How to Conquer Your Fear of Flying
Ready to overcome a fear of flying? Some of the best treatments begin on solid ground.
Mary Avis had been a white-knuckle flyer for years. But on one fateful
flight from Virginia to Boston several years ago, her fear finally took
complete control. Although the weather was clear and the flight was smooth,
"I was sure that if I stood up, the floor would collapse and I'd fall
through," says Avis, now 61, who spent the entire flight motionless and
When the plane landed in Philadelphia to refuel, Avis fled. "My husband
was annoyed, to put it mildly," she says.
"Instead of an hour flight home, we took a 14-hour train ride." She
could not fly again for five years.
Fear of flying may seem irrational, but it is no joke.
It can restrict your life and hobble your career, says Al Forgione, PhD, a
Boston psychologist who treats the condition. It's common, too -- a 2006 survey
by Gallup and USA Today found that more than one in four people are somewhat
afraid, and one in 10 considers him or herself very afraid of taking to the
Despite the term, fear of flying isn't just a fear of being in the air.
Some people are claustrophobic or afraid of being far from home. Forgione
says the most common fear is not crashing, but becoming hysterical and
humiliating yourself in flight. And "the underlying fear in all of these
anxieties is loss of control," he says. To create the illusion of control,
some people believe that their actions -- listening for odd noises, noting the
slightest dip, or even staying motionless in their seats -- could actually save
While you can't control the flight, you can control your own emotional
reaction. Many people start with therapy.
Forgione runs classes for people who are afraid to fly. Students learn breathing exercises to calm
them during tense situations. They visit the terminal and watch planes take off
and land. For graduation, the class takes a short roundtrip flight.
Other therapists use virtual reality to help people feel more at ease with
Wearing a special helmet embedded with monitors and speakers, they
experience a computer simulation of the airport, the cabin, and the flight
without leaving the safety of their therapist's office.
Forgione adds that medicine can be a helpful tool. Small doses of a mild
sedative may allow people who would otherwise be too afraid to get on a
As for Avis, she finally decided to take Forgione's class. While she says
the class was hard work -- "learning to relax isn't easy," she notes --
it paid off. "I felt victorious when I took that graduation flight,"
Now Avis says she's so relaxed on flights that she dozes off, something
"These days, the only thing that really bothers me about flying,"
she says, "is being woken up by a chatty pilot yakking about the