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Don’t Let Fear of Flying Ruin Your Vacation

For many people the bucolic vision of basking in the Caribbean sunshine, trekking through Yellowstone, or strolling through Ghirardelli Square is preceded by anticipatory dread and anxiety–fear of flying! Since 911, people’s fears, frustrations, and worries have understandably been heightened by increased security at airports. As TSA officials scrutinize, “wand” and otherwise invade your personal space with blue, latexed-hands that pat down areas of your body typically reserved for your most intimate relationships. There’s no question that terrorism has added a new dimension of apprehension to flying.

In the good old days before security checks, fear of flying was confined to the usual plane-related phenomena such as turbulence, delays, germs and questions like, “How can I survive not having a cigarette for five hours?” If you’re a “white-knuckler,” no one has to remind you of the reasons why you’d rather drive or walk to your vacation destination than fly—and many people do just that. Next time you fly, before you plan to anesthetize yourself with alcohol or Xanax, let me suggest a simple shift in perspective that might reduce (and possibly eliminate) your fear of flying.

First, know that your fear of flying has nothing to do with flying. As one patient quipped to me, “It’s not the flying; it’s the crashing that scares me.” Joking aside, if fear of flying isn’t about flying—or about crashing—then what else is there? The answer has to do with control. Control with a capital “C.” In order to understand how wanting to be in control can generate uncontrollable fear, let me offer you some background.

I learned in high school biology that all organisms try to avoid pain and find pleasure. Makes sense, right? In my thirty-plus years of private practice I’ve come to recognize that we humans have another instinctual imperative—we abhor being out of control and will do just about anything in our power to stay in control. Most of the time wanting to be in control is not only healthy, it’s smart. Wearing seat belts, taking vitamins, or jogging to stay fit are all preventive attempts to maintain control over realistic life concerns. But there’s another type of control, not generated by factual life concerns, but by fictions  of insecurity. These are typically worry-thoughts preceded by “what if.” In the case of flying, “What if we hit turbulence, how will I handle it?” Or, “What if I have a panic attack?” Worrying is the quintessential form of trying to control life.

Concern vs. Worry

You begin to “what-if” a situation in order to anticipate, predict or prepare for what’s ahead. Why? Because you’ve convinced yourself that if you know what’s coming before it happens you’ll be in a better position to handle it. The problem is that with all forms of insecurity and worry, you’re not reacting to actual circumstances (facts) but to fictions. Things that may happen are not facts. And when it comes to fear of flying, the “things” you’re reacting to are projections of negativity and chaos. You might ask, “But isn’t wearing a seat belt anticipating chaos?” The answer is no and it has to do with understanding the difference between concern and worry.

Concern deals with facts, worry with fictions. You may be concerned about automobile safety because of the statistics you’ve read: wearing a seatbelt is a legitimate and reasonable response. Worry, on the other hand, would have you buckling up because you’re convinced that you were going to have an accident. This is neither legitimate nor reasonable. Bottom line: concern doesn’t project negatives, worry does. The first step in liberating yourself from fear of flying is understanding that worry is a projection of insecurity that anticipates things going wrong (we don’t worry about things going right).

You can begin to challenge a worry habit (yes, it’s a habit) by simply asking: “Is what I’m fearing a fact or a fiction?” Okay, but what if telling yourself that running up and down the aisle of a plane screaming with a panic attack is a fiction, but the thought still frightens you? After all, “What if…?” Obviously, separating facts from fictions isn’t enough—you’re going to have to take this a step further. And that’s where an understanding of control comes in.

Assuming you’ve done your homework and you’ve managed to separate out the facts of your fear from the fictions, you must now establish that your “fictions” aren’t about real-life events, as you’ll see in a moment, they’re about your tentative connection with Self-trust—your ability to believe you can handle life’s challenges. Saying this differently, it’s not about flying, it’s all about feeling that you will be in a situation where you are out of control. I’ve had more than a few patients tell me that if they were flying the plane, they would be perfectly fine. After all, they would be controlling things.

Somewhere in your life’s journey, you’ve lost trust (in self or in life). Because of the lack of self-trust, you’ve begun to compensate by using various strategies of control (like worrying).  Obviously, worrying (anxiety) doesn’t change anything, but it makes you feel like you’re at least doing something—you’re trying to prepare for chaos! Which brings us to the crucial fear-of-flying-eradicator: learning to risk trust.


Before discussing the necessity of risking trust (both self and life trust), let’s define it. Simply put, trust is a willingness to believe that you can handle what life brings your way. Unfortunately, trust isn’t something you can prove. You can’t, for example, prove that you’ll be fine at 37,000 feet when your plane hits a bit of turbulence. But you can take a risk, a leap of faith, by letting go of insecurity’s rumblings and ruminations and insist—risk—believing that one way or another you’ll handle what life throws at you. In contrast, worrying sensitizes you and sets you up to be anxious. It’s critically important for you to understand that flight-day anxiety begins, not when you step on board the plane, but in the days and weeks prior to your flight when you allow yourself to swim with incessant, ruminative worrying.

You probably already know that worry does absolutely nothing to protect you and only hypnotizes you into feeling panicky and anxious. There’s no argument that letting go of worrying and risking trust just makes more sense, “I’m not going to worry about my flight. Whatever happens, I’ll handle it.” This is trusting. Okay, maybe you want to risk trusting, but you’re just not feeling it. First off, recognize that distrust is your current habit. It’s what feels natural. Letting go of worry and fear will seem unnatural (and scary)! This isn’t unusual nor does it need to be a problem. Keep in mind that breaking any habit will feel very unnatural at first. Bottom line, if you’re a worrier, it’s not going to feel natural for you to trust—not at first.

Starting today, begin to recognize the many possibilities each day where you can begin to exercise your trust muscle and build more confidence along with a “willingness to believe.” Choosing what to order on a menu, what DVD to rent at Blockbuster, or what color blouse or shirt to wear can all become mini-experiments where you don’t over-think or intellectualize or worry. Stop thinking What if I make the wrong choice? Instead, practice going with your gut. Risk trusting yourself. In this experimenting, what’s important isn’t making the right choice (as you grow in trust this will happen), it’s simply making the choice and trusting that whatever the outcome, you will handle it! This is the key to our experiment, proving that you don’t have to control outcomes, you don’t have to know what’s coming before it arrives, and you don’t have to fear being unable to handle life’s challenges.

Getting Ready to Fly

You’ve been practicing risking trust. You’ve learned that you can handle making “mistakes”–picking the wrong thing on the menu, DVD, or blouse for work–and survive. Now it’s time for the final leap of faith that can transform your flying experience:

1.)    Begin by separating facts from fictions—keep in mind feelings aren’t facts.

2.)   Recognize the difference between worries and concerns.

3.)    Starting today, begin practicing letting go of worrisome insecurity (one thought at a time) by telling yourself (as often as necessary), “I do not need to anticipate, speculate, or worry—I need to get on that plane and trust that whatever happens, I’ll handle it in the moment.” Bottom line: don’t be on that plane until you’re on that plane–stop projecting insecurity forward.

The key to making the above work is learning that you can trust. You need to let go and trust your instinctual, intuitional ability to handle life, all life, as it unfolds in the moment. You do NOT have to prepare yourself for “what ifs!” If you’re willing to take the leap, if you’re willing to understand that worrying actually makes you feel more vulnerable, and if you’re willing to let life unfold without trying to control outcomes, then you have a realistic opportunity to sit back and enjoy the exhilaration and magic of flying.

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