People ask me all the time about the fear of flying. They usually follow it up by stating that without flying they would never go anywhere interesting. Then they ask me what to do. Under normal circumstances, that can be a problem for some people.
Everything has a price. A candy bar costs fifty cents. A house costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our choices have emotional and psychological costs. For example, marriage means having less control over your independence in exchange for (hopefully) intimacy. For some, flying comes with a psychological cost, whether it’s a fear of terrorism, being cooped up, or crashing.
Well, let’s look at the facts. Under normal conditions, airlines – at least as long as they are required to make a profit and are held legally accountable for passengers’ lives – have a vested interest in flying safe airplanes. U.S. Airways, for example, had a number of crashes in the mid-1990s. They hired a new safety team and advertised that they were making safety priority one. Of course, accidents are always possible, but they haven’t suffered a major crash in many years.
A few years ago America West Airlines suffered the embarrassment of two pilots being arrested for drunkenness. The very next day, the airline issued an unequivocal statement that this behavior would never be tolerated and they fired both pilots on the spot. Fortunately, there were no self-serving psychiatrists or crafty lawyers who tried to intimidate the airline into rehiring the pilots. The objective reality of flying, and the safety it requires, is something that even so-called experts, politicians, and attorneys dare not ignore. So we have that on our side when we fly. The professional excuse-makers don’t want to crash any more than you do.
Another fact that can’t be ignored: When airlines are operating normally, there are well over 30,000 commercial flights every single day. We know how few of these crash. The math is pretty convincing: More than 10 million flights a year, and the overwhelming majority land safely. These examples could theoretically reduce your fears, but they probably won’t. Why? Because for most people fear of flying raises issues of control. When you get on an airplane, you are forced to confront the fact that you have no control. You are trusting your life to the pilots and airline executives responsible for the maintenance and operation of the airplane.
When you drive a car, you have more control over what happens. You are the one responsible for making sure maintenance is adequate. When you get into an airplane, you are surrendering this control and this can make many people anxious. And every bit of turbulence reminds us of this fact.
So we’re anxious, but we also want to get somewhere fast. What to do? There are techniques for treating the symptoms of anxiety: anti-anxiety medication, deep breathing, happy thoughts, rational thoughts (full of the facts above), focusing on what you will do when you get to your destination, keeping busy, maybe ordering an alcoholic beverage, etc. But these only address the symptoms. The next flight you take, the fear will return.
I try to convince my clients to not only treat the symptoms, but also to address root causes. This will involve work on the issues of control in one’s daily life. And you don’t start this process three days before takeoff. Every day, ask yourself how you can become more accepting of things over which you have no control. Ask yourself how you can better accept the psychological costs of most things. Keep a journal and note when you handle these situations well. Practice letting go. A skilled cognitive-behavioral therapist can help reinforce your efforts.
If the emotional cost of relinquishing control over certain things is less than the pleasure of a trip to a far-away place, then think of it as the price you pay for living a more interesting life. Then work to keep your fears from tarnishing this benefit.
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