Face the fear of flying by learning to “let go”

A reader in Fenwick Island writes:

Dear Dr. Hurd: I saved your article in the Delaware Wave from last October about facts vs. fears. I still read it from time to time, but I can’t seem to get past my biggest fear: Flying in an airplane. Every little bit of turbulence makes me jump. It’s not so much that I’m afraid of terrorism as I am of incompetent mechanics on the ground, or cost-cutting CEOs sending an older airplane with maintenance problems up into the sky. I realize that without flying, I will miss out on some great experiences, so I’d like to hear your advice.


Dear Wave Reader:

Everything has a price. A candy bar costs a dollar. A car costs twenty or thirty thousand dollars. A house costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just as objects have financial costs, the choices we make in life also come with emotional or psychological costs. Marriage, for example, means having less control over your independent living, but in exchange (hopefully) for a wonderful level of intimacy and compatibility with another person.

Flying, for you and many others, also comes with a psychological cost. Some people are focused more on terrorism. Others dislike flying, not because of a fear of crashing, but because of being cooped up for a lengthy period of time. Still others, like yourself, dread flying for fear of mechanical failure and human error.

In replying to your specific fears, I might point out that airlines—at least so long as they are required to make a profit, and, as such, are accountable for passengers’ lives—have a self-serving interest in sending up a safe airplane every single time. For example, U.S. Airways experienced a number of crashes in the mid-1990s. They overhauled their safety team and advertised that they were making safety ‘priority one.’ Although, regrettably, accidents are always possible, this particular airline has not suffered a major crash in some years. Similar examples are everywhere.

Ironically, you’re safer in the air than in many other places. There are 30,000 commercial flights every single day—more than 10 million flights a year, and the overwhelming majority land safely. These examples could, theoretically, reduce your fears a bit. But I realize they probably won’t. Why? Because, for most people, fear of flying raises issues of control and cost. Not financial cost, but psychological cost as I mentioned earlier. When you get on an airplane, you are forced to confront the fact that you have no control. You are placing your life totally in the judgment of the pilots and the airline executives who are responsible for overseeing maintenance of the aircraft. There’s no denying this fact as it confronts you, in the form of a powerful emotion, every time you walk down the Jetway.

When you drive a car, you have more control over what happens. You are the one driving the vehicle, and you are the one responsible for making sure maintenance is adequate. But, when you step onto an airplane, you surrender that control, and this is what makes you so anxious. Every bump, every noise, reminds you of this fact.

There are, of course, techniques for treating the symptoms: anti-anxiety medication, deep breathing, happy thoughts, rational thoughts (based on facts, not fears), focusing on what you will do when the plane will land, keeping yourself busy, using alcoholic beverages, and so forth. I’m not knocking any of these approaches, but they only address the symptoms. The fear will always return, next time, no matter how many times you try these various methods.

If you’re interested in tackling the root causes, rather than just temporarily reducing the symptoms, then work on the issues of control and emotional cost in your daily life. Don’t wait until you have a flight scheduled. Ask yourself, every day, how you can become more accepting of things over which you have no control. Ask yourself how you can better accept not only the fiscal costs of things, but, more importantly, the psychological costs as well. Keep a journal, and note when you handle these situations more—or less—rationally than normal. Work on accepting circumstances over which you have no control. Practice letting go. Handing over control isn’t easy, especially when your life is in the balance, and sometimes a skilled therapist or qualified personal coach can help reinforce your efforts.

Learn to distinguish the likely and the probable from the merely possible. A plane crash is always possible. So are a car crash and a lightning strike. But, under normal circumstances, none of these are likely or probable. The overwhelming majority of flights on the overwhelming majority of days occur without incident. To remain in business, airlines have every incentive to make sure this is the case, because if their plane goes down, everybody will know.

So, we bear the emotional cost of the freedom and convenience of flying by learning to relinquish control over certain things. Doing so will be difficult in the beginning, but the reward can be a more interesting and exciting life. Consider the alternatives, and, if the effort is worth it to you, then you can make it happen.