

Aviophobia is real, and it can be extremely inhibiting to those who experience it. Airplanes are sometimes the only reasonable way of getting from one place to another, and a family emergency or work trip may make air travel your only option. Fortunately, there are evidence-based treatments for aviophobia, and they work much better than being reminded of the relative risks of driving compared to being airborne.

Keep reading to learn about aviophobia and the therapy that can loosen its hold.

What is Aviophobia?

“Aviophobia is an irrational or exaggerated fear of flying,” Sheva Rajaee, LMFT, director of the Center for Anxiety and OCD, told The Mighty. Aviophobia — sometimes also referred to as aerophobia — can be debilitating if you must travel for work or live far from your loved ones. It’s also one of the more common phobias: Numbers vary, but research suggests 2.5% to 6.5% of the population lives with the phobia at any given time.

If you struggle with aviophobia, you may feel anxious when you’re faced with not just flying on a plane but also around thoughts or shows about flying, according to Rajaee. When faced with a flying fear trigger, you may feel your pulse quicken or your palms begin to sweat. You might feel a tightness in your chest, experience racing thoughts or even dissociate in response to the trigger, which get in the way of your life. Many people with aviophobia avoid flying, talk of flying and movies that feature airplanes.

Jennifer Lawrence, an actress known for her roles in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Hunger Games,” has spoken publicly about her plane anxiety and the ways it has affected her. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she shared that once, the plane she was on hit an air pocket and her anxiety became intolerable.

“You know when they hit an air pocket and it feels like you’re falling?” she said. “I [began to shout] on a night flight one time: ‘We’re going down! It’s coming down!’

Causes of Aviophobia

According to Rajaee, aviophobia is likely caused by an overactive amygdala — the fear center of the brain — that sends you into fight-or-flight mode at times you don’t need to be. You don’t need to have a family history of aviophobia in order to develop the condition. A past traumatic experience involving flying may cause you to develop aviophobia, but you can experience this phobia even if you didn’t have an adverse experience with airplanes.

Dr. Tabasom Vahidi, Ph.D., added that aviophobia can be linked to other anxiety conditions, and finding out what those other contributing factors are can be essential to finding the right course of treatment.

“What I discovered in treating that client was that it wasn’t just, ‘I have a fear of flying.’ It was, ‘I’m afraid of getting a panic attack and being in an enclosed space where I can’t escape,” Vahidi explained of one client. “When someone comes in and says, ‘I’m afraid of flying,’ you want to figure out what it is about the plane that provokes their fear. There can be so many layers to it.”

Airplanes can engage a number of common fears — the fear of heights, the fear of confined spaces, the fear of terrorism. In addition, for people who are triggered by a lack of control or the fear of having a panic attack in public, aviophobia can be associated with panic disorder, agoraphobia or other anxiety conditions.

Treatment for Aviophobia

One of the most effective treatments for a phobia is exposure therapy, according to Dr. Vahidi. Exposure therapy involves exposing you to your fear gradually over a long period of time with the support of a therapist. It may sound terrifying to face your fears at first, but Vahidi explained it’s an opportunity for you to practice responding or reacting differently to your fear.

The goal of exposure therapy is to practice being in your feared state without reacting to it or avoiding your triggers. Vahidi said that exposure therapy can help retrain the brain to stop sending false “danger signals” when you aren’t in any imminent danger.

“While air travel can always involve some risk, people living with aviophobia must ask themselves: What do I lose in not overcoming my fear? And why is it worth taking that small risk?” Vahidi said. Oftentimes, these questions can motivate you to do the hard work to overcome your phobia.

Exposures start small — you could start off listening to the sound of a plane engine running, for instance, and work up to visiting an airport or going on short flights accompanied by a therapist. As these become easier, you move on to exposures that are more stressful until you’re capable of tackling those too with confidence. Step by step, you get closer to the thing that scares you and feel less distressed while doing so.

Though exposure therapy is most effective when you repeatedly do the activity that scares you, Vahidi pointed out that repeated air travel to recover from aviophobia can be prohibitively expensive. However, this can be circumvented by the use of virtual-reality machines that simulate air travel and have been shown to be effective for many people. When available, machines like these can bring the cost of exposures down significantly and also enable the therapist to tailor the exposures to the patient’s needs.

If treating your aviophobia sounds hard, that’s because it is. Vahidi, who lived with aviophobia herself and went through exposure therapy, knows that firsthand. Eventually, she was able to overcome her fear, in part by educating herself about airplanes, which can be helpful for others facing aviophobia as well.

“When I would experience turbulence, or even when the plane was taking off, I would have a lot of anxiety about the safety of the plane,” Vahidi said. “I discovered that … when there is turbulence, the plane is not dropping or moving as significantly or as drastically as I believed. That really calmed my anxiety.”

Exposures played a large role in helping Vahidi to recover from aviophobia, and she stressed the fact that others can benefit greatly from the therapy too. You’ll also have the support of your therapist every step of the way.

“Phobias have high recovery rates when treated properly,” she said. “The more we face our fears, the less overwhelming and overpowering [they are] in the long run.”

For more on phobias, check out the following stories from our Mighty community:

Image via Fachry Zella Devandra/Unsplash

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