Why fear of flying is just plane stupid

Treat it as the irrational terror it truly is and travelling will be a breeze, one expert tells air phobic Tim Walker

Statistically speaking, every row of three seats on a commercial aeroplane contains at least one passenger who'd really rather not be there. Their clammy palms grip the armrests on take-off; their eyes search frantically for a reassuring smile from the nearest stewardess; they eschew any of the inflight entertainment system's tense action movies in favour of gentle rom-coms or cartoons about friendly animals.

This passenger, depending on my mood and the number of alcoholic beverages I've consumed in the departure lounge – is me. Fear of flying has never actually prevented me travelling anywhere, but it has frequently impaired my enjoyment of the journey. Until recently, I was able to relax between the take-off and final descent, confident that these were the only potentially hairy moments of a flight – and that planes never just, say, fall out of the sky halfway across the Atlantic. Then Air France Flight 447 fell out of the sky halfway across the Atlantic. Myself and the rest of the clammy-palmed one in three suddenly found ourselves thinking twice about our summer holiday plans.

It's control freakery, really; I don't know how planes work, so entrusting my existence to a tube of metal with flaps is a leap of faith, and a half-hearted one. I don't know how cars work either, but at least I know how to drive one. And I'm of the opinion that, should something go wrong while I'm speeding down the A31 in my mum's Mazda, I have at least a 50/50 chance of survival. If something goes wrong in a plane, not only are my prospects approximately nil, but I'll also have a minutes-long fall of 30,000 feet or so in which to mull over my imminent demise.

The media doesn't help. Most car accidents need to cause multiple fatalities just to make the local bulletins, but plane crashes fill the rolling news for days even if everyone makes it out alive. Images from 9/11 or the opening scenes of Lost flash across my consciousness every time I listen to the safety announcement (Oh yes, I listen. I listen hard. Don't you?)

Professor Robert Bor is here to help. One of the authors of a new book, Overcome Your Fear of Flying, Bor is not only a renowned clinical psychologist; he's also a qualified pilot. My fears, he tells me, are irrational. "In the 1920s it was a rational fear, because air accident rates were high, mortality rates were high, even the chances of witnessing an air crash were high.

"In life there's always some kind of risk," he goes on, "but nowadays you have a greater chance of being kicked to death by a donkey than anything happening to you in an air crash. Yet people still project incidents and apply them to themselves. There have been two serious crashes recently, and people immediately assume there will be more and more and they'll be affected. They overestimate the risk; that fear is now irrational."

Of course, statistics do little to calm an irrational anxiety, which is why Bor's book, and his cognitive behavioural therapy-based treatments, focus not on the familiar fact that the drive to the airport is more dangerous than the flight, but on, he says, "the thoughts and sensations that people experience when they're anxious to the point of being phobic.

"The traditional approach to treating fear of flying was to help people understand the statistics, and teach them how aircraft actually fly. But appealing to people's rational side is only helpful for some. The sort of people who go on a one-day fear of flying course hosted by an airline have quite low levels of anxiety; they don't like being on aircraft but don't avoid it. We tend to treat people who are too distressed to fly at all."

Bor, whose academic research is complemented by clinical work with sufferers, has some simple hints for anyone dreading their flights this holiday season – during which he regularly sees a spike in fear of flying. I think he's just about convinced me not to take the Eurostar.

Don't avoid flying

"We try to make ourselves feel safer by avoiding things," says Bor, "but it doesn't help to deal with your problem. Avoiding flying can inhibit your career if your work involves travel. It can affect relationships: most people want to go on holiday, many of them abroad. And some family events require us to travel.

"You shouldn't avoid it because it's such a treatable problem. Fears and phobias have one of the highest success rates for treatment of any psychological problems. If you're willing to give it a bit of time, you ought to be able to fly comfortably. You may still be gripping the armrests, but at least you'll get to Majorca."

Think about the destination, not the journey

"Focus on the positive reasons for taking your flight," says Bor. "Perhaps you're going on holiday, visiting family or friends or just doing your job well. These all give you a purpose for taking your flight and added motivation to overcome your fear and move forward with your life."

Challenge your negative thoughts

Not a huge fan of turbulence? Me neither. But, says Bor, "that's where a little bit of education can help. Turbulence arises because of air currents, that's all. People might be alarmed by the sensation and worry about the structural integrity of the aircraft, but technically speaking it's a non-issue.

"However, turbulence is a 'trigger event'; it switches on people's anxiety. It's uncomfortable, but fearful passengers translate that into danger – and there's a big difference between discomfort and danger. You might spill your hot coffee, but the plane isn't going to fall apart ... It's important to identify such negative thoughts while flying and question them."

Learn relaxation and distraction techniques

"When you start having negative feelings during a flight, redirect this energy," advises Bor. "Focus on the external environment: for example, strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger or watch the crew as they go about their duties. Do something which will distract you from the negative thoughts, such as listening to your iPod, reading a book or watching a film.

"If you start to feel unsettled, sit back, fix your line of sight on the seat back ahead or something in the distance and breathe deeply in through your nose for five seconds and slowly out of your mouth for five seconds. Your heart rate will decrease almost immediately and within a minute or two, you will start to relax."

Talk to the cabin crew

The simplest way to make sure that loud whirring sound is perfectly normal is to check that the cabin crew are still serving teas. "Cabin crew are trained to support fearful flyers and very willing to help," says Bor. "When you board the plane, tell one of the crew you are anxious about flying. Outing yourself is very positive, because otherwise you become ashamed of it – suffering in silence makes it worse. Tell them how they can help: by dropping by to reassure you the flight is proceeding normally, by explaining unfamiliar noises, or by reminding you to use relaxation or distraction techniques. If you're travelling with someone who knows you are anxious flyer, tell them how you plan to manage your fear and ask them to help."

Stay hydrated

Unfortunately, Bor advises against my method of getting drunk to induce sleep or emotional levity. "People use alcohol, medication, recreational drugs, but although they may allay some symptoms of fear briefly, they actually tend to intensify the problem. Alcohol has a different effect at altitude and with low humidity. One glass of wine on the plane is equivalent to nearly two on the ground. You get drunk more quickly, but even if you doze off for 20 minutes, your anxiety levels may increase afterwards. So you start to drink more and more to overcome the problem.

"Before and during the flight, it's important to keep blood sugar levels up. Stick to water and juices to keep hydrated and remember to eat little and often to maintain your energy, which can help control anxiety levels. Rest if you can, though sleep is not essential."

Plan ahead

Set yourself achievable goals, says Bor, such as starting with short-haul flights before taking that ambitious trip to the South Pacific. And you should also practice relaxation on the ground.

"If you wait until you're in a stressful situation to learn relaxation, it's not as effective. Learn which techniques work for you before flying. You'll then be able to invoke them much more easily when you need them. Remember, you can't just click your fingers and magically never have to worry again. But if you give it time, the chances of overcoming your fears are incredibly high."

'Overcome Your Fear of Flying' by Professor Robert Bor, Dr Carina Eriksen and Margaret Oakes, Sheldon Press, £7.99

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