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, Avis panicked.
"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 petrified.
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 skies.
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 the plane.
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 flying.
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 plane.
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," she says.
Now Avis says she's so relaxed on flights that she dozes off, something unimaginable before.
"These days, the only thing that really bothers me about flying," she says, "is being woken up by a chatty pilot yakking about the weather."