Last week's "terror plunge" to an emergency landing by a Qantas jumbo jet will have done little to soothe the intense fear of flying suffered by one in five of the UK population. Boarding an aeroplane may actually be the safest form of travel, but being stuck in a metal tube, 39,000 feet in the air, can exacerbate so many other phobias: fear of crowds, heights, confined spaces and loss of control. Add to that lurching turbulence and fear of terrorism, and it's hardly surprising that the worst sufferers of aerophobia are forced to stay grounded or attempt travel by boat and train. If your nervousness is soaring to record heights this holiday season, here are our eight routes to tranquil air travel.
This isn't about learning to pray hard. Meditation, a centuries-old technique, is one of the best coping mechanisms for modern terrors, including air travel. Choose which of two main methods of meditation is best suited to you.
The most robust is Mindfulness Meditation, a clinically proven technique for banishing phobias as well as anxiety, depression and panic attacks. Practising mindfulness teaches you to be present in the moment; staying in your body; being aware of, and accepting panicky feelings rather than getting caught up in bad memories from the past or catastrophic predictions of the future. Mindfulness meditation isn't a quick fix; you have to work at it, and will probably benefit from joining a mindfulness meditation group. Begin by reading Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Piatkus, £20), then listen to Guided Mindfulness Meditation, a four-CD audiobook also by Kabat-Zinn (Sounds True, £25), to prepare for alert but peaceful air travel.
An alternative form of meditation offers escape from an unpleasant present, frequently using visualisation. Download the 21-minute guided meditation, Overcoming Fear of Flying ( www.meditainment.com/fear-of-flying/ $10) on to your MP3 player for use during the flight. It features a relaxing story about a tropical island that you can listen to at take-off. Or buy a Meditation Machine (meditations-uk.com, from £95 including delivery).
2. Prescription drugs
To board a plane without bolting, six out of 10 fearful fliers sedate themselves with a prescription drug. See your GP to get a tranquilliser (benzodiazepines) or beta-blocker – both are powerful enough to numb the experience while also being safe if used only occasionally. Prescription medication is definitely preferable to Dutch courage in the form of a large brandy or three – the other popular self-medicating route for aerophobics. Alcohol may relax the body in the short term, but it can also trigger panic attacks and intensify phobias – a recipe for mayhem when combined with slurred speech, disruption to co-ordination skills, and a confined space.
Regular doses of Aconite 30c in the days before travelling and on the day you fly will combat fear of flying, according to the Society of Homeopaths. According to www.homeopathyworld.com, Aconite will only work if the fear of flying comes on suddenly. It recommends Arg Nit 30c for aerophobia linked to fear of heights or claustrophobia, and Arsenicum 30c if your real concern is fear of death.
4. Books and a DVD
Conquering your Fear of Flying (Newleaf) is by Dr Maeve Byrne Crangle, a psychologist employed by Aer Lingus, who recommends stress-management techniques to defuse anxieties during flight.
Flying without Fear (Macroteach) is by Captain Keith Godfrey, a former BA pilot who aims to normalise flight, debunking popular myths and providing the facts about flight.
The Nervous Passenger's Guide to Flying (RAW92) is by ex-RAF fighter-pilot Tug Wilson, who has a masters degree in air safety.
Ask the Pilot: Everything you Need to Know about Air Travel (Riverhead Books), by Patrick Smith, provides straight talk on security and safety, as well as controversial issues and the poetry and drama of aeroplanes.
Fear of Flying is a DVD produced and written by Captain Stacey Chance, an American pilot with 30 years experience who believes that fear of flying is largely caused by ignorance about safety training, maintenance schedules and back-up systems. His award-winning DVD demystifies flying to foster a positive mindset and confidence in airlines.
Download the DVD for $29.95 ( www.fearofflyingdvd.com).
