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Confessions of a nervous flier

The odds of dying in a airplane crash are very low. But our minds are hard-wired to flee -- impossible on a plane.

Story highlights

  • The disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 has made some nervous fliers more nervous
  • Statistics are on the flier's side: More people die in car accidents than in airplane crashes
  • Even eating is more dangerous -- you're more likely to die by choking on your dinner

I'm a little nervous about flying right now.

You can guess why. An airplane takes off from Malaysia's main airport and disappears. An international coalition of countries has been searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 for more than a week without success. How does an airplane disappear?

Closer to home, a U.S. Airways flight blows a tire on takeoff and smartphone pictures show the plane's nose hitting the ground. Fortunately, the pilot manages to land without seriously injuring anyone. A Delta Air Lines aircraft loses a panel on one of its wings during a flight from Orlando, Florida, to Atlanta. It also lands safely. These scary-sounding mishaps are smaller reminders that things can and do go wrong

Despite how rare airline accidents are, many travelers get nervous when major -- and even relatively minor -- incidents occur. It's not rational thinking. The odds of dying in an airplane crash are really low.

There were 35.1 million commercial flights worldwide, and 15 fatal accidents with 414 fatalities in 2012, the last full year for which the International Air Transport Association has Ascend Flightglobal data.

And the odds are even better if you only flew within the United States: There were no airline fatalities in the U.S. in 2012, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

You know you're more likely to die in a car crash. More than 33,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2012 in the United States alone. Also specific to the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 2012 Traffic Safety Facts Data reports a fatality rate of 1.14 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Over the course of your lifetime, you're more likely to die by killing yourself (1 in 106), drowning (1 in 1,112) or choking on your food (1 in 3,842), according to the National Safety Council.

Now that we know all that data, why do air disasters still unnerve us?

The mind was built to flee

From an evolutionary perspective, the mind's primary objective is to look out for anything that might harm us and avoid it at all costs, says Julie Pike, a psychologist at the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Durham, North Carolina. This has helped people live longer for thousands of years, she says.

This discomfort over this latest airline incident reminds us how little control we have over many aspects of our lives.

"We like to be able to see, hear and control where we're going and what we're doing; we like situations in which we believe we could make an exit if necessary, grab the wheel, or jump out of the way," says Pike, via e-mail. "With flying, that's impossible."

This is one weird airline mystery

Commercial airline pilot and aviation author Patrick Smith says the intense media coverage causes people to lose track of the fact that, despite occasional tragedies, commercial flying has never been safer than it is right now.

"Worldwide, the trend over the past several years has been one of steady improvement, to the point where last year was the safest in the entire history of commercial aviation," says Smith, who blogs about air travel at askthepilot.com, via e-mail. "Hopefully their number continues to diminish, but a certain number of accidents will always be inevitable."

"In some ways, the weirdness of the Malaysia Airlines story speaks to how well we have engineered away what once were the most common causes of crashes. Those that still occur tend to be more mysterious and strange than in decades past."

Airline fatalities are rare, but the possibility is still scary. What can we do about it?

Face your fear

Don't try to run from the fear, suggests Pike. "Rather than trying to control the plane, work on accepting the desire to control it," she says.

"Thank your mind for trying to protect you. Focus on simply noticing the thoughts, feelings and sensations without attaching to them or trying to make them go away."

Tell the crew you're scared, suggests flight attendant Heather Poole, author of "Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpad, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet."

"If we know you're scared, we'll go out of our way to be reassuring if the airplane does encounter a few bumps," says Poole, via e-mail. "We'll update you on whatever information the captain passes along to us regarding delays, mechanicals, weather or turbulence. I've gone as far as to sit in an empty seat beside someone and hold their hand."

Poole, who's been a flight attendant for 18 years, suggests passengers who hate turbulence sit close to the cockpit -- the front of the plane isn't as bumpy as the rear. Passengers can also download the MyRadar app to track the bumpy weather.

Or how about a prayer? Artist's Way author Julia Cameron writes out prayers for her specific fears of flying: takeoff, turbulence and landing. She also takes a nice stack of gossip magazines: "Buy tabloids. Celebrity gossip is engrossing. Celebrity cellulite can make you forget turbulence."

      Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

    • nr intv moni basu husbands quiet suffering flight 370_00020822.jpg

      His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
    • This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.

      Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
    •  A crew member of a Royal New Zealand Airforce (RNZAF) P-3K2-Orion aircraft helps to look for objects during the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in flight over the Indian Ocean on April 13, 2014 off the coast of Perth, Australia. S

      What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
    • Caption:A Chinese relative of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 uses a lighter as she prays at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. AFP PHOTO/WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

      Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
    • The painstaking search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 got a vote of confidence Friday that the effort is headed in the right direction, but officials noted that much work remains.
Credit: 	CNN

      Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
    • INDIAN OCEAN (April 14, 2014) -- Operators aboard ADF Ocean Shield move U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 into position for deployment, April 14. Using side scan sonar, the Bluefin will descend to a depth of between 4,000 and 4,500 meters, approximately 35 meters above the ocean floor. It will spend up to 16 hours at this depth collecting data, before potentially moving to other likely search areas. Joint Task Force 658 is currently supporting Operation Southern Indian Ocean, searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Blair/RELEASED)

      The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
    • Movie-makers say they have recruited leading Hollywood technicians to bring their experience to mid-air flight sequences.

      Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
    • The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.