Treating A Fear Of Flying – Part I: Written While On A Plane

I used to have a fear of flying, so I thought it would be a good idea to give an example of how I might go about an entire treatment for the fear of flying, in just 3 articles. And what better time to write this than while I am actually flying on a plane!!!

To treat your fear of flying, we are going to use the most evidence-based treatment. It’s called exposure response prevention therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, you are learning to face your fear. You have a high likelihood of success (around 80%) with this treatment, and you should quickly see results. I’m going to guide you through it.

Step 1: Why Are You Doing This?

As you’re about to master your fear, the very first step is to identify why you’re doing this in the first place. In my case, I needed to fly to see family back in England, and to visit different places. It was super important that it become non-anxiety provoking for me. Figuring this out is important, because you have to be motivated.

Step 2: What Is Your Fear?

Next, ask yourself “what exactly is my fear?” My fear was that the plane would crash due to rough turbulence. But your fear may be a terrorist attack, engine malfunction, or any number of other things. Knowing your fear helps you pick specific exposure targets.

Step 3: Creating A Hierarchy

Now that you know what you’re afraid of, you should next create a list of things that might be scary around this topic. This is called a hierarchy. This will range from little anxiety (e.g. watching planes take off) to really scary (e.g. sitting on a plane over the ocean saying to myself “this plane could crash”). Create a list of at least 10 different things that might cause anxiety. Try to put at least 3 things in the mild anxiety, 3 things in the moderate anxiety, and 4 things in the high anxiety categories.

 

Mild Anxiety

Medium Anxiety

High Anxiety

– Watching YouTube videos about turbulence

– Playing a plane video game and crashing the plane

– Watching planes take off and thinking “that plane could crash right now”

– Going on a flight simulator

– Reading an imagined script about a plane crashing

– Reading about plane crashes

– Flying in any planes

– Watching a video of a plane crash while flying

– Thinking about the plane crashing while in a plane

– Willing there to be turbulence

 

Once you have this list you then will start trying to accomplish each part. A lot of times we are told to do this in a stepwise manner: Start with the easier ones and then move to the more difficult ones. I think this can be a good idea as you master each stage before moving onto the next. However, it’s not the only method. You can also jump around to difficult ones, easier ones, and anything in between. As long as you do the exposures well and are willing to do it, both methods can be effective.

Let’s just approach this in a stepwise manner. Only move onto each next step once it doesn’t cause much anxiety anymore, or you’re bored of it. These steps may not work for everyone, but it’s a good start.

Starting Your Exposures

Exposure 1: Start with something easy. Watch planes taking off and landing. It will show you that planes do take off and land safely in almost every situation. Assuming this is easy after at least a couple of videos, move onto the next step.

Exposure 2: Pick something a little more challenging. Watch videos of plane turbulence and while doing this imagine something bad happening. Specifically imagine that the turbulence might damage the plane and it could crash. This might be easy because you know the videos are safe, but it may also be scary because you’re allowing yourself to have the thought that something bad could happen on a plane. This is a thought people with fear of flying often try to avoid. Try it and see how you feel.

How Do These Exposures Help?

Think back in your life about something you used to be afraid of but aren’t anymore. Chances are you achieved this by facing the situation over and over, probably because you had to for some reason, until it became something that didn’t cause anxiety anymore.

The key to exposure therapy is to face your fears in a targeted manner, and through repeating this process many times you learn that it’s safe, not so bad, or that you can tolerate it. I’ve written more comprehensively about this elsewhere. You should only do this for things that are safe, and my guide for this is whether other people regularly do it. Flying is therefore appropriate, as people do this all the time and the chances of a crash are low.

Part I Summary

So far you have created your hierarchy, which is your treatment plan, and you’ve done a couple of easier exposures. Nice work! In the next article I’m going to help you complete some more difficult exposures before we actually move to flying.

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