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Fear of Flying
-- By David Keeling
© 2000, RPK&A, Inc.

For many people, especially students, flying has become a fairly mundane occurrence. Routinely, we jet from home to school and back again, with side trips everywhere from Asia to Iowa. For most of us, flying means long lines, heavy luggage, and high fares, and, after a while, the actual flying part begins to seem negligible. Whether we're in a puddle jumper or the latest biggest Boeing, we tend not to think much about the fact that we're cruising along at dizzying heights in what's essentially a cleverly designed metal tube

Which is probably why we don't think much about that--if we let ourselves get too far into the details, it all becomes rather unsettling.

But there are some people who are not just unsettled, but veritably paralyzed with fear at the thought of stepping onto a plane, much less firmly fastening themselves into their seats/floatation devices. In order to understand more about why the skies aren't so friendly for them, 98six spoke with clinical psychologist John Skrovan, PhD, and self-described flying phobic Alicia Cervini.

What causes fear of flying?

Both Skrovan and Cervini said that a fear of flying is decidedly not rational. "Fear of flying is an anxiety-based condition that has no one universal cause," said Skrovan. "It is like other phobias in that intense anxiety is triggered by a specific situation (flying), and the reaction is seen as excessive or unreasonable."

"I have NOT been afraid of flying all my life, which is the weird thing," Cervini noted. "Flying never bothered me. It wasn't until my mid-twenties that flying began to freak me out. I don't know if it's because I'm more aware of my own mortality, or if it's because of the film Final Destination (which had the most realistic looking crash I've ever seen), or if it's just because of all the news reports of planes going down."

"People who were able to fly without fear can often describe the first time they experienced a fear of flying," continued Skrovan. "Yet, it is not always clear what set the fear off. Sometimes links can be made to circumstances in one's life and the meaning of surrounding events, but not always."

What about flying scares people?

For many people, it's just the idea of hopping onto a very heavy, delicately engineered and sculpted piece of metal that sparks the fear, while for others it may simply be the idea of traveling thousands of feet above the earth. To some extent, it doesn't matter why--it just happens. "Given how problematic a fear of flying can be in one's life, most who suffer from it are more focused on effective treatments rather than compelling theories," commented Skrovan.

"My big fear," said Cervini, "is that something is going to go wrong with the plane: engine failure, electrical fires, missing parts, loss of cabin pressure, something falling off--that sort of thing. When you get on a plane, you're basically gambling that the 747 is a well-oiled piece of machinery, that all the bolts have been tightened, all the tanks are full, and none of the wires are crossed. I don't have that much confidence in humankind's ability to maintain its machines. I don't get on roller-coasters anymore, either."

How does a fear of flying manifest itself--what are its symptoms?

Again, it's different for every individual, but there are a few common manifestations of a fear of flying.

"When I'm in a plane, every sound the plane makes terrifies me," Cervini said. "When they raise the landing gear I feel like I'm going to die. When they change the speed or course of the plane and it makes those whining engine noises, I feel like I'm going to die. I wish the pilot would get on the intercom and explain all the noises. Even if all he said was, "Folks, now we're turning left," it would make me feel much better.

"When the fear hits," she continued, "I shake, I lose my breath, I feel like crying, and I need to grip something till my knuckles turn white. I don't experience any nausea, but I am far from a happy camper."

Skrovan said that such a response is not uncommon. "The main physiological responses are those that accompany the fight-or-flight responses common to all of us," he noted. "They can include symptoms such as sweating, trembling, accelerated heart rate, nausea, light-headedness, and intestinal distress. Individuals may experience a range of these symptoms at differing levels of intensity."

What can you do to "treat" fear of flying?

"I have a three-step plan for dealing with flying," joked Cervini, "Abstinence, alcohol, and alcohol."

Although drinking your fears away is far from an ideal treatment, the concept of calming yourself down with some chemical assistance is not a bad one. Skrovan noted that "Some people are prescribed anxiolytic medications that are fast acting and short in duration. They're intended to provide relief only over the length of a given trip."

Other treatments involve longer commitments and a more in-depth analysis of one's fear, said Skrovan. "Another form of treatment is based on gradually and systematically 'desensitizing' someone to the various aspects of flying that heighten anxiety. It often involves a combination of visualizations, simulations, and actual confrontations with the triggers to anxiety, in manageable increments."

Ultimately, it's important to remember that someone who has a fear of flying can't just "get over it." Such fears are deeply rooted, and require time and effort to learn to control. "The important thing to understand is that, with the right treatment, people can find relief and not have their fear interfere with or control their lives," stated Skrovan.

So if you're making excuses not to go to the Florida keys on spring break with your friends, or you insist on taking that 20 hour drive home for the holidays just because the thought of takeoff terrifies you, talk to a professional. He or she will help you feel secure in that aerodynamically designed junkheap in no time.


Interview. Cervini, Alicia. New York, NY. November 10, 2000

Interview. Skrovan, John, PhD. New York, NY. November 10, 2000.