What Causes Fear of Flying?

by Dave Carbonell, PhD

Understanding what causes fear of flying can point you to the best path to recovery. Here's a brief explanation of the cause of fear of flying.

Experiencing a "Bad Flight"

You might have experienced a "bad flight" which caused fear of flying. This might have been strong turbulence during a flight, or some other experience you considered to be a "close call", like an emergency landing or change in planes due to mechanical problems.

If your fear of flying has more to do with claustrophobia and panic attacks on the airplane, your fear of flying might have been caused by a day of long delays and uncomfortable waits on board the plane prior to taking off.

Hearing about Bad Events

It isn't always an actual flight experience that causes fear of flying. You might not have actually experienced a bad flight yourself, but were troubled by hearing about such events.

The heavy media coverage of an airplane crash often causes people to become afraid. Crashes are extremely rare, and so they usually get an enormous amount of media coverage. Many people developed a fear of flying, at least temporarily, in response to the terrorism of September, 2001.

Some people fear losing control of themselves while on a plane, in response to a panic attack. In this case, the occasional media report of a passenger said to have had a "panic attack" who became unruly and had to be subdued is what causes fear of flying. This is usually the result of sloppy reporting, because these aren't people with Panic Disorder. They're typically drunk, in addition to other problems. Panic Disorder is a difficult problem, but it doesn't lead people to run amok on airplanes!

What causes Fear of Flying
Isn't Always Flying

People also become afraid of flying for reasons which don't directly relate to flying. If you have Panic Disorder or Claustrophobia, you might have experienced a panic attack on an airplane, and thereafter feared "being trapped" on a plane should you have another attack there.

Sometimes it's a challenging life event, typically in one's twenties or thirties, which causes fear of flying. You might have experienced a stressful period in your life, one marked by job change, relocation, getting married, and having children. People often are shocked to find themselves getting panicky on an airplane during this time of their lives, and become phobic for flying as a result.

Traumatic events unrelated to flying can cause fear of flying, particularly when they occur shortly before a flight. This might be an auto accident or a physical assault, or even a sudden, unexpected layoff. A person may seem to respond to the trauma satisfactorily, but then become very afraid on the flight, and thereafter develop a phobia.

The Way People DON'T Become Afraid

There are a lot of causes for fear of flying. The one way people don't become afraid is this: people don't set out to discover the most dangerous activities they engage in, and then avoid those.

That's not what causes fear of flying!

Fueled by the Anxiety Trick

Instead, you become afraid, for one of the reasons mentioned above, and come to believe that your fear is an accurate sign of danger. You get tricked by the assumption, "If I feel afraid, then I'm in danger." You come to believe that your fear means that flying is too dangerous, even though you almost certainly engage in activities, every day, which are much more dangerous than flying.

Maybe you develop a phobia and stop flying altogether, or maybe you continue to fly with fear. Either way, you resist and struggle against your flying anxiety. You try really hard "not to be afraid".

When you struggle against your fear, you're literally "putting out fires with gasoline". This is how the Panic Trick works. The growth of your fear is fueled by your efforts to oppose it.

Back to Fear of Flying from Causes Fear of Flying

For more info about Dr. Carbonell, click here.

Follow me on Twitter & Facebook!

© 2010-2024 David Carbonell, PhD.  Anxiety Coach® is a registered mark.
P.O. Box 256539, Chicago, IL 60625

Last updated on June 25, 2024