Airports are places of organized chaos and a fantastic location to do some serious people watching. At any point throughout the day, you will notice businessmen and women moving hurriedly throughout the airport, briefcases in hand. You will see family members arriving and embracing loved ones that they have not seen in months. You will view couples checking their bags, excitedly preparing to go on vacation. If you look closely and pay attention, you will also see various individuals that are pale with stricken looks on their faces. These people look like they are going to be physically sick at any moment and pace around departure gates with scary amounts of nervous energy. They can be seen trying to cope in any way possible, whether they are trying to talk themselves down, having a pre-flight cocktail, or praying to some higher power. These individuals have aerophobia, or a fear of flying.
Aerophobia is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by dread and an intense fear of flying. Panic will result when one is actually flying, thinking about flying, or anticipating flying. Individuals with aerophobia will experience panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms while flying and may stop flying altogether in order to avoid aversive symptoms. A fear of flying can cause significant amounts of distress and have a negative impact on a person’s quality of life.
The fear of flying can be obtained in several ways. An individual may have a genetic predisposition to a fear of heights, or the fear can be gained through a person’s environment. Parents who are fearful to fly will inadvertently teach their children that flying is scary by modeling these behaviors to them. A person may also develop a fear of flying after experiencing a traumatic flight or plane crash, or simply from watching news telecasts that show plane crashes or plane malfunctions.
Individuals most commonly fear flying because they feel a lack of control in regards to their safety. Travel delays, turbulence, and other factors can intensify a fear of flying. People may experience physical symptoms in conjunction with aerophobia including quickened heart rate, shakiness, and difficulty breathing. These symptoms can occur when a person is thinking about flying, prior to boarding a plane, or while they are actually in flight.
Aerophobia can present by itself or in conjunction with other phobias. Some other phobias that frequently accompany aerophobia include a fear of vomiting, a fear of heights, or a fear of enclosed spaces. Treating these other phobias first may result in alleviating symptoms of aerophobia.
Thankfully, the fear of flying is generally easy to treat. A person can stop a fear of flying by identifying their phobia, obtaining knowledge to challenge irrational thought patterns, set personal travel goals to practice flying, and seek help from mental health professionals.
Aerophobia can be treated with medication, therapy, or a combination of both. Anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed to help people to reduce physical symptoms of anxiety. Exposure therapy is a type of therapy that is often used with aerophobia and gradually helps a person to adjust to thoughts and sensations related to flying. Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to help an individual alter irrational thought patterns about flying in order to help them to change their behaviors. Hypnotherapy and virtual reality techniques can also assist a person to overcome their fear of flying.
So the next time you find yourself people watching at the airport, take notice of the individuals with aerophobia. Encourage them to use their coping skills and anxiety management techniques and applaud their bravery as they board their plane.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.