“I just know that something bad is going to happen. Even though it hasn’t yet, I just know it will.” Thirty-five-year-old Lauren travels often from her hometown in Kwa-Zulu Natal to her new home in Gauteng and is a bundle of nerves every time she has to get on a plane. Human beings are not designed to fly like birds, and getting into an aeroplane means that we need to face the fact that we are vulnerable, not in our element, and not in control. “When I know I have to fly, I am a mess for days. Sitting up in the sky, I ‘hear’ my fears more than anywhere else.”
Flying is considered to be one of the safest forms of transport – 29 times safer than driving a car. But fear of flying has little to do with the actual risks of flying. “If the fear of flying was caused by the potential for an accident, everyone who is afraid of flying would be more afraid to drive. Clearly that is not the case”, says CBT expert and “Free to Fly” developer Kevin Bolon. While relatively few accidents happen in aviation because pilots are specifically trained to handle just about every emergency, many passengers worry about the dangers of flight and despite all the statistics, become disabled by fear. Flying becomes a misery.
The fear of flying has more to do with what might happen than with what actually is happening. “If you were sitting on a plane and there was smoke coming out of the engines while the captain was making an emergency landing, everyone on board would be afraid because there would be a clear and real danger. But, people who have a fear of flying, can sit in a perfectly safe cabin, with all systems functioning normally, and worry about what could happen”, says Bolon. One key to the issue is that there isn’t the freedom to change things - if you feel stuffy in a car, you open a window; if you feel nervous, you talk to the driver. While some people feel ‘free’ in flight and savour their time in the air away from the rush and bustle on the ground, for other flying can feel like being trapped. “I feel trapped and I can’t do anything until the plane lands. I don’t feel in control at all”, says Lauren.
Many people’s symptoms are ‘run-away’ reactions to feeling trapped and not in control. People have anxieties about a number of issues, not all of which are specific to flight itself. “Heights, enclosed spaces, crowds, feeling stuffy, inaction, worrying about turbulence, having to trust someone else to be in charge, even terrorism are all fears associated with flying”, says Bolon. The problem is, as our thoughts and worries intensify, so our physical and emotional reactions react as if there really was a problem. “My muscles tense, my hands shake, I feel like I can’t breathe, my stomach starts cramping, and I go pale and clammy”, says Lauren. “It’s awful. If people try comfort me, I generally burst into tears!”
Kevin Bolon, along with an SAA pilot and an aeronautical technical expert, runs the renowned “Free to Fly” programme. This unique and powerful course is aimed at people who have anxiety around flying but want to tackle it. “We deal with all aspects of the anxiety and fear of flying – from the principles of aerodynamics, turbulence and landings, to maintenance of aircraft, as well as the psychology of fear and management techniques.” The course is run once a month and anyone interested can contact SADAG for details. “Many people have a morbid fear of flying and chose any other mode of transport rather than get on a plane”, says SADAG’s Cassey Chambers. “But help is available.”
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the primary treatment for anxiety disorders and fear of flying is no different. “Through CBT I’m able to look at and really recognise and address my fears by seeing where they come from and the negative thoughts that keep them going”, says Lauren, who has recently started CBT therapy. “I don’t know if I’ll ever love being in the air, but it would be nice to travel home without the endless worry.”
People who are afraid to fly spend much of their time being preoccupied with thoughts and fears of flying long before the flight and often dwell on the physical and emotional symptoms when they board, convincing themselves of impending doom in the process. Like with most anxiety disorders, people blame themselves for being ‘weak’, ‘pathetic’ or ‘helpless’. It’s a spiral of negativity and terror.
Here are five tips to cope:
Expand your awareness beyond the unpleasant situation: instead of “I’m thinking about the flight again” focus your attention elsewhere – “it’s still two days away”, “It’s a nice view. Sitting here paralyzed won’t make the plane any safer.”
Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can and that progress takes time: “Yes, I was very nervous the last flight, but I did the best I could and since then I have learned new ways to cope.”
Give yourself credit and allow yourself to take control back: “I’m not really helpless. I can control my thoughts and my breathing.” Take slow, deep breaths, relax your muscles.
Acknowledge your fear, and challenge it: “I know I’ll be afraid as I’m boarding. But I am not going to let the fear win!” Take things on board that help you relax and help you feel calm – music, a book, even a piece of your favourite material.
Dehydration is common. The air in planes is very dry and may cause headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Many people who are afraid of flying turn to alcohol in-flight to help them cope. This only increases the dehydration. Drink water - about a cup per hour. And avoid alcohol, fizzy drinks and caffeine.
Even though none of us is ever totally in control of life, we can learn to control and manage our fears and emotions. “On my last flight I asked to meet the pilot and chatted to the crew – they were amazing and really reassured me. I handled it so much better and, while I’m still scared, I’m quite looking forward to my next flight to prove to myself how far I have come!”
For more information, please contact Cassey Chambers from SADAG on 011 262 6396