Where does a fear of flying come from and why is it being intensified?

15/07 Where does a fear of flying come from and why is it being intensified?

Many clients ask the same question: “What could cause my phobia? I did fly without any problem before…


First of all, let’s learn about the Amygdala. It’s a small part in our brain, which is responsible for dividing all situations we face in our life into usual and unusual ones. If Amygdala decides that a situation is usual and routine, we react almost in a reflex way and no fear / stress is experienced. As an example – usual driving is a routine situation, and we change the gears and brake for traffic lights automatically, without any fear or panic. By the way, in flight attendants and pilots, the amygdala is operating in the same way. Because after they spend enough time on a plane, the associated sounds, buffets and movements become ordinary and routine. If the amygdala recognizes a situation as an unusual one, we have to use a high-level way of thinking . This process is being passed to another part of brain, which is called “Prefrontal cortex”. The purpose of this “intensive” thinking is, first of all, to decide whether the new, unordinary situation poses a threat for our life. If it is so, it starts operating a healthy defense mechanism, which is called “FEAR”.  Adrenal glands release adrenaline, breathing becomes rapid, we start using more oxygen, our heartbeat is accelerating, arms are sweating, muscles are straining and so on. All of that are normal body processes in case of any danger, and not only in real danger, but also in imagined one.  A mistake of brain operation, which causes an onset of fear of flying, occurs right in prefrontal cortex,  at the moment of High-level thinking. Instead of realizing that something that is happening is just “UNUSUAL”, during one of flights,  the brain starts perceiving some situation as “UNUSUAL and therefore DANGEROUS!”

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This mistake occurs for a variety of reasons, among which are genetics, anxiety, suspiciousness, inability to delegate powers, tiredness, hormones, and also some other different external and internal factors. In one simple word, a failure occurs. The next link of flying phobia development mechanism is a perception of the fear itself as one more unusual situation, posing a threat. A person, who panics aboard for the first time in the life, starts thinking that such situation is “UNUSUAL, and therefore DANGEROUS”. Altogether, we already have as many as two “dangers”, instead of one unusual situation, which is being taken by brain functioning in the right way. I’ll give an example: During approach to landing, sometimes a plane “goes around”. It is an absolutely natural and standard situation, which occurs in about 1% of all flights. If brain works in a proper way, for example, a situation of going around is taken as “unusual”, but it doesn’t mean it’s “DANGEROUS”. At the beginning of flying phobia development, a person can see a threat in an unexpected go-around procedure, and another threat in physiology and emotion of the fear that is being felt. Thoughts look like these ones: “we couldn’t land, that means something is wrong, maybe there is a problem with the landing gear extension, what a horror, we’re about to die, while children are waiting for us at home…”, and on top of that “I’m so scared, my heart is pounding, I can die of the fear or to loose my mind and self-control….”. Such way of thinking leads to double-release of adrenaline, and everything repeats again, but twice harder. The higher is the adrenaline level in blood, the greater attention you pay to different sounds and movements, keep seeing some danger when it doesn’t really exist. Of course, as a consequence of that, your adrenaline level is increasing more and more, thus intensifying your psychological and physiological discomfort. After having such flight an overwhelming majority of people start doing 2 things: 1. It begins a selective collecting of information. We notice only those messages, which can confirm our fears, and ignore the facts, which refute them.

Fear of flying has nothing to do with flight safety!

2. It begins an avoidance behavior, in other words a person tends to fly as rarely as possible, and this is the main problem of any phobia. Just because of flight avoidance your Amygdala won’t ever have a chance of learning to take a flight as a routine and ordinary occurrence. More rarely you fly, more unusually your brain perceives a situation in case of some necessary flight, more stress you feel while being aboard.

So what should you do? First of all – to realize that:

  • As many as 1 in 4  people in the world are afraid to fly. 
  • Aerophobia is related not to the higher risk in aviation, but to the way you think and behave
  • Although it often seems like “nothing can cure fear of flying” – fear of flying is well treatable. Hundreds of thousands overcame it.  
  • Since you’ve simply LEARNED to fear flying, you can also LEARN how NOT to fear it.



Alex Gervash

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