Fear of flying and how to overcome it

by | 1 March 2024

Do you have a fear of flying? Is this preventing you from taking a trip abroad? Visiting places you’ve always dreamed of?  Seeing loved ones as often as you’d like? Holding you back in work at a global company?

Pteromerhanophobia (or aerophobia) is a common fear and affects more than 10% of the population.  It can be life-interfering but fortunately, there are simple ways to overcome it.

What causes fear of flying?

Commonly, people who are scared of flying lack trust.  Boarding a plane requires you to have faith in someone else to get you safely from Place A to Place B.  Often, they lack trust in the airline and/or the pilot.  If they can overcome their anxiety enough to board a plane in the first place, they hear the unusual noises and movements.   They assume there’s a fault with the plane or fear the pilot’s encountered a difficulty they can’t manage. 

Sometimes, they lack trust in themselves.  They worry they won’t cope with being hemmed into a small seat or being at height.   They’re anxious about encountering turbulence, having a panic attack mid-air and anticipate ‘embarrassing’ themselves.   

When we’re anxious, we become more aware of our bodily sensations and can start to worry about things like our breathing and our heart.   This can create a vicious spiral of increasing anxiety and fear of a panic attack in a situation you can’t get out of.  For some, the bodily sensations activate a worry there’s something physically wrong and a fear of a heart attack mid-air.

Why does flying amplify anxiety?

Unfortunately, minor physical effects and temporary effects of flying at high altitude can increase anxiety.  

Being in a plane affects our senses and our mood.  The humidity in a plane can be lower than in some of the world’s driest deserts whilst the air pressure is similar to being at the top of a mountain.  There’s also less oxygen available than on the ground where we have access to more fresh air and we become more dehydrated.  The combination of these factors enhances our senses and makes us more emotionally sensitive.  

On planes, most of us are likely to feel more tired and less energetic.  Our reaction times increase and we show poorer decision making.  Many of us temporarily feel more stressed and find it harder to cope with the tension we feel.  We’re also sat in uncomfortable positions for long periods  

Therefore, some of what people attribute to fear when in the air is actually just awareness of their body’s response to altitude.

What can you do to manage your fear?

Firstly, increase your trust in airlines.  Books like Allen Carr’s No More Fear of Flying debunk some of the myths about flying that heighten the lack of trust in the airline and pilot.  He also has a short online course, Allen Carr’s Easyway, which covers the same material.

You can also find numerous videos on YouTube with airline pilots explaining some of the strange noises you hear on planes.

Secondly, you can increase your trust in your body’s ability to cope with a stressful situation. Don’t drink alcohol. No matter how tempting it is to ‘take the edge off things’, alcohol will dehydrate you further and actually amplifies the effects of being at altitude. It makes you more sensitive to stress.

Practice nasal breathing.  Take long, slow breaths, and try to breathe deep into your tummy.  When we breathe in through our noses, we find it easier to maximise the oxygen available to us.  When people breathe through their mouths, they’re more likely to breathe into their chest, which increases the risk of a panic attack. 

Get up and walk around.  This will keep the blood flowing and minimise the aches and pains you experience from being in a confined space.  Movement is also a great way to reduce stress.

Before flying, when you have a trip planned, listen to a relaxation or meditation app, such as Waking Up: Meditation & Wisdom.  This will increase your ability to get into a state of relaxation or calm once you’re on board. People often try to use these apps when they’re already in a state of anxiety and assume they don’t work.  The strength of these apps lies in strengthening your body’s ability to cope with stress gradually over time. 

Finally, use external resources to keep yourself calm. Connection is an important way to improve our sense of safety. Strike up a conversation with a neighbour. If you’re travelling with a loved one, hold their hand.  Placing your own hand on your chest over your heart area activates your skin senses and feels surprisingly reassuring.   

Numerous devices can help you stay calm and even enjoy your trip. The ApolloNeuro is a device you wear on your ankle and wrist that uses small vibrations to send calming signals to your body. It can also be used at other times to pep you up instead of caffeine or to feel more confident in social situations. It can even help you go to sleep.

RoshiWave glasses use bilateral light stimulation to help you get into a state of calm and reduce your stress. These glasses can also be used at other times to enhance your ability to focus and learn, to help you relax and sleep. If you’re sporty, it improves proprioception, the sense of body position and movement.  These are available in the UK from our online shop.

If you’re someone who often experiences a lot of anxiety, consider investing in a specialist programme to calm your nervous system.  Octopus Psychology also offers Safe & Sound Protocol, an auditory programme developed by Stephen Porges that is proven to reduce sensitivity to stress.

Dr Naomi Murphy

Dr Naomi Murphy

Post Author

Naomi is one of the UK’s most respected forensic clinical psychologists. Recently appointed Honorary Professor of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, she qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1997 and as a consultant clinical psychologist in 2003.