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How to Conquer Your Fear of Flying

Beat the anxiety that keeps so many travelers grounded

A female passenger on a plane grips the seat armrest from fear of flying

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En español | It was the flight from hell, with turbulence so severe that passengers were losing their lunch. The four-hour journey from Ben Kaminow's home in New York City to Cancun, Mexico, left him so shaken that, aside from flying back — “It was the only way to get home,” he says — the 53-year-old bond trader didn't step on a plane again for eight years. “I was always a nervous flier, but this was the worst flight I'd ever been on,” he recalls.

He missed weddings, dream vacations and other seminal life events because he'd grounded himself.

Kaminow is hardly alone; 6.5 percent of Americans — more than 20 million people — suffer from fear of flying, or aviophobia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This may force those with the condition to pass up family reunions, bucket-list trips or job opportunities. Millions more try to throttle their phobia with tranquillizers or alcohol, and white-knuckle it while airborne. Many spend the weeks before a flight consumed by tidal waves of anticipatory anxiety.

In their saner moments, nervous fliers know that their fears are irrational. It's hands down the safest way to travel. You've probably heard the numbers: The car ride to the airport is far more treacherous, and the odds of being killed in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million.

The good news is that there are numerous programs across the country that can help anxious fliers reprogram their negative thoughts. You can find them at airports or through therapists, working either individually or in group sessions. The final step often entails taking a short flight.

"The aim is to get people emotionally OK with being on the plane, even though they don't have any control or way to escape,” says Tom Bunn, a licensed therapist who spent more than 30 years in the cockpit and the author of the new book Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia. He now runs a fear-of-flying program called Soar, which includes up to nine hours of videos with exercises, along with two hours of counseling by phone, and culminates with participants hopping on a plane.

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Kaminow had tried everything, even hypnosis, until he discovered Bunn's program and released his paralyzing anxieties. “He gave me a calming routine that works,” he says. Kaminow now flies regularly, with a routine. He introduces himself to the pilots and lets the flight attendants know he's a nervous traveler, he sits on the aisle near the front, and he uses a series of mental exercises to connect flying with pleasurable experiences that stop him from panicking if the plane hits bumps. “I've learned to manage my fears,” Kaminow says.

Here's what you need to know to manage yours.

Why We Fear Flying

Although this is a common phobia, people are afraid of flying for a variety of reasons. Some, like Kaminow, are tortured by the memory of a terribly turbulent episode that made them worry the plane would crash. Others agonize over thoughts of terrorism or a mechanical failure, so every inexplicable sound induces dread. Many are claustrophobic and become panic-stricken at the thought of being trapped inside a silver tube for hours with no means of escape.

Some genuinely suffer from actual anxiety disorders — that constant restlessness and catastrophizing that the worst will happen. They fret about exposure to germs in such a confined space, or they're afraid of heights and of being too far up in the air, or that they'll have a panic attack on the plane and make fools of themselves by screaming down the aisle or trying to kick in the window.

Soar encourages people to connect flying with a pleasurable experience, so instead of releasing the fight-or-flight stress hormones, they produce oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, throughout the journey.

"While people have all kinds of reasons why they don't like to fly, the primary one that affects about 60 to 70 percent of fearful fliers is that they suffer from a panic disorder,” says Martin Seif, an anxiety treatment specialist in New York and Connecticut who counsels nervous air travelers and is coauthor of What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Anxiety Disorders. “They're afraid that they're going to get on a plane and start to feel terrible [and] uncomfortable and they can't do anything about it."

This irrational fear response stems from the amygdala, a walnut-size structure at the base of the brain responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight stress hormones that kept our ancestors out of danger. It can be unnecessarily active in this modern age (when predators are few), which is why it's important to understand people's particular triggers so they can reprogram their thinking.

Overcoming the Fear

Ironically, the various rituals we employ to calm ourselves — wearing a lucky shirt, fortifying ourselves with alcohol — may be making the anxiety worse. “These coping mechanisms may provide a little benefit, but over time it reinforces the fear,” says David Carbonell, a Chicago-based psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders who conducts workshops for fearful fliers.

Soar encourages people to connect flying with a pleasurable experience, so instead of releasing the fight-or-flight stress hormones, they produce oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, throughout the journey. A mother, for instance, might associate being on a plane with nursing her child, but someone else might focus on a romantic interlude or an especially memorable day with friends. “We're tapping into how we're wired and bring into play ways we're genetically programmed to respond calmly to potentially fear-inducing situations,” Bunn explains. “People with a full-blown problem really need to train their calming system to kick in when they need it.”

Similarly, Carbonell conducts weekend sessions that map out an individualized plan of action focused on each person's particular triggers, and includes breathing exercises to short-circuit panic attacks. “The group will get on a regular scheduled flight going to a city an hour away — St. Louis or Kansas City — and then take the next flight back to Chicago,” Carbonell says. “This gives people practice working through their fears with a lot of support.”

These classes can be life-changing. Sarah Campbell, a New England resident in her late 50s, was so crippled by her claustrophobia that she didn't get on a plane for more than 29 years. If she and her husband wanted to travel, they'd spend days driving or taking the train. Going to places like Bermuda, which was on her spouse's bucket list, was out of the question. But when her daughter moved to Chicago, Campbell knew she had to come to grips with her fear, so she did the Soar program in the fall of 2014.

"Now we've been to Bermuda four times, we're going to the tropics for Christmas, and we're already planning our trip to Chicago when my daughter finishes graduate school,” Campbell says. “The world has opened up. It's very empowering and exciting."

For more information, contact the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, which has compiled a list of resources for fearful fliers that includes fear-of-flying programs across the country.

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