By Scott McCartney, The Wall Street Journal
They clutch armrests and push mindless conversations on seatmate strangers. They bite their nails or bow their heads in prayer as engines roar for takeoff. Some load up on antianxiety drugs or alcohol — perhaps both — in an attempt to get through the air-travel experience.
Yet, experts say rituals can actually hurt nervous passengers because they reinforce their fear.
“They are maintaining their anxiety by subtle avoidance,” said Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist in New York and associate director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center for White Plains Hospital Center.
The good news: “A lot of people get very discouraged, but it’s really manageable,” Dr. Seif said.
An estimated 10 percent to 25 percent of the population has a fear of flying. Even though commercial air travel is far safer than driving, the anxiety is understandable: Flying can seem so unnatural — a heavy metal tube hurtling through the air, seemingly defying gravity. We weren’t born birds, after all.
Psychologists say phobias often take root when people are in their late 20s and typically affect those with above-average intelligence. They may know all the safety statistics, and yet merely booking a reservation can trigger mental pictures of horrific plane crashes.
“You can’t believe how absolutely petrified some people are,” said Ron Nielsen, a retired US Airways Group Inc. captain who has taught fear-of-flying courses at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport since 1987.
For some, fear of flying is a serious phobia that becomes so debilitating it keeps people from taking jobs that involve travel, attending family weddings or funerals and choosing vacations that are accessible by car. For others, airplanes invoke other anxieties, such as a fear of enclosed spaces or a fear of heights.
flying classes enroll a steady stream of customers. Countless websites, books and DVDs are devoted to overcoming flying fears. Virtual-reality therapy has emerged over the past 10 years to offer exposure to flying without leaving the ground. Many airports sponsor classes run by therapists or pilots. Several airlines offer classes as well, including Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Air France.
Psychologists say a fear of flying is best resolved by a combination of psychology and exposure. No matter the severity, a person needs to understand the triggers and symptoms of flying phobia, and have ways to cope, such as breathing and muscle-relaxation techniques. Tensing muscles adds fuel to anxiety, so relaxation can get the mind out of a panic state and let people realign their emotional response.
In addition, fearful fliers need to better understand the physics and mechanics of flying and gradually increase their exposure. Classes show that flying is not some magical miracle. Air travel is grounded in science, so it’s important to understand how it works. Becoming familiar with how wings produce lift, plus the sounds and sensations of an airplane and the jobs of pilots, mechanics, air-traffic controllers and flight attendants helps calm anxious travelers and shows that their anxiety is emotional, not rational.