Flying Without Fear

With all this miserable weather around many of us are already looking forward, with hungry anticipation, to a summer spent basking in the sun of some foreign land. For most the notion of “sun, sand and sangria” sounds like nothing other than idyllic paradise; but for roughly 6.5% of the college community it’s a terrifying concept.

It’s not the lazy days spent gobbling-up celebrity gossip on sun loungers and the evenings spent getting wildly drunk and scoring ‘locals’ that brings about this apprehension, rather the process by which you actually get to said paradise: these are the people who have a fear of flying.

A fear of flying (also known as aerophobia, aviatophobia or aviophobia) has recently overtaken spiders and death as the most commonly suffered phobia.

Indeed, a recent study conducted in the Netherlands has shown that nearly 40% of airtravelers suffer some form of anxiety associated with flying with 6.5% of people experiencing such intense fear that they have stopped flying altogether.
Symptoms exhibited by nervous passengers include heavy sweating, headaches, stomach convulsions and panic attacks which can start days before a sufferer is due to fly and last for days after words.

I should know – ever since the attacks of September 11th I have experienced such a paralyzing fear of airtravel that I have, on more than one occasion, walked-off planes before take-off.

The problem with aerophobia is that, unlike arachnophobia (spiders) or ophiophobia (snakes), it’s very hard to get away from.
In the modern world with all its holidays and business trips avoiding airplanes is simply not an option and even where it is possible to duck-out of a flight doing so is likely to limit your career and ultimately your enjoyment of life.

But why is it that people suffer from a fear of flying and, more importantly, how can you go about conquering it?

“All phobias occur in an altered state of consciousness”, says Dr. Martin Sief of the National Institute for Medical Studies, “they have to because by definition a phobia is an irrational fear – sufferers’ brains simply do not work logically when faced with certain circumstances”.

But where does this irrationality stem from? For many, research shows, a single traumatic event (such as the death of a close family member or acute personal illness) paired with a naturally nervous predisposition is likely to be the cause of a fear of flying.

It is important, according to Dr. Sief, for sufferers to note that a fear of flying is a symptom of wider disorders rather than a disease in of itself.

A moment of panic or a period of anxiety is originally triggered in the rational part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) a person, for example, might have heard of a plane crash and wonder if it might happen to them.

However, in those that are disposed to a fear of flying, following this initial thought blood flow to the prefrontal lobes quickly redirects to the part of the brain concerned with the ‘fight or flight’ reflexes (periaqueductal cortexes).

It is this redirection of blood and chemicals away from rational thought towards thoughts of survival which allows irrational fear to take over.

During a flight the most common periods of periaqueductal stimulation are during take-off, periods of turbulence and landing all of which are completely irrational – you would have to fly everyday for 16,000 years to be involved in any kind of serious incident in the air and even if you were you have a 2/3 chance of survival.

In other words, the chances of dying whilst aboard an aircraft are 1 in 9.2 million. The fear of turbulence (and specifically of wings snapping etc) is perhaps the most ludicrous as aircraft wings are designed to handle 20 times more stress than the worst recorded turbulence.

As I know, reading these stats in the safety of the arts block is all well and good, but once you’re in the air it’s quite another thing.

How then can we prevent irrational thought taking over? “Essentially you need to keep your heart rate down”, says Dr. Sief, “it sounds obvious but you need to relax”.

The very word ‘self-help’ conjures-up images of Paul McKenna and other such crooks whose books and CDs promise everything but deliver almost nothing.

For many, however, several simple ‘self-help’ techniques are enough to cure them of their fear.Perhaps the main methods of self-help involve distraction and abstraction – making yourself forget your circumstances or, in other words, limiting your mental activity to the frontal, rational cortexes.

Get a good pair of noise cancelling headphones and an iPod loaded with songs you really want to listen to (you might, for example, save a new album for your next flight) as well as something that is going to keep you thinking (a puzzle book, magazine or book).
Once you’re settled into your reading and music it’s vitally important not to ‘clock watch’ – keeping track of the time or on long-haul flights watching the little map will only make the flight (and periods of turbulence) seem longer.

If you do become unnerved (perhaps during turbulence) try to keep your blood pressure down by breathing slowly and relax your muscles to avoid a higher heart rate (i.e. don’t grip the arm rest!).

If you’ve tried these sorts of methods before and are still terrified of even the shortest flight then there are several courses and professional programs that can help.

There are all sorts of stigma attached to seeking professional help for what non-sufferers see as a ‘minor issue’; but in reality anything that helps can only be a good thing – ignore the ‘stop being a pussy brigade’ and go for it. I went on the BMI course which involved two retired pilots, a psychologist and about two hours in the pilot training simulator which was great.

Other courses, such as the Virgin Atlantic offering, take you on a two hour flight and explain all the noises and movements which might make you anxious. These courses are expensive, but they are a really good way of conquering your fear.

Finally, and for many most effective, is the use of anti-anxiety medication. The most common drugs in this field are Benzodiazepines (such as Valium, Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan) which reduce brain activity and block the chemical reactions which cause anxiety.

They typically work within a thirty minute period and are, I have found, particularly good on long-haul flights for their soporific qualities.

That said, as with all medication, this group of drugs comes with some serious side-effects (drowsiness, nausea and potential addiction) which you must consider. If you think you might suit this type of treatment you must talk to your doctor.
NEVER borrow other people’s prescriptions and if you intend to use them on your return journey take enough pills with you (dodgy foreign Benzodiazepines are, well, dodgy).

One more thing – avoid getting boozed-up before your flight because, and I promise this is true, it only makes your brain more irrational.

I hope that for all y’all fellow nervous fliers this has been of some help. If all else fails try to remember this: you’ve got more chance of winning the lottery twice than dying on an airplane. Good luck, and happy flying.