The fear of flying is one of the most common phobias in the world today. Despite significant research evidence that says you’re safer on a plane than you are in a car, the fear of flying is far more common than the fear of driving. Some people experience severe anxiety when on a plane. Others will not go on planes at all.
The Need for Control
Your chance of dying in a plane crash in the United States is roughly 1 in 45,000,000. But for those that fear flying, that number doesn’t help. That’s because the fear of flying is directly related to what the body experiences when it is under stress, and what it is able to do to reduce that stress while in the air.
When Under Stress, the Mind Craves Control
Planes can be stressful, even when they’re safe. Turbulence is often unnerving. The airport itself can be a stressful experience. Takeoff is loud, your ears are popping, you’re cramped, and more. Stress is present even in those that do not fear flying because most forms of flying are unpleasant experiences. Even using the bathroom on a plane is a lesson in discomfort.
So flying does tend to trigger a bit of the stress hormone. The problem is that, when under stress, the mind and body look for ways to control that stress. In a car, if you’re feeling uncomfortable, you know you can pull over at any time. On a roller coaster, if you want to get off, the ride is over 30 seconds later. If you’re actually in danger – such as being faced with a fight – your mind goes into fight or flight mode, and you can control at least some component of the event by preparing to fight or running away.
This idea that you’re in control is still an illusion. You can try to pull over, but you may still be in danger. You can get off the roller coaster in a few seconds, but you’re still at the mercy of the coaster. You can try to run away or fight, but someone can still surprise you. But at least you have the illusion of control. It feels like there is something you can do if you need to.
But none of these are true on an airplane:
- On an airplane, there’s nowhere to go to relieve the stress.
- On an airplane, there’s no more comfortable area to relax.
- On an airplane, you still have 30, 60, maybe even hours to go.
This then takes away that illusion of control. You can’t fly the plane. You can’t get off. You can’t stop turbulence. You can’t go anywhere. The illusion of control – even though it was always an illusion to begin with – goes away.
This is why the fear of flying is so hard for people, and why it is such a common problem. Even though flying is considerably safer, it lacks the one thing we need to feel like it is safer – the illusion of control. That is why part of treating the fear of flying is not just about addressing the fear. It is also about learning to be comfortable with the truth that you are rarely in control, and that that is okay.