My first experience with fear of flying came when I was eight and my mom had a panic attack on our flight to Puerto Rico. I even wrote a poem about it: I have a knack for packing my backpack / on the plane my mom had a panic attack / and my dad ate a snack / a cookie in fact.
Any undergrad psych major could conclude from this stanza that my mother lost it on the plane while my father sat back and watched the world burn. More importantly, I definitely internalized some of this fear because my primary caretaker was, at that point, a Very Important And All-Knowing Person. So began my lifelong fear of planes, but I shouldn’t blame my mother exclusively. As an anxious human, it is my tendency to imagine death whenever it is possible. Maybe you can relate.
Why are we scared of the safest form of travel?
The most disturbing environment for an anxious person is a highly secured vacuum you must wait in for long stretches of time, with nothing to do but anticipate whatever you’re waiting for to finally occur. The entire flying process is like standing on the starting line of a race for a few hours, then waiting in your heat while they call four groups before yours, then assuming position on the line while someone with a starter pistol lists all the procedures you must follow should you trip and fall and almost die.
But why do we get so fucking terrified of the safest form of travel? Google “plane crash stats” and you’ll find a bunch of Reddit nerds bullet-pointing all the different ways you are more likely to die. Roller Coasters. Lightning. Ripe coconuts falling at a bad time. Your chances of dying in a car crash are 1 in 5,000, whereas the likelihood that you’ll die in a plane crash is 1 in a measly 11 million.
However rare plane crashes or emergency landings may be, it’s the scary stuff that we fixate on most. The availability heuristic messes with our psyche; this is basically a mental shortcut we use to make judgments based on examples in our memory that readily come to mind. In other words, even though US Airways Flight 1549 landed safely in the Hudson River and recruited Tom Hanks for the feel-good feature film Sully, your mind is still going to remember that not-so-goosed-up engine over every other successful flight landing that year. In terms of plane safety, Hollywood and the media don’t do you any favors.
Besides all that, take-off and landing are just plain intense. You’re in a massive aircraft plowing through bouts of wind, storms, and jet streams. You need to pop your ears the entire time (and what if they never pop again?!). Anxious brains aren’t in the wrong. You’re not wrong. It’s not your fault.
But there are active steps you can take to fix the problem. I can happily report that my plane phobia is gone (and so is my mother’s!) and there are helpful remedies worth trying out before you deny yourself what is arguably the greatest opportunity given to mankind in these modern times.