Fear of Flying

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Topics covered on this page:
1. What causes this fear of flying?
2. What are people with a flying phobia actually afraid of?
3. 5 Steps to reduce fear of flying bit by bit.

View from a plane window just behind the wingView from plane window just behind the wing

Do you have a flying phobia?
Do you dread having to make a plane journey? Do you spend your time in the air in a cold sweat or keeping panics at bay?
Or are you one of those people who has never ventured far from home unless you could travel by road for by boat?

This page focuses mainly on those who do manage to board an aircraft but then spend the journey in a state of unease or even terror. It may also give some insight for those who are too terrified ever to consider flying. The cause and maintenance of such a fear is the same regardless of the severity of the problem. It’s just that taking the necessary steps towards confronting it will probably require more personal guidance and support and maybe even the chance to become familiar with being on an aircraft knowing that it won’t be taking off. Such experiences are available through the many ‘fear of flying” courses.

1. What causes this fear of flying?

navigation symbol for page about survival instinctRead more about the Survival Instinct here

All phobias i.e. fears with no real basis in fact, develop in the same way.

We each have a survival instinct deep in our brains. The purpose of the survival instinct is to keep the human race from being wiped out. If we were to consciously monitor what’s going on around us for danger we’d have no brain space left for those things we want to focus on.

The survival instinct does this watching for us. It acts like an intruder monitor. It reacts to two types of potential danger:

1. It will raise our awareness in any situation it has never come across before simply because if it has no record of it, it can’t be sure it’s safe.

If you have never stepped onto a plane before, the first time you do so you will get, “Be Careful!” messages from your survival instinct.

2. It will raise our awareness when it finds us in any situation where we have had fear or anxiety in the past. This is logical because, if it proved dangerous before (and it must have because we felt afraid) it stands to reason that it is still going to be dangerous now.

If you are an anxious flyer, how many of these apply to you?

  • When you know you are going to get on a plane the thought of doing so keeps popping into your head during the weeks or days beforehand.
  • Each time the reminder that you are soon going to be flying pops into your head, you start recalling previous flying experiences and what went wrong/ how bad you felt/ etc.
  • You may even start imagining even worse things happening - the “what ifs?”
  • When you are actually on the plane your body is tense.
  • During the flight you may try to sleep or watch a movie to block out the scary thoughts.
  • You watch everything around you as if looking for danger

It's quite likely that you do all of the above. If so, what you are doing very effectively is reinforcing to your survival instinct that flying is dangerous and teaching it to keep on giving you these danger signals.

2. What are people with a fear of flying actually afraid of?

Generally it's one of these:

  • The plane will crash due to mechanical failure
  • There will be an act of terrorism that will cause the plane to crash or explode
  • They will have a panic attack and be unable to get off the plane

Let's look at the facts:

Mechanical Failure

Statistically air travel is far safer than travel by car (22 times safer according to a US National Safety Council).
In the US an average of 21,000 people die on the roads in a six month-period. It takes 40 years for commercial air traffic to reach that figure!
More than 3 million people fly every day
A Boeing aircraft take off and lands somewhere in the world every two seconds, every hour of every day.
Only 1 plane in every 5 million crashes.
But it’s probably the fact that when a plane crashes there are rarely survivors and, unlike car passengers or drivers, air passengers can exert no control over their fate. That scares people because we like to think we have some degree of control even if, effectively, we haven't.


That's an ongoing issue although, apart from travel to and from those areas which are known to be a greater risk, the danger is no greater than that which might be faced in any big city today.

There are very few people who have developed a fear of flying on account of terrorism. Those who were already afraid have simply used this as one further reason to avoid this form of travel. Those who weren't afraid of flying before terrorism became an issue seem to continue to fly and hope for the best.

Panic Attacks on board

Those who fear a panic attack do so because the minute they board the plane their brains start telling them that they can’t get off. I know, I used to have this problem.

To overcome this you need to learn techniques for refocusing your thoughts elsewhere. If you keep doing this your survival instinct will stop giving you those thoughts in the first place. Without thoughts of panicking, panic can’t happen.

