Aerophobia (Fear Of Flying)


Aerophobia or fear of flying, also known as aviatophobia or aviophobia, is a strong aversion for flying. While many people may have a fear of flying, aerophobia occurs when the aversion is rooted in chronic fear.

A phobia itself is an intense and persistent fear of a situation, real or perceived, that results in avoidance. This fear can also be strongly felt for people, things or places. People with aerophobia experience an extreme and often irrational fear of flying. The fear is often accompanied by strong feelings of anxiety.

Like other phobias, the fear of flying stems from a feeling of imminent harm or danger. The fear can be triggered by exposure, for example, when exposed to flying objects such as an aeroplane or helicopter. Flight phobics are petrified, not only of flying but feel terrified going to the airport and when boarding a flight. Mere thoughts of flying can also trigger the fear and can intensify the fear of the actual event of flying.

Aerophobia or the fear of flying is not a medical or mental condition or disorder. As such, this phobia like several others is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a psychiatric issue. Notwithstanding, aerophobia can affect a person physically and psychologically and impact their quality of life, especially in cases where they need to fly for work or family matters

What are the symptoms of aerophobia?

Aerophobia can range from mild to severe. Some people may be able to deal with exposure to the fear for a short period while others must totally avoid it in order to feel safe. The symptoms are typically physical in nature and are similar to those experienced in people with other phobias or anxiety disorders. Aerophobics who have generalized anxiety or anxiety disorder may be more chronically affected by the symptoms of flight phobia.

The following are some common symptoms of aerophobia:

  • Intense anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Sweating, especially of the palms
  • Shaking
  • Feeling flushed
  • Irritability
  • Increase in heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling suffocated
  • Severe nervousness
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling stressed or disoriented
  • Sensing a knot in the stomach
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Other gastrointestinal distress
  • Preoccupied with the aircraft or thoughts of the flight
  • Recurring thoughts of a plane crash or imminent disaster

Aerophobia causes

There are several explanations attributed to aerophobia or the fear of flying. Some of them are:

Experience: People who were in a plane crash or have relatives who were or died in such a disaster may naturally develop aerophobia.

Media: Plane accidents and plane crashes shown on the news or another medium can be a source of a deep, persistent fear of flying. The massive deaths that occur when a plane crashes can cause people who have a fear of death (thanatophobia) to fear flying. Aerophobia and thanatophobia may co-occur in the same person.

Control: People who always feel the need to be in control, such as driving themselves, can develop a fear of flying. The idea of not being in control itself is enough to trigger severe anxiety that can transform into a chronic phobia for flying.

Aerophobia caused by other phobias

The fear of flying is often related to other pre-existing or underlying phobias such as:

Acrophobia: The fear of heights. A person can inherit the fear of heights from their parents or fore parents. This underlying fear of heights could trigger a fear of flying.

Thanatophobia: Also known as the fear of dying, thanatophobia is another factor that may be a root cause of the fear of flying. Although flying is one of the safest forms of transportation, there are massive fatalities when a plane crashes. The thought of a crash can make thanatophobics extremely afraid.

Mysophobia: Also known as germophobia or the fear of germs, mysophobia is an irrational and persistent fear of coming into contact with germs. People with a fear of germs may naturally feel an aversion to flying because aeroplanes are known for being a haven for a variety of germs.

Claustrophobia: Fear of closed off, cramped or confined spaces such as an aircraft environment makes claustrophobics feel trapped and restless because they feel vulnerable and unable to escape. So, they would naturally fear and avoid flying.

How is aerophobia treated?

There are various ways to treat a person suffering from aerophobia. Treatment may depend on the severity of the phobia, individual willingness and access to the necessary resources.

Even though the fear of flying phobia is not classed as a psychiatric condition, psychotherapy may help reduce or eliminate related symptoms. Two main aspects of psychotherapy are exposure therapy and behavioral therapy. These methods may be used individually or in combination, as seen fit by the licensed therapist. Because exposure therapy may initially intensify the symptoms of phobia before relieving it, some patients may prefer to rely on behavioral techniques.

Hypnotherapy, medications, and self-help are other methods for treating the fear of flying. In addition, if aerophobia is caused by one or more other phobias treatment of those underlying fears may help alleviate the fear of flying.

Exposure Therapy: This method of therapy may be the primary way to treat clients who have a phobia for flying unless confronting the fear causes undue distress. Using strategic techniques, the flight phobic is made to face the fear. Although quite challenging for aerophobics, the therapist can expose them to an aircraft, an actual flight or conditions related to flying such as going to the airport. The exposure can be in real life, flight simulators or even via virtual reality.

Virtual reality is a new technique being developed and has been used to treat symptoms, such as chronic anxiety, related to the fears of flying and heights. It is a subtler way of exposure and avoids the undue stress of real-life exposure.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This method of therapy seeks to effect changes by reconditioning the mind. It is a passive form of treatment compared to the aggressive techniques of exposure therapy and is more suitable for those who cannot handle the intrusiveness of exposure. Aerophobics are taught mental techniques, such as desensitizing, which can address their irrational thoughts about flying. CBT is proven to effectively reduce or eliminate the phobia altogether.

Hypnotherapy: Clinical hypnotherapy is another form of treatment to treat phobias, although not quite common as exposure therapy or CBT. This technique heightens the awareness of the client while he or she is hypnotized into a deep state of relaxation. The calmness allows the unconscious mind to face the fear by focusing deeply on the phobia while the client remains conscious and in control.

Medication: Anxiety may co-exist with aerophobia or the fear of flying. In some cases, the phobia may be treated with anti-anxiety medication before or during a flight. Although this can relieve anxiety-related symptoms some of which are similar to symptoms of aerophobia, it cannot effectively treat extreme flight fears.

Self-Help: Videos available online and books, especially about aerophobia, are self-help tools which can bring awareness about the phobia to people who fear flying. Repeated exposure to the information, tools, and techniques can help reduce the fears, although it may not be effective if an underlying phobia such as thanatophobia exists.

Aerophobia Prevention

Aerophobia may not be prevented mainly because it is a fear that develops in the mind due to genetics, unforeseen or uncontrollable experiences, or other related phobias. A person may not even know, for example, that their fear of heights is the reason they are afraid to fly.

Once a person becomes aware of the phobia, therapy, medication and/or self-help tools can help treat the symptoms and gradually eliminate the fear. Some people may choose not to fly. This avoidant strategy cannot treat or prevent the fears from recurring.

In the meantime, and in addition to the possible treatments discussed, those seeking to overcome aerophobia can consider the following tips:

  • Accept the phobia
  • Face the fear (physically or through mentalizing)
  • Reassure yourself it is not your fault
  • Process your feelings and responses to the intense fear
  • Take a flight in virtual reality
  • Reduce stress and anxiety related symptoms
  • Practice anxiety breathing techniques
  • Remember fear does not equal impending disaster
  • Remind yourself air travel is one of the safest means of transportation
  • Take items on the flight to keep you preoccupied, e.g., movies, books, etc
  • Desensitize your brain by celebrating yourself after each flight