Fear of Flying

Treatment for flight anxiety has a high rate of success.

By Colin Allen, published January 9, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Two tragic airplane accidents occurred on January 8, 2003. The first, a U.S. Airways Express/Air Midwest jet, crashed during takeoff in North Carolina and burst into flames after clipping an airplane hanger, leaving all 21 on board dead. This crash ends a 14-month accident-free record for commercial planes in America. A second, Turkish Airlines craft crashed in Turkey, killing 75 of the 80 people on board. Both tragedies are an unfortunate reminder for those who experience anxiety when stepping onto an airplane.

"There are 25 million American adults who are anxious or worried on a plane," says Reid Wilson, Ph.D., an anxiety expert at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. "And there are a lot of different reasons why."

Trepidatious flyers experience a range of phobias: some carry the memory of a previous trauma; others are affected by graphic images of crashes seen on the news. Other phobias—such as claustrophobia or a fear of heights or water—are part of the more general fear of flying.

"[Fearful passengers] need to understand that it is an issue of control," says Wilson. The essential goal of treatment, he continues, is to help people recognize the difference between the actual risks associated with flying and their fear of those risks. And fortunately for sufferers, treatment for this type of anxiety has a very high rate of success.

Reid Wilson, Ph.D., is the author of Don't Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks (HarperCollins, 1996)