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How to beat a fear of flying

It’s thought to affect around one in 10 people and can severely limit life choices, but a fear of flying is something many travellers overcome, with patience, guidance and practice

How to beat a fear of flying

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Elaine Iljon Foreman was going to Australia when she heard a voice in her head. “I was waiting to board, and it said: ‘Elaine, you’re looking at the last plane you’re going to go on.’”

It’s a scenario those of us who dread flying can well imagine — except for one difference. Iljon Foreman is no phobic; she’s a chartered clinical psychologist who specialises in helping patients conquer fear of flying.

“I had to use all the techniques I use in my therapy to deal with that,” she says. “I was thinking: ‘Maybe I should listen to this.’ I wasn’t the happiest bunny getting on that plane.”

Fear of flying is thought to affect around one in 10 people, according to Anxiety UK. Although it’s possible that figure could be growing — a survey conducted by the National Geographic Channel earlier this year reported that more than 21 million Britons currently suffer from it. It’s classified as a phobia, characterised by ‘clinically significant anxiety’, by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the severity of which, of course, can vary wildly.

Triggers can be anything from booking a flight to arriving at the airport. Once on board, closing the doors, take-off and turbulence are the most common. “I hate take-off,” says Oliver Gerrish, an architectural historian who flies reluctantly. “I hate the getting ready — seat belts on, juddering down the runway. I start thinking: ‘How the hell will this work?’”

Men and women are equally likely to be affected by fear of flying — though research shows that women are more likely to fear being in an accident, while men dislike the loss of control. And just because you don’t suffer from it now, that doesn’t mean you won’t develop it in the future. Aretha Franklin stopped flying after a turbulent flight in 1984.

Footballer Dennis Bergkamp had his refusal to fly written into his contract at Arsenal, where he was known as ‘The Non-Flying Dutchman’, after a succession of flights on ‘nasty little planes’ when playing for Inter Milan.

Helen McLean, a funeral celebrant from Hampshire, never had any problems flying. But, aged 29, she developed a severe phobia of being in the air after a surprise-gone-wrong, in which she was tipped into the hot-air balloon she thought her husband was going up in alone.

“The guy grabbed me and put me in the basket as they let go of the ropes,” she says. “That was it. From then on, I wouldn’t fly, and I wouldn’t go near anything that flew, even to the point that I couldn’t drop anyone off or pick them up from an airport without being physically sick.”

McLean’s experience of a sudden onset is surprisingly common, says Mark Wein, who runs EasyJet’s Fearless Flyer courses. New mothers, suddenly responsible for another life, are a constant on his sessions. But it’s not always so straightforward
— in fact, he says: “I’m proof it can hit anyone.” Wein developed a phobia in his 20s and didn’t fly for 18 years. He ‘cured’ himself, he says, by learning about the mechanics of flying. As he puts it, ‘knowledge is power’.

The right course

Certainly, courses run by airlines boast high success rates. British Airways, EasyJet, and Virgin Atlantic all run programmes that include pilot-led sessions explaining how exactly planes fly, along with psychological training, whether from psychologists or practitioners of other therapies. NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) — which aims to ‘retrain’ the brain out of bad habits with verbal and non-verbal cues — and EFT, or ‘tapping’, which claims to give emotional release via tapping of meridian points with your fingers, are both popular in such sessions.

The courses generally end with a short flight of around an hour, with a blow-by-blow narration of every procedure and sound by a pilot. The ‘success rate’ tends to be measured by the number of participants who make it on to the plane — and around nine out of 10 do (though, of course, these are already self-selecting participants). Some 95% of those on the EasyJet courses take the flight, says Wein — and once they’re on, the atmosphere tends to be ‘euphoric’.

Architect Pablo Muñoz Roca is one of them. At the age of 15, he flew for the first time — on a family holiday to Miami. “On the way over I was OK, though I knew I didn’t like it,” he says. “But on the way back we had five straight hours of turbulence.” He caught the fear. His next flight, two years later — a school trip from his native Valencia to London — was a disaster. “Before the trip I was panicking, and all I could think about in London was that I was going to have to fly back,” he says. “It wasn’t worth it.”

As a student he spent a year in the Netherlands, moving there by train and exploring Northern Europe on terra firma. “I organised my life so that I could still travel,” he says. “But I felt like a failure watching my friends going back and forth to Spain.” He tried flying on prescription drugs to disastrous effect. “I was out of my head on tranquillisers; the moment we landed I fell straight asleep. That was the moment I really gave up. I told myself: ‘This is your life now, you just don’t fly.’” He missed his sister’s 40th birthday in Chicago, and refused work trips. He moved to London (by train, of course) but couldn’t fly home. Until he booked the EasyJet course in 2014.

“I’d been starting to think I had a psychological issue, even though I’m not an anxious person, but when the pilot explained everything I realised what I was scared of was the machine,” he says. “The technical part gave me a lot of trust in the plane itself. On the flight, I didn’t even need any of the relaxation techniques they taught us.”

Since then, Roca has taken 175 flights (the idea is so outlandish to him that he keeps a list). “I never thought I’d get to the point where I don’t mind flying at all, but I have the confidence that nothing’s going to happen, now,” he says.

“Recently I was taking off from New York and it started getting shaky — I dozed through it. I don’t get on the Eurostar thinking it’s going to derail, so why would I think my plane is going to crash?”

