Lots of us get nervous about flying, but sometimes the fear manifests as more than a bit of tension. Some find themselves unable to even go near an airport let alone board a plane, while others spend an entire flight gripping armrests tight, trying to ease their anxiety.
For a number of years, Ruth Harrison-Davies, 31, would avoid flying at all costs – even turning down a work trip to Australia because of it – and instead chose only to holiday in Wales. (“Nothing wrong with Wales, mind you,” she notes.)
It was hypnotherapy that helped Ruth turn a corner. Now she can at least get on a flight – but she does still struggle with her fear. “It doesn’t matter how many people tell me ‘it’s the safest way to travel’,” the account manager from Huddersfield explains. “I sit in terror the whole time.”
“I had hypnotherapy in early 2016 and it really made a difference,” says Harrison-Davies. “Afterwards I went away with work and was fine all the way through the airport and during the flight – my colleagues couldn’t believe it. I even flew to the USA on my honeymoon in 2017.”
But while the hypnotherapy has helped, she still cries during every single flight – usually during take-off and landing, and if there’s turbulence. She also notes she’s probably due a “top up” of therapy.
Harrison-Davies is not the only member of her family to be scared of flying – her mum is too. Mike Ward, a counsellor who runs two anxiety clinics in Hampshire and London, and sees around two or three people a month who fear flying, says it’s not uncommon for people to have the same fears as their parents.
A terrible flight can sometimes be a trigger says Ward, but for others there is nothing particular that prompts their fear of flying. “Some people are generally frightened of feeling out of control, they feel trapped on a plane and they want to be able to get out but they can’t,” he explains.
Is it worth people following Harrison Davies’ example and opting for hypnotherapy? That depends on the individual, Ward says, but for some, it can be beneficial.
For Robyn Gravestock, 23, from London, it is the noise of the plane that makes her so anxious. “Once I knew what I was scared of I was able to start trying to find ways to overcome my fear,” she explains. By researching the typical sounds that planes make, Gravestock was able to reassure herself about what she was hearing. “Planes are obviously pretty sophisticated, so there’s no way I could read up on everything – but just being able to attribute sounds to a ‘normal’ reason, rather than that they’re because something has gone wrong really helped me,” she says.
She has since become more confident when flying, relying also on yoga to help her relax into the flight. “The breathing exercises that I learned in yoga are helpful for feeling more relaxed once I’m settled into my seat,” she says. “Concentrating on my breathing also takes my attention away from the sounds the plane makes, as well as some of the bumps.”
Emma Gilbey relies on the power of positive thinking to get her through flying. “It was all about changing my mentality and working on it as soon as I booked the flight,” she says. Gilbey will force herself to anticipate positive aspects of the flight – such as being able to turn her phone off (and have a digital detox) – rather than dwelling on the negatives.
Ward also encourages people to focus on those things they can control, rather than the things they can’t, and to stay present in the moment. “Some clients report playing Tetris helps them to keep the focus,” he says. Other ways to remain present include through communication – chatting with others so you’re engaged in present conversation and not thinking about flying.
“Also recognise the fear,” he says. “Flying is unusual, it’s the law of physics that makes it safe. Feel the solidness of your feet on the floor and the weight of your body in the seat, focus on the present moment.”
Peter Klein, a member of the Counselling Directory, who specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), explains that sometimes just being aware that you have a fear of flying can add to the problem. “Some people get so nervous when flying that they not only fear an upcoming trip, but they also fear the anxiety itself,” he says – leaving them reaching for alcohol or medication to try and cope.
But that can just make you more aware of how nervous you’re feeling, argues Klein. “These [methods] often provide a short-term relief, but in the long-term validate the mind’s view that flying is something to be nervous about,” he says. To conquer the fear, you need to recognise the coping method you rely on, and then slowly wean yourself off it, he advises.
Don’t decide to go cold turkey and abandon all your coping strategies at once, though. “This could have the opposite effect of increasing a fear,” Klein says. “It is important to take a measured approach.”
If you’re looking for good strategies to help alleviate worries, consider turning to mindfulness, says Klein. “Being present and focused on what is going on can be very helpful,” he explains. “When confronting fears, sometimes people are in their own world worrying about all sorts of danger scenarios without fully experiencing what they are confronting.”
He concludes: “You can’t rationalise a fear of flying away, you can only successfully treat it by changing what you do.”