Updated 24 July 2014

Afraid of flying?

According to statistics, at least one in four people reading this have a fear of flying. For business travellers, it can be a real problem – and one that never gets easier.

According to statistics, at least one in four people reading this have a fear of flying. For business travellers, it can be a real problem – and one that never gets easier. There may be hope, though.

Few people look forward to getting onto an aircraft. Sure, skydivers can’t wait to fling themselves out into the rush of wind and adrenaline. People flying to loved ones have their own reasons for strapping themselves in.

But for most people it’s a drag, checking it, getting an elbow in the eye, sitting bored for hours, then hoping your baggage has gone to the same destination as you have. And regular news reports on airline crashes do little to make life easier for those with a phobia of flying.

The recent spate of air disasters has not only struck fear into the heart of travellers, but also taken its toll on those who spend their lives in the air.

Cabin crew across the world are reported to have been severely shaken by mysteries like MH370 and tragedies like MH17 which they have little to no control over.

A Malaysian Airlines crew member who spoke anonymously to the New Zealand Herald said that several of her colleagues had recently pulled out of flights at the last minute due to anxiety.

Airliners safer than cars

Truth be told, you’re much safer in an airliner than in your car. In the US, you’re nearly 40 times safer in the sky than on the road, even though hurtling through the sky in an aluminium tube is a decidedly unnatural activity.

The prospect of a holiday may be enough to entice some people who fear flying enough to hand over their boarding pass. For many others, a drink or two at the airport is enough to settle their nerves. Others find themselves holding strangers’ hands when the aircraft takes off, lands or encounters turbulence.

Flying and panic attacks

But there’s another category, for whom the mere prospect of flying is enough to trigger panic attacks.

For many of these people, air travel has held such terror that they find alternatives – train, bus, you name it. It’s also been found that the number of people who can’t set foot aboard an airliner increased since the September 11 attacks way back in 2001.

Would that the impact of smoking – first- and second-hand – had such a deterrent effect on people, the world would be a lot healthier.

Terrorism, aside, it’s worth understanding the degrees of fear outlined above and how age and gender affect it.

Gender affects fear of flying

It seems women and men fear flying for different reasons: the BBC reports that the clinics run by a number of major airlines to help people deal with their fears are helping broaden this knowledge.

The Beeb quoted Lucas van Gerwen, a psychologist from the University of Leiden in Holland, and revealed that men are most afraid of the aircraft not being properly controlled. They also fear heights.

Women, on the other hand, are more likely to fear the aircraft crashing, or of becoming hysterical if the aircraft were hijacked.

Older people fear heights

Van Gerwen is part of the VALK Foundation, a research collaboration between Leiden University, the airline KLM and Schiphol Airport. His interviews of 5000 people who fear flying showed that older people’s fear of flying has more to do with a fear of heights than fear of terrorist attack or even concerns about airline food.

Increasingly, airlines offer one-day courses (they prefer not to call them crash-courses) to help allay peoples' fears. The VALK foundation operates one at Schiphol airport and others are planned.

And for those so terrified of flying that they’d rather walk, other help may be on the way. Scientists have identified the parts of the brain that help you “unlearn” your fears, the BBC says.

Unlearn your fears

Researchers at New York University reported in the journal Neuron that the amygdala and the ventral prefrontal medial cortex are active when people are learning to overcome their fears.

They discovered this by giving volunteers magnetic resonance scanning (MRI) while giving them mild electric shocks.

By showing the volunteers a shape and shocking them at the same time, the researchers instilled a fear of that particular shape (not to mention a fear of researchers).

They then decreased and eventually stopped shocking the volunteers while showing them the shape, helping them disassociate the shape with the fear of shocks.

Seat of fear discovered

While all this was going on, the researchers noted activity in the amygdala and the ventral prefrontal medial cortex, which indicates that these parts of the brain are linked with overcoming fears.

It all sounds vaguely sadistic, but in time it’s likely to lead to new ways in which airline passengers can be coaxed into sitting upright for hours at a time, all for the sake of seeing exotic places with or without their luggage.

Read more:

Is it a fear, or is it a phobia?
When the brain knows no fear
Staying mobile while on a flight


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.