McLean, too, was ‘cured’ by British Airways’ Flying with Confidence course, in 2014. It nearly didn’t happen: she vomited on the train to Gatwick, almost didn’t enter the building, and was in distress all day. It was, she says, the kindness of the volunteer BA staff that got her through. Step by step, they persuaded her to accompany the group into the airport, then to security, then the gate — and on to the plane.

“It was awful, I had to keep running to the loo on the way, but they were so patient and kind, I made it,” she says. “I didn’t enjoy it, but I couldn’t believe I was doing it. We flew over the Isle of Wight, we passed where my mum and dad live, and staff came and talked to us individually — they acknowledged everyone on the plane. After that, something changed.” Two weeks later she went on a last-minute holiday to Greece; a month after that, to Turkey. Last year she went on a nine-leg trip to New Zealand and Australia; she’s going back next year. She says it’s transformed her entire life, too. “I feel a confidence I’d never had before.”

Cause and effect

So what causes fear of flying, if it can be cured so easily? Wein reckons participants on his courses have one thing in common. “Most are control freaks,” he says. “Most people tell me: ‘If I could just sit in the cockpit, I’d be fine.’”

That makes sense for course participants, according to Iljon Foreman’s research. “Nearly all flying phobias can be traced to an underlying fear of loss of either external or internal control,” she says. Those who worry about accidents, pilot error and turbulence are experiencing the former — which explains why the success rate for airline-run courses is so high.

Those who experience claustrophobia or panic attacks, however, are concerned about a loss of internal control. In Iljon Foreman’s experience, two-thirds of people fear the former, and about one-third the latter, with a small number fearing both equally. For them, knowing how a plane works may not be enough.

There are, of course, plenty of solutions offered for fear of flying. Some find it helps to let cabin crew know or ask to visit the flight deck before take-off. Then there’s social media prep: British Airways has a nine-strong volunteer team of pilots and cabin crew who answer questions on Twitter — search the #BASmart hashtag. One of them, captain Dave Wallsworth (@davewallsworth), has produced a series of narrated videos of take-off and landing, with the aim of reducing people’s concerns. And they do. A lifelong sufferer of aviophobia myself — sparked when a friend of the family was killed in a plane crash — I’ve felt noticeably calmer when flying since watching Wallsworth’s videos. For me, it’s watching the calm atmosphere in the flight deck that’s made the difference.

Many rely on medication — or self-medicate with alcohol on-board. NICE guidelines (which shape NHS treatment), however, suggest that ‘evidence-based’ psychological therapy can be effective against anxiety disorders, and should be used before any drugs are prescribed. Others swear by hypnotherapy — McLean was helped by it a little, before she took the BA course — though medically it’s largely unproven. A sounder bet is CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy: a technique which essentially rationalises with the brain, teaching it to ignore the irrational instincts that we all get — like that voice in Iljon Foreman’s head.

Iljon Foreman uses CBT with her clients. Hers is a far more personalised approach, seeing people one-on-one, or in groups of a maximum of four. That makes her process more expensive — sessions start from around £200 — but by targeting the root fear of an individual, things move fast. Her courses normally comprise an assessment, one session of CBT and one flight on a scheduled airline — where you meet her at the airport for a surprise day trip. She won’t talk success rates, but CBT has a 90% hit rate for phobias, according to studies.

It’s common, says Iljon Foreman, to have fearful thoughts around flying. She would know — another time, driving to the airport, she imagined a newspaper headline reading ‘Fear of flying expert dies in plane crash’. “We all get these kinds of thoughts but it’s about how you manage them,” she says. And how you interpret them, too. One person involved in an emergency landing, for example, might swear off flying forever, she says. Another might take it as a sign that they’ve been spared by a higher power and should fly again. Neither are purely rational.

And if you’re not yet in a position to take a course, there are things you can do. Iljon Foreman recommends taking as much stress as possible out of the process, so pre-book a seat, arrive early at the airport, and alert staff that you’re nervous. If you’re worried about anything health-related, she says, get checked out by a doctor — so you can write that off.

And when turbulence hits, follow Wein’s advice. “Don’t grip the seat — it’s no safer and all you’re doing is putting tension in your body,” he says. “Focus on your breathing, try and relax it, maybe put some music on. Fear is your own reaction to yourself, in a way, so if you can start to take control consciously, you’ll start to calm yourself down.”

Top tips for nervous flyers

Be open about your fear

Request it to be noted on your booking and mention it to cabin crew. They’ll keep an eye on you.

Banish rituals

Practices such as calling loved ones before a flight can feed fears. Try to behave as if you’re boarding a bus, and you may feel calmer.

Spend extra money to de-stress the process

Pre-book your preferred seat — whether that’s at the front of the plane, near an exit or by the bathroom. Splashing out on pre-boarding can be worth it, to escape the scrum.

Take your own entertainment

During triggers such as turbulence or take-off, self-soothe by listening to your favourite music or getting lost in a good book/movie.

Put an elastic band on your wrist

Pinging it when you start panicking helps bring you back to the present. And remember: the EU has some of the most stringent aviation safety regulations, which any airline allowed in its airspace must stick to. Last year, 2017, was aviation’s safest yet, according to the Aviation Safety Network (ASN).

Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)