Why It's So Hard for Anyone to Get Over Fear of Flying

Blame your imagination, and your hormones.

Posted Sep 20, 2015

Evgeny Bakharev/Shutterstock
Source: Evgeny Bakharev/Shutterstock

Reason has remarkably little effect on fear of flying, and nothing illustrates this better than looking at the statistics. M.I.T. professor of statistics Arnold Barnett tells us that only 1 in 45 million flights in the U.S. results in a fatal crash. This is meant to be reassuring. But, due to the way the brain works, it has the opposite effect.

To our emotional brain, 45 million is an abstraction. It isn't personally meaningful. But, the other number—the number 1—hits home. It's personal. It represents the plane that crashed. What did the people on that flight feel? Maybe they boarded expecting that nothing bad would happen. These thoughts trigger the release of stress hormones and a cascade of feelings: Your heart beats faster. There is noticeable perspiration. Mentally, your focus tightens. Physically, you are tense.

Feelings cause a problem. We test reality with our feelings. When we see something, if we can touch it, we intuitively accept it as real. When imagination of crashing causes feelings, it deceives us. Feelings can serve as proof that what is in the mind is real. The person knows they are not on the plane. But feelings make what we picture in the mind so real that the thought arises that this could be an omen.

Even if you can resist the idea of omens, it becomes difficult to look at an upcoming flight objectively if you wake up at 3 a.m. dreaming about a crash. Dreams like that are too close for comfort. It's difficult to struggle your way through the logic of saying to yourself —in a way that you believe it—that it has no meaning.

If this 1-in-45 million statistic is going to be helpful, we have to put it into a meaningful context: How can a person correctly conceptualize this number? Since the emotional mind is highly visual, let's try to conceptualize 1 in 45 million visually.

* A typical highway billboard is 14 feet high by 48 feet wide. If you drew vertical lines across the billboard one inch apart, and horizontal lines from top to bottom one inch apart, how many one inch blocks would you have?

Fourteen feet is 168 inches. That means 168 horizontal lines. Forty-eight feet is 576 inches. That means 576 vertical lines. After drawing those lines on a blank billboard you would have 96,768 blocks. But, we need 45 million blocks. That's 465 times as many. Already, this may be bringing a different view of how safe flying is.

* Let’s try quarter-inch blocks. That means 672 horizontal lines one-quarter of an inch apart, and 2,304 vertical lines one-quarter of an inch apart. That gives us 1,548,288 blocks. If we mark just one of them, that would represent aviation safety in the Third World. But in the developed world, flying is about 250 times safer.

We need more blocks.

* What about lines spaced one-tenth of an inch apart? That would mean 1,680 horizontal lines and 5,760 vertical lines. This is getting to be a lot of work. That gives us 9,676,800 blocks. We need over four times that many.

* What about one-sixteenth of an inch? That means 2,688 horizontal lines and 9,216 vertical lines. That gives us 24,772,608 blocks.

* Maybe we should try millimeters. There are 25.4 millimeters per inch. So that means our billboard has 4,267 horizontal lines one millimeter apart and 14,630 horizontal lines. Oops, that comes to 62,426.210 blocks. Too many. But we are in the ball park. We have something we can conceptualize.

So: Imagine a block smaller than one-sixteenth of an inch but a bit larger than one millimeter, and you've got it. Imagine you carefully mark it with a tiny felt tip pin. You block it out.

Next time you drive down the highway and see billboards, consider the block that represents the chance of crashing. As you pass the billboard, it isn't even close to visible. You can't see it, so you imagine it. Now, though, you imagine it in a different way. 

Let's take it one more step: Instead of blacking out that one tiny square, let's use a photograph. Take one of those plane crash images in your mind and reduce it in size to a little over one millimeter by one millimeter. Replace the black mark with the tiny photograph. Yes, the crash exists. But so do 45 million other flights, all of which arrived safely. Airline safety is not perfect, but there are few things you could do that are safer.

Why, then, is flying so difficult to deal with? Again, it has to do with how the mind works. After we release stress hormones, one of three things can happen:

  • If you can identify the cause as unthreatening, the stress hormone release ends.
  • If the cause does involve a threat—if you can take control of the situation—executive function, or high-level thinking in your pre-frontal cortex, signals the amygdala to stop the release of stress hormones.
  • If you cannot control the threat, escape is called for.

On the ground, we can generally control anxiety through these steps. But in the air, few passengers can be sure that every noise or motion is benign. None can end the release of stress hormones via control or escape.

Though there are many ideas about how to minimize anxiety in spite of this situation, the only complete solution is to shut down the release of stress hormones at the source—the amygdala. When we produce oxytocin, it inhibits the amygdala. Thus, just as Pavlov taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of bell, we can train the anxious passenger to produce oxytocin when boarding, when seated, when the door closes, when the plane takes off, when there is turbulence, and when landing.

No stress hormones, no problem.

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