A fear of flying limits clients in many facets of their lives

There are some things that have become commonplace in today’s world and air travel has become one of those necessities, not a luxury as it was some 50 years ago. Low-cost carriers have changed the marketplace and with that, our personal and professional lives.

Image

So what happens when there is difficult and frightening news about aircraft incidents that are akin to something out of a Hollywood movie? Take the 6,000-foot drop of a Singapore Airlines plane because of severe turbulence that led to the death of a British man and to tens of passengers suffering head injuries. The drop of the plane caused passengers who were not safely strapped in to hit their heads on the passenger bulkheads above them.

These news stories rarely provide some balance around this frightening story. In reality, such severe turbulence has a probability of close to zero. It is an extremely rare event, not something that happens on an annual basis. Yet news sources pumped out this story with pictures, building and ratcheting up fear in many who would read it. No doubt, those with a fear of flying would have their underlying beliefs triggered, whether those were beliefs of ‘not being good enough (to get through difficult times)’, or ‘not being able to cope’. This story may well have reinforced a negative cognitive feedback loop. In other words, it would have confirmed why flying may be catastrophic for them, thereby holding such individuals into a pattern of fear and avoidance.


Fear of flying

For some people, the fear of flying has been something that they have lived with, meaning that they have found ways to avoid travelling. I have worked with clients whose fear of flying has seen their careers curtailed because they put forward a number of reasons to their bosses why they could not make their work flight. Such behaviours come with a price.

To relieve the underlying flight anxiety, clients have paid a much higher professional price and that has been a loss of self-esteem, self-confidence and the internally self-defeating cognitive re-assertion, that they are ‘not able to cope’. In other words, as Aaron Beck said, they have over-estimated the level of risk and under-estimated their ability to cope.

Such clients have also voiced to me the anticipatory anxiety that seems to creep into their lives as the moment comes close for them to fly out. The sense of dread that slowly starts to dawn on them days or even weeks before the flight. Allied to this are defensive thoughts and actions about the types of medications they can take to stop panic, the anticipatory visit to the doctor to ask for such medications and to the use of this process as a form of re-assurance, a technique that simply re-enforces the risk of flying. Their visits to the GP, in part, give credence and weight to the thought that taking a flight is a life-or-death event for them. Yet, we all know that tens of millions of people a day take flights that end with them reaching their destination unscratched, apart from their credit cards. The simple fact is that flying is much safer than being driven in a car.

As therapists, there are some core elements that we need to consider when working with clients who have a fear of flying. Apart from exploring their core beliefs, the use of relaxation and breathing techniques, developing a mindful approach to their anxiety-causing thoughts and how their anxious thoughts take away the client from actions that lead them towards their goals, (such as new travel experiences in life), need to be worked on. Additionally, therapists should make clients aware of their existing safety behaviours and introducing them to visualisation type ‘exposure’ type activities can really help.

Therapists also need to support their sense of resilience by exploring times in the life of a client when they were able to cope with highly stressful events and when they ‘got through a difficult situation’. Taking time to explore this serves as a benchmark for what the client is capable of doing and with actual evidence demonstrating that they are resilient in many ways . Confidence building therefore underpins these activities allied to the core activity of a graded exposure programme that the client and therapist should work upon.

Lastly, given that the impacts of lockdown still affect so many people with a fear of flying, the sad reality is that so many people still live in their own worlds where their minds can dream of travel, though the sad reality is that their bodies physically remain in the same place.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Image
London, SW7
Image
Written by Fiyaz Mughal, OBE FCMI MBACP
London, SW7

Fiyaz Mughal OBE FCMI MBACP has worked for over 25 years in communities and is a qualified therapist. He specialises in conditions such as generalised anxiety, social phobias, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorders), andpanic disorder and also works with clients to explore the impacts of geographical dislocation, faith, identity and intersectionality.

Show comments
Image

Find a therapist dealing with Phobias

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals