Fear of flying!
The doors are closed and secured for take-off. Your heart begins to beat a little faster. The sound of the engines roaring into action makes the cabin shudder and your stomach lurch. Your mouth is dry, your fists are clenched and if you’re sitting beside a loved one (or maybe even a stranger) then they probably have your finger nails firmly embedded into their thigh. As the plane taxis towards the runway you start to feel sick, beads of sweat appear on your forehead and you would do anything right now to be anywhere but here.
It probably doesn’t come as any consolation, but 24% of your fellow passengers are feeling exactly the same as you . The fear of flying, or aviophobia, is one of our top ten fears in the UK, sitting uneasily in its seat beside spiders, clowns and public speaking.
The fear of flying is particularly insidious. Whilst vermiphobes can reassure themselves that a worm is hardly likely to do them any serious harm, the aviophobe is faced with the fact that flying instinctively feels like a risky business. Accidents do happen. Planes do crash. Even when they don’t, the sheer audacity of lifting three hundred tons of metal and 600 well-fed passengers off the ground on a wing, a prayer and 36,000 gallons of fuel seems to be asking for trouble. Flying feels risky because people aren’t designed to fly. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, 'people are afraid of flying in the same way that fish are afraid of driving'.
So by way of a quick reassurance before we go any further, Dr. Arnold Barnett of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has carried out exhaustive research into the safety record of commercial air travel . Barnett calculated that your chance of being involved in a fatal accident when you step on-board a plane is one in seven million.
To put that into a slightly more useful context, if you boarded an aeroplane every day of your life you would need to travel for nineteen thousand years before encountering the kind of accident that dominates your thoughts as you and your family jet off somewhere sunny for your hard-earned summer hols.
Air travel is ten times safer than travelling by train and nineteen times safer than traveling by car. There is more chance of you being killed by a bee or falling over in your home than there is of you perishing on your Easyjet flight to Marbella.
But of course we aren’t here to talk about rational fears. We’re here to talk about phobias… those life changing flurries of terror that defy all logic and reason; an overwhelmingly debilitating state that originates in the amygdalae… two almond-shaped groups of cells deep within our brains that are primarily responsible for processing our memory, decision making and emotional responses.
Because phobias originate in the deep brain, or limbic system, they aren’t easy to reason with. You can’t point out to the amygdala that the statistical risk of a negative physical outcome is minimal, because as far as the brain is concerned the fear response that is activated when you board a plane IS a negative physical outcome. The thing that you’re afraid of is actually happening and it’s very hard to convince yourself that that’s ok.
So what to do? Self-medication has long been the go-to for the ever growing army of aviophobes, but most people don’t want to start a family holiday with a raging hangover or show up to that all-important meeting in a Valium haze.
Mindfulness apps have been a game changer for some, but those with a serious fear of flying find it difficult to trust in the healing power of a smart phone and most airlines still restrict the use of mobile devices at take-off and landing.
There is near universal agreement that desensitisation or exposure therapy is the most effective way to treat a phobia. A cognitive behavioural therapist will gradually expose you to your fear over a course of 5 or 10 sessions, allowing you to slowly and steadily change the way you think and behave in response to the thing of which you are afraid. But how can this treatment be successfully applied to a fear of flying without the costly use of a flight simulator or a course of short haul flights to build up exposure? In short, how can you overcome your fear of flying without flying and without the need for a long and costly course of treatment?
Say hello to hypnosis.
Do you remember the amygdalae? Those nutty little nubbins deep in your brain that get upset without warning and can’t be reasoned with? What if there was a hotline to the limbic system that would enable you strike a deal in order to extinguish your phobia in a single, relaxing session?
Dr Muriel Warren argues that the mind is like an onion. “The outer layer, or conscious mind, deals with intelligence, reality, and logic. The inner mind is concerned with emotion, imagination, and memory, as well as the autonomic nervous system which automatically controls how we breathe, send oxygen to our blood cells, or walk without using the conscious mind.” 
A skilled hypnotherapist can relax the autonomic nervous system allowing an individual to soften the rapid alert mechanism of the inner mind, turning off the stress hormones and rebooting the physical and emotional response to worms, dogs or traveling by plane.
The process is quick. Staggeringly quick. And the results are remarkable, life-changing and there to stay. “Throughout the 11-hour flight to and from Trinidad, as well as two short internal flights, I felt nothing more than tiredness and boredom” says Joe from London. “After the session I immediately felt different and light… this has totally changed my way of thinking and my life” says TC from Leigh-on-sea.
Now that it’s holiday season all year long and it’s never been cheaper or easier to see the world, it’s encouraging to think that your fear of flying could be permanently eradicated in less time than it takes to shop for sunscreen or pack a suitcase.
If your enjoyment of travel or your ability to advance your career to the degree that you deserve has been overshadowed by a fear of flying, then perhaps the time has come for you to make a small decision that will transform your life.
 Warren, M. P. (2004). Trauma: Treatment and Transformation. New York: IUniverse.
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About Desmond O'Connor
Desmond studied at the University of Cambridge before completing an MSc in Educational Psychology at IoE, London. His interest in hypnotherapy began when he and his wife used hypno-birthing for the unassisted, drug-free birth of their two children. He has worked with BBC Radio 1 and Radio 4 and has published in The Independent and The Guardian.… Read more
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