About 20% of people have a fear of flying significant enough to interfere with their ability to fly regularly
While many fearful flyers are able to fly with difficulty or irregularly, only a minority never board a plane
Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, said during her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that she traveled to Washington D.C. “in an airplane” despite her reported anxiety about flying and feeling uncomfortable in enclosed spaces.
Martin N. Seif, a clinical psychologist, anxiety treatment specialist and one of the founders of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, says Ford’s ability to fly despite her fear is “very typical.”
“People who have a fear of flying can fly – they fly with difficulty, they fly irregularly,” said Seif. “Some people fly with great difficulty, some people fly with a lots of pills and medication. Also some people can fly one day and not another.”
Some fearful flyers never board a plane, said Seif: “So for example, I’ve seen about 2,000 fearful flyers in my career, and 10% of these people have never flown at all.”
“The general notion is that 20% of people would say that they have a fear of flying significant enough to interfere with their ability to fly regularly,” said Seif.
CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said the technical term for fear of flying is “aviophobia” and it is often entwined with other fears.
“Fear of enclosed spaces, fear of loss of control, fear of heights,” said Gupta. “It is not a fear of what is happening but a fear of what might happen.”
Seif said there are symptoms of anxiety and symptoms of panic involved in fear of flying.
“In general panic is triggered by odd sensations,” he said. “Weird feelings in your head. Racing heart. GI [gastrointestinal] distress. Tingling arms and legs – jelly legs. And then feelings of impending doom. There are changes in breathing.”
Not ‘just in your head’
A lot of the symptoms of anxiety and panic “are purely biological in the sense that you feel them in your body,” said Seif. “Anxiety is not just in your head. It’s in your head and in your body.”
Anxiety disorders, including fear of flying, have both a genetic component and an environmental component “that is less well-understood.”
“The majority of people who first develop a fear of flying are between the ages of 17 and 30,” he said.
“There’s no way, looking backwards, to know exactly what are the contributing factors,” said Seif, who added that in some cases “traumatic occurrences are a contributing factor in the development of anxiety disorders.”
Researchers, though, are not sure about other environmental factors, such as child-rearing. “If in fact there’s a genetic component, it means that most people who were raised by their biological parents were therefore also raised by anxious parent,” said Seif, adding that this circumstance may also contribute to the development of anxiety. “Researchers have a heck of a time trying to pull apart what’s the genetics and what’s the environmental component,” he said.
Those people who fear flying yet board a plane anyway deal with their anxiety and claustrophobia in a variety of ways but mostly by trying to make the discomfort as tolerable as possible.
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“Some people only fly first class,” he said as an example, while others only fly short distances.
Ultimately, Seif said, many fearful flyers can overcome their fears either on occasion or for the long haul.
Repeated exposure, if done in the “right way,” can help the fear “become lower and lower and gradually become more manageable,” said Seif. “The active ingredient in overcoming any fear but certainly fear of flying is exposure – you need to do it.”