Fear of flying (Aviophobia) is an anxiety based problem and can lead to extreme high levels of anxiety. This limits the travel a person can do, i.e. going on a holiday, or travel for work.

One in four people on every flight has some level of fear. One in ten people suffer high levels of fear. Flying phobia affects all ages. Women experience this more than men. For most, there has been a ‘frightening event/perceived frightening event’ on a flight but not for everyone. There are many well-known experiences of flying phobia from the world of politics, sport, and music. All describe extreme experiences of anxiety even thinking of taking a flight.

There are two main groups of people with fear of flying:

  • Those with fear of the plane crashing and this leading to death.
  • Those with fear of having a panic attack on board, where all feels out of control.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a treatment of choice for flying phobia. Many people present for treatment when there is a flight they need to take or for work reasons when travel abroad is needed. Here we look at the link between emotions, thoughts, and behaviours and help someone make changes in the cycles that occur when a person takes a flight.

Example of a ‘Fear of Flying’ Cycle:

fear of flying cycle


CBT treatment involves a person taking regular, short flights then taking on longer ones.

Main Areas in CBT Treatment:

Education regarding anxiety:

Anxiety is uncomfortable and distressing but it is not life threating and will reduce down.

Cognitive work on thoughts:

When anxious there will be thoughts that threat is present, i.e. ‘The plane will crash’, ‘I’ll have a heart attack.’ These thoughts keep anxiety going. Work on thoughts is about changing anxious thoughts to more balanced or real thoughts:

  • ‘The plane will crash’ – ‘Air travel is one of the safest ways to travel.’
  • ‘I’ll have a heart attack’ – ‘The physical symptoms are anxiety symptoms and will improve with time.’

Changing Behaviours:

It is understandable that if you are anxious, you do things to reduce anxiety; however these behaviours can be safety behaviours that keep anxiety going. In CBT we encourage reducing/resisting safety behaviours, i.e. a plan would be to resist checking for sounds on the plane, resist distracting. Some people will take medication or alcohol to reduce anxiety on a flight. This may then become the pattern for future flights whereas the plans above will manage anxiety by working on thoughts or behaviours.

Flying phobia is a common problem, 1 in 10 are affected to a large degree. It is a problem that can be treated or managed by CBT.

Colette Kearns, Head of CBT at St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services

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