How to manage and overcome your fear of flying

Lesley Dobson / 08 June 2016

We look at how a fear of flying develops, ways to conquer your fears and strategies for coping with being airbourne.



Flying is just another way to travel for most of us. But despite the huge popularity of jetting away for holiday or business, about nine million people in Britain are anxious about flying.

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If you’re a fearful flyer, you’ll know that it can spoil holidays and stop you jetting abroad to visit family and friends. However there are ways to tackle your fear of flying and make going airborne a lot less traumatic.

One of the first stages to tackling a fear of flying is to work out what’s causing it.

“Some people develop anxiety about flying if they’ve had a difficult flight – if there’s a lot of turbulence, for instance,” explains Dr Keith Stoll, psychologist and fear of flying expert. “This trigger for fear can happen on other flights, so people can develop the same anxiety whenever it happens.”

Another possibility is that people can develop anxiety about flying when they are depressed and that anxiety can remain when the depression has cleared.

“Some people develop fears about many different things at times of stress,” says Dr Stoll. “For instance, when people have a baby, they can become very worried about many activities that they fear are potentially risky. They can start thinking about what would happen to their child if they died.”

Other possible causes can be linked to different psychological issues, such as claustrophobia and panic attacks. Often people who are fearful of flying worry about losing control of themselves and having a panic attack, and creating an embarrassing scene in a place that they can’t escape from.

“We are often frightened of things that are outside our routine – it’s the fear of the unknown,” explains Lynda Hudson, psychotherapist and hypnotherapist who treats people with fear of flying. “I remind people who come to see me that to the pilots and air stewards flying is routine, but because we don’t usually fly very often we overestimate the risk factor.

“I go out in my car every day and I’m taking a greater risk doing this than I am when I travel by plane. But if you don’t fly very often you can magnify the risk out of all proportion, because really the risk is tiny.”

Fear of turbulence seems to be a common worry. “It’s one of the things that people are very frightened of,” explains Lynda Hudson. “During hypnotherapy I say to people that turbulence is natural, normal and expected. Turbulence is just moving air, it’s not something to be frightened about.

“I compare it to going along a bumpy road. It’s a good thing to say to yourself if turbulence is making you anxious. I do this for myself, as I used to be terrified when flying and would tremble all through the flight. Now I’m fine thanks to self-hypnosis.”

Sometimes something as simple as telling the cabin crew on the plane that you are an anxious flyer can help relieve your worries. Ask one of the flight attendants (or cabin crew) if they can explain what the different sounds mean.

Dr Stoll runs the psychological sessions on the British Airways Flying with Confidence courses at Heathrow Airport. “What we aim to do is to help people make sense of flying and understand what’s happening when the plane banks or goes up or down. We also help people to handle their fear by using breathing exercises and psychological techniques to help them control the anxiety.

“Once people know that they can do something about their anxiety, they have what is known as mastery. When this happens they know that they have some control over their feelings.”

As part of the course the pilots explain why planes fly, why certain noises happen during the flight, and what the bells – the ding-dongs that sound from time to time on the plane – mean. During the flight a pilot also explains what is happening when the plane makes different noises, and explains what is about to happen. “They may say ‘now we’re going to bank, and this is what you’re going to feel when we do this’ ”.

Cognitive behaviour therapy, hypnotherapy, distraction techniques and getting the brain to focus elsewhere, are all used to help fearful flyers change the way they think about flying.

Finding out for yourself how a plane works and what keeps this heavy object up in the air may also help. Just reading about the different tasks that engines and wings do may help explain what seems impossible.

If you are travelling with someone who is happy flying it’s worth talking to them about your fears, and perhaps asking them to find out how planes fly, so they can remind you of this and help ease your worries. (The website EXPLAINTHATSTUFF for instance may help, although there are many other websites that explain how planes fly.)

Dr Keith Stoll is a clinical psychologist, who is the psychologist for the British Airways’ Flying with Confidence programme at Heathrow. Details about this course are on www.flyingwithconfidence.com.

Lynda Hudson is a Diplomate Member of the British Society of Clinical Hypnosis. Fly with Confidence is available as a CD (price £12.95 plus postage and packaging), and as an MP3 to download  (price £8.95) from her website www.firstwayforward.com    

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