In my fear of flying program, Fear of Flying?… Not Anymore!™, I address the key psychological factors that contribute to this phobia (which I’ve also discussed in two other articles here: Why Do We Fear Flying?, and Fear of Flying — How to Overcome).
One focus is on the concept of “normalization.” Our brains can be trained, through various exercises created for this process, to understand that flying is a normal, routine activity. Our brains can normalize routine situations, even if these routine situations involve risk.
For example, we likely don’t ruminate over the possibility of slipping every time we shower because our brains have become trained to expect that we will safely take our showers, based on many years of successfully completing this task.
But since most of us only experience flying on an occasional basis, if at all, our brains automatically go on alert when we think of flying.
Whereas showers are routine, flying is not.
This brings us to what I call the “Fear of Flying Mindset.” We do things every day that, if they were to go catastrophically wrong, could result in injury or death. But since these are things we do every day, we don’t fear them. Here’s just a small sample: crossing the street; taking a shower; eating food at a restaurant; riding the subways; driving; riding a bike; eating (generally); and many others.
Every day we probably do at least five things that in the worst-case scenario could have life-changing results. And in fact, if we were to research statistics, we’d most likely find that the things we do every day have a greater chance of harming us than does flying. However, the point of the Fear of Flying Mindset isn’t to train us to feel that flying is 100 percent safe, it’s to train our brains to understand that we already routinely do things with greater risk than flying.
People tend to think that if they get on an airplane that they are heavily increasing their risk of death. Because the normalized areas of our lives involve risk, people subconsciously take for granted that getting on an airplane breaks some form of invincibility — that if they don’t get on the airplane, then nothing else will stand in the way of a long-lasting life.
This is where the cognitive distortion is found. We magnify the risks of flying while diminishing the greater risk of almost everything else we already do. The exercises that accompany the Fear of Flying Mindset are meant to train our brains that flying on an airplane is really no different than anything else we do in our daily lives. We are already risk-takers, we just don’t think about it until we’re doing something out of the ordinary.
Now, I’m sure some of you may be reading this thinking, thanks a lot, now I’m going to be anxious about everything I do. However, it’s usually tough to break normalizations without experiencing a trauma in particular areas. Some people have actually felt liberated seeing that they already take risks in their lives when they’ve previously felt constricted by their perceived inability to take risks.
The next time you feel like avoiding a flight because of the fear that it could cut your life short, think about the things you already do every day that you have normalized over time. While this may seem like a very “glass is half-empty” approach, it’s actually an approach that people have found significantly helpful (and one of the overall favorites) in the process of overcoming fear of flying.
Offhand, I can’t think of anything that we do on a regular basis that involves less risk than flying. It may seem counterintuitive since we’re high in the sky and seemingly more vulnerable on a plane, but flying is actually one of the safest things we can actually do.
Keep in mind, there are still other psychological factors that need to be addressed as part of overcoming fear of flying (see articles below), but normalizations are one of the key components. The overall hope with the Fear of Flying Mindset is that we become more realistic about the role flying has relative to how we live our daily lives.
In conjunction with the normalization exercises, and other facets of Fear of Flying?…Not Anymore!, getting on a plane may become an afterthought, just like crossing the street.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Aug 2012
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Feiles, N. (2012). The Fear of Flying Mindset. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 27, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/08/31/the-fear-of-flying-mindset/