Flying without fear: How to overcome a phobia of air travel

The fear of flying affects up to 30 per cent of people, but a severe phobia to the extent of avoiding air travel completely affects only 2 to 3 per cent of the population. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
The fear of flying affects up to 30 per cent of people, but a severe phobia to the extent of avoiding air travel completely affects only 2 to 3 per cent of the population. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Research into plane accidents can help dispel fear and so can pills and breathing exercises

After Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing in March, teacher Lim Shu Ling begged her travel companions to rework their plans for an upcoming holiday to Europe.

That trip next month would have involved five flights within the continent. Ms Lim, 29, managed to convince her friends to limit it to just one flight and travel instead by train to 10 cities in Italy, France and Scotland.

"I've always had a massive fear of flying and every air disaster frightens me so much," says Ms Lim. "I've tried many ways to overcome it but I always break out in a cold sweat on flights. Once, when turbulence was really bad during take-off, I started crying in my seat."

The high-profile disappearance of the Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight in March - as well as other recent plane malfunctions reported in the news - has intensified the fears of many already-anxious fliers.

Dr Adrian Wang, a consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, says it is natural for air crashes to trigger some degree of anxiety among most people who travel.

"Because it is a large-scale crisis involving multiple casualties and is constantly reported in the news media, it stays in people's consciousness for a longer time than usual," he says.

He adds that, while psychiatrists do not see a spike in patients seeking treatment for a phobia of flying after an air crash, many generally anxious or depressed patients will display heightened anxiety and want to talk about it.

He says that being apprehensive about flying is very common, affecting up to 30 per cent of people. "I have a fear of flying myself. It's a mild fear - not that bad - but it's still there," says the 48-year-old. "But a severe fear of flying to a degree that air travel has to be completely avoided is less common and affects only 2 to 3 per cent of the general population."

Dr Shrikant Srivastava, a consultant at the Institute of Mental Health's department of general psychiatry agrees, saying that "only a minority of patients" seek psychiatric consultation for their fear.

He adds: "These patients have most likely harboured the phobia for a long time and consultation with a specialist only happens when it significantly affects their lives or at the insistence of their partner or spouse."

Chronically nervous fliers have found their own ways of dealing with their fears so that they can still take flights.

Ms Olivia Cain, who works in digital marketing, says she has had a fear of flying for more than 10 years.

"The lack of control is what is scary - it's hard to tell what's going on when you hear noises or feel bumps," says the 26-year-old Danish national who works here but flies to Denmark at least four times a year to visit her family.

To reduce her anxiety, she makes sure she has sufficient rest before a flight so she can mentally prepare for it. It also helps to inform the flight attendants about her fears.

"I tell them I'm a nervous flier and ask if they can come visit me in my seat if I buzz them. Usually, they are really supportive and some even bring candy or tea to help put me at ease.

"If I just sit there, my anxiety intensifies, so it really helps to have someone talk me out of it."

Airlines give flight attendants specific training on how to manage such passengers. A Jetstar Asia spokesman says that its crew is trained to provide comfort and assistance to passengers who need help, including those who are anxious fliers.

For Mr Rodney Tan, 63, his fear of flying that developed after a particularly bumpy flight to New Zealand more than 10 years ago became so debilitating that he refused to step foot on a plane, rejecting all business trips.

The managing director of an oil and gas company sought medical help unsuccessfully, until two years ago, when a psychiatrist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital diagnosed him with severe anxiety. He was prescribed anxiety pills.

A month after taking them, he decided to take a short trip to Bangkok with his wife to see if they worked. They did and he now flies every month for both work and leisure.

"It's a complete turn-around and my colleagues have all been very surprised. Some of them are now trying to stop me from travelling so much," he says with a laugh.

He says he will be on the medication indefinitely. "After a while, I thought I could stop the pills and be fine, but after a week of not taking them, the phobia of flying came back," he says. "Now, I take them every day because I decided that at my age, I should not have to go through so much trouble just to get on an aeroplane."

Dr Wang says the fear of flying is a "very treatable condition", but requires quite some effort on the part of the sufferer. He and Dr Srivastava both recommend that people with severe fears seek out cognitive behavioural therapy, which involves understanding the triggers for anxiety and developing more logical coping responses.

Dr Wang adds: "Learning to relax is important. Simple breathing exercises help, but you can also reduce stress on the day you're travelling by packing early and getting to the airport on time."

Learning about the science of flying - knowing why modern aeroplanes are safe and that turbulence is not dangerous when your seatbelt is fastened - can also help anxious travellers get rid of catastrophic thoughts, he says.

This sort of research into plane disasters, although initially terrifying, was what helped Ms Cain get a handle on her fear. "With all the pilots being interviewed for the news coverage of those air disasters, it actually helped me understand flying and safety more, and how unlikely it actually is for something to go wrong with a flight," she says.

jennanid@sph.com.sg

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