5. Airline day course
British Airways' Fly Without Fear day course (£198 plus VAT) runs throughout the year at nine airports in the UK. As well as presentations by experienced pilots and cabin crew, the day includes pre-course counselling, relaxation training, regular hot drinks and snacks, and a 45-minute flight with one-to-one support from psychologists. Over 20 years, it claims to have helped 45,000 nervous flyers, with a 98 per cent success rate. The biggest step, BA says, is confronting your fear and booking the course (www.aviatours.co.uk; 01252 793250).
Virgin Atlantic offers a similar course, Flying Without Fear (£100 plus VAT), which includes talks by the airline's senior safety crew, practical strategies to cope with fear of flying from a psychotherapist, and a short flight on which you can, if you wish, ask to be accompanied by a friend or relative ( www.flyingwithoutfear.info; 01423 714900).
People with aerophobia may have experienced a particularly turbulent flight or had a near-miss experience, which leads to a conditioned response, explains the clinical psychologist Elaine Iljon Foreman ( www.free2fly.dial.pipex.com. A phobia, she says, is "a pattern of avoidance behaviour that reinforces the anxiety and thus prevents the testing, and invalidating, of the feared prediction of future catastrophes".
CBT is a highly effective, evidence-based, intensive form of counselling that has been shown to have a high success rate in treating phobias of all kinds: with aerophobia, two or three sessions should be enough to enable you to become aware of the relationship between your thoughts and emotions and your behaviour – and then to train yourself to operate in a different way.
To find a therapist near you, contact the British Psychological Society ( www.bps.org.uk).
Neuro-linguistic programming encourages positive thinking and instills self-confidence, partly by erasing fears and unwanted behaviours – using a range of tools including visualisation and the use of imagery. "It is extremely effective in curing people of most phobias," says executive coach Mike Duckett of www.coachingforsuccess.co.uk. "Aerophobia is more complex than most phobias because the causes are so individual and often deeply entrenched. People can develop a fear of flying when they become parents, for example, and then it's about a lot more than the flight itself."
Reframing unpleasant sensations can be highly successful, he says. "Turbulence is a major trigger for fear of flying.Most people find it deeply unpleasant and terrifying. It's possible, though, to see it as a thrill, like riding a roller-coaster or surfing a wave."
Find a coaching psychologist through the British Psychological Society, as before.
This highly effective treatment taps into the unconscious to release the roots of problematical thoughts and beliefs that make flying a white-knuckle experience. Effective hypnotherapy will begin with a session to find out the cause of your fear, and then work "to reset the system and access feelings of relaxation", explains Anne Peacock, a former commercial-airline pilot and Ericksonian hypnotherapist.
Lee Joseph, a Cambridge hypnotherapist and founder of www. newyouhypnotherapy.co.uk, which has 700 therapists listed, says that booking a couple of sessions within a week of a flight is a short-term solution to "whitewash over the problem". A more permanent cure takes longer, he says.
Ready for take-off
Some practical tips before and during the flight:
It may be worth informing the airline of your fear of flying when booking as this information can be passed to the airport staff, who may allow an early check-in or at least reduce queuing and waiting time.
Reduce stress by allowing plenty of time for getting to the airport and writing a checklist of everything you need to carry and do on the day of the journey.
Prepare for delays to your flight and accept that they are a normal part of air travel. Make sure you have plenty of distractions: books, magazines, an MP3/CD player and spare cash for refreshments. Take music that you find calming and focus on breathing more slowly and deliberately when you feel anxious.
If you feel nervous, don't beat yourself up about it! Anyone can feel anxious when they are doing something out of the ordinary. Take aerophobia seriously in a travelling companion: understanding their fears can make a big difference to their flight experience.
If you are feeling really stressed, it may be worth informing the airline, which may be able to provide a quiet room away from crowds and bustle.
However relaxing it may feel initially, alcohol is likely to increase anxiety and irrational behaviour.
If you want to be in the safest seat in the plane, get one at the back, says the journal Popular Mechanics. The report, published in 2007, is based on the findings of 20 plane crashes – though all occurred several decades ago.
Wear your seat belt whenever the sign shows. Turbulence almost never causes aeroplanes to crash. But it is the leading cause of in-flight accidents: 58 injuries every year in the US alone.