Traveling by plane is one of the fastest and easiest modes of transportation, enabling people to visit family and friends across the globe in a short amount of time. While most people enjoy the convenience of air travel, people with a flight phobia have an intense fear of flying.
Fear of flying is classified as a specific phobia of the situational type. This means that an individual has persistent and excessive fear triggered by flying or the thought of flying. Typically, flying is avoided or endured with intense anxiety, which may take the form of a panic attack. As many as 20 to 30 percent of people are apprehensive about flying, and between 2 and 10 percent of people at any point in time have a phobia about flying. Fear of flying is more common in females and begins most often in childhood or in the mid-20s.
In addition to those with flight phobia, there are individuals who fear and avoid flying because they suffer from panic disorder with agoraphobia—they fear having a panic attack while on an airplane. However, unlike those with a specific flying phobia, people with agoraphobia also fear other situations from which escape may be difficult if they have a panic attack.
The cause for fear of flying is disputed. While most researchers believe it is a learned fear, the factors that make someone vulnerable to its development may vary. The way a person cognitively processes threatening stimuli may help determine whether a flight phobia develops. For example, someone may experience turbulence, loud noises and at times pain (due to pressure changes) during a flight. All of these factors may act as stimuli that elicit anxiety and promote association of other aspects of flying with fear. If an individual tends to overrepresent the likelihood of a catastrophic outcome based on these stimuli, she may be more likely to develop a flight phobia.
In addition to cognitive style, other factors that may predispose someone to developing a flight phobia include:
- stressful life events
- personality factors (individuals who find it difficult to give control to another)
- misinformation about the danger of flying
- a biological predisposition
A trained professional can help an individual develop a treatment plan. The mainstay of treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This involves exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring and relaxation techniques. A professional can extinguish a phobia through either graded exposure (desensitization) or intensive exposure (flooding).
Traditionally, exposure therapy had to be carried out on actual airplanes. However, it may be possible to accomplish this using virtual reality—an individual now may experience a computer-generated simulation of flying that is three-dimensional and lifelike. Several cases of flight phobia already have been successfully treated using this new technique.
Most drug therapy efforts have been unsuccessful in treating fear of flying. Passengers often self-medicate with sedatives, including benzodiazepines and alcohol, but these typically only provide short-term relief. The one exception to the ineffectiveness of drug therapy would be when the fear of flying is secondary to panic disorder with agoraphobia. In this case, antidepressant medications may be used in combination with the behavioral therapy for maximal benefits.