Thu, 01/08/2015

Tips about fear of flying

Tips about fear of flying: Special seminars and relaxation techniques can help

An aircraft is a relatively safe means of transport. Nevertheless, many passengers suffer of a panic fear of flying. Why is that and what can be done about it?

Thomas Schulz works as an emergency physician at Martin Luther Hospital in Berlin. In his spare time, the internist and cardiologist is a private pilot, who flies small aircraft and glider. Not that long ago the thought of flying gave him a racing heart and sweaty palms. The recreational pilot suffered from fear of flying.

Whether casual or frequent flyer: Every third person suffers, according to the Institute for Public Opinion in the city of Allensbach in southern Germany, under a so-called Aviophobia, which is the medical term of fear of flying. Ironically an aircraft is one of the safest transportation. Each year, many more people die in road accidents than plane crashes. So why is the dream of flying for some a nightmare?

Fear of flying is a common psychological phenomenon and belongs to the group of specific phobias. This is the case when the anxiety only occurs in specific situations – such as in an aircraft. Stress leads to an over-activation of the nervous system with characteristic symptoms such as sweating, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, nausea, nervousness, or diarrhea and panic attacks. Also negative thoughts come to mind such as, "Where do the noises come from? Something must be broken." Or, "Is the pilot capable of that all?”

"Fear springs from lack of information. It is the uncertainty of that what could happen," says Schulz. The physician has overcome his fear of flying and controls even small machines. "Fear of flying can be fought theoretically and in most cases even practically by dealing with the subject of flying and eliminating information deficits. For me it helped to learn about the art of flying and to look at the figures which show how safe flying actually is," he says.

Fear of turbulence

"Who wants to deal with that fear has to face it and - after psychological preparation - actually has to fly," says Andreas Mühlberger, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Würzburg. The author of several studies on the treatment of fear of flying recommends therapies in virtual worlds as in a training simulator.

Most clients have build confidence in themselves after the virtual test flight and board a real plane afterward says Mühlberger. Clients may collect new, positive experiences and unlearn the fear. In this case, however, one must know the causes of fear of flying. Which are diverse, says Karin Bonner. The psychologist conducts "Seminars for relaxed flying" at the German aviation company Lufthansa since 2001. Based on years of practice Karin Bonner knows: "Fear of flying is caused by a dramatically scaled flight experience, which objectivley seen probably was completely undramatic," the expert explains. These were often turbulences, but also the lack of space.

Fear of heights, confinement and loss of control can also be causes. Surveys show that the majority of respondents said the fear of helplessness before a crash, as well as from turbulences were the causes of their panic. Often people would come to her, says Bonner, which lack in-depth knowledge about aircrafts, technology or flying and then use the media or movies to fill this lack of knowledge. "Disaster films or reports on plane crashes, which will then produce this knowledge, are no help to have a relaxed flight," says the psychologist.

And what about a wine or tranquilizers? Better stay away from them, advises Bonner. Because neither fights the cause of the phobia. Alcohol and pills do not help reliably because everyone responds differently to it and it comes to the development of a tolerance. This means: It steadily takes more to achieve the same effect.

A better way are audiobooks and relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobson. Then it is important to begin the flight without stress and worries. On the flight distraction is important e.g. by talking to the person sitting next to oneself, by reading a book or listening to music. To talk to the crew about ones fear, can also help. Thus flight attendants can especially take care of the passenger.

If relaxation methods are not sufficient, experts recommend fear of flying seminars. In it psychologist like Bonner explain how an airplane works, why it can take off at all and why turbulence during descent, for example, are quite normal. But what can trigger anxiety and how to cope with it is part of the seminar. At the end of the training the participants usually go up in the air together on a test flight.

Acquire knowledge about technology

"The passenger who wants to sit on the steering wheel preferably takes the window seat, the guest with panic attacks the aisle seat," says seminar leader Bonner from her years of experience. "Fact is that a planes much less wobbles in the middle because there is the center of gravity of the aircraft." Bonner is also advices to ask oneself, what exact fear one has. "Often it is not the entire flight but only parts such as start and turbulence."

She advises to write realistic knowledge about flying in short sentences on index cards and read them before and during the flight. Who tackles his fear of flying, ultimately will lose it.


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This text is a translation of an article published on the website of Weser Kurier an 22 December, 2014.