It is relatively unusual for someone to only experience panic attacks whilst on a plane. If you also have them in other places you have an ideal chance to practise refocusing more often. Any refocusing you do will apply to panic attacks wherever and whenever you tend to get them.

Since it is your thoughts about what might happen which are triggering your fears, you need to learn to recognise when these are entering your head and immediately replace them by putting your attention on something pleasant or neutral in the here and now.

Humans cause themselves all sorts of problems because they have language... and with language comes the ability to imagine all sorts of scenarios that aren’t actually real. Let’s face it, if you are afraid of flying you are actually afraid of the thoughts you are giving yourself about what might happen! If someone knocked you unconscious and put you on a plane you wouldn’t be afraid... until you came round...

Therefore it’s your thoughts which need to be addressed. Change the thoughts and the horrid fear feelings will reduce and eventually disappear altogether.

3. 5 Steps to reduce fear of flying bit by bit

Presumably, though, if you are reading this you want to fly? There is no compulsion on anyone to board a plane. Even if your job demands it, you could change your job - but most won’t take that option. Nevertheless it exists.

So the first step to overcoming this fear is to start telling yourself that you are choosing to fly (because in effect you are). Just telling yourself this takes away some of that sense of powerlessness that sufferers convince themselves they have.

All the others on that plane are taking the chance, so why can’t you? You must be willing to take and accept the (very small) risk in order to overcome the fear.

1. Teach your brain a visualisation which it will associate with calm. or learn some simple brief mindful meditations.

2. When you are not actually booked to fly, stop telling people about your fear, stop thinking of yourself as being afraid to fly because if you do your survival instinct will pick up on it.

Start telling yourself that other people do it without any problem. Any of us could drop dead at any time for any reason. You can’t afford to spend your life worrying about it because worrying won’t stop it happening in any event.

3. If you have a flight coming up, every time it enters your head simply do two things. First relax all the muscles in your body momentarily. When your survival instinct kicks in it tenses you ready for action, for flight or fight.

If you deliberately let your muscles relax you are telling your survival instinct that you are not buying into the warning. This makes the survival instinct take a step back.

If you also just focus your thoughts on a Calm Scene for a few moments as well or do a few moments of a simple meditation, this will all serve to tell your survival instinct that it’s a false alarm.

navigation symbol for page about dead weightLearn about dead weight technique here

4. Going Dead Weight with the body and re- focusing with the mind is what you must do each and every time the thought of flying enters your head.

If you are doing it during the build-up it will be easier to do it when the time comes and you board the plane.

Woman sleeping on planeWhen you're asleep you're not afraid

5. Instead of spending the flight worrying about what might happen and trying to keep your fears at bay, your attention to something mildly pleasant. Watch a film, read a book, do a puzzle - whatever your mind likes to do in spare moments.

Now and then the fear will jump in. When it does just go Dead Weight and re-focus your mind elsewhere.

The outcome will eventually be that, because you are no longer buying into its warnings, the survival instinct will start to assume that planes aren’t really dangerous so will stop issuing the warnings - it may take several flights before this happens. If you should trip up and engage with the fearful thoughts you will be re-enforcing them so will take a step back. This is not unusual and if/when it happens just move on from it.

In the case of any phobia, if you stop thinking about it, it can’t get you!

Because it is vital to understand the six factors involved in the cause of anxiety if you are ever to successfully get the better of anxiety issues, I have created a short email course based on the six factors involved in the cause of anxiety. 

This course is FREE in return for signing up to receive occasional updates from Anxaid. Over eight days it leads you step by step through the six factors and is easier than trawling through the pages on this website as the emails can be read anywhere at any time or printed out for reference.

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Pages about Specific Phobias on this website:

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navigation symbol for fear of lifts
navigation symbol for needle phobia
navigation symbol for fear of dentist
navigation symbol for spider phobia
navigation symbol for page about fear of flying

  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Fears and Phobias
  3. Fear of Flying