A Four-Step Approach to Breaking Free From the Fear of Flying

… or any fear for that matter.

The fear of flying is not fun.
There are so many great places one get to pretty fast and at affordable price thanks to the modern planes.
Avoiding air trips due to anxiety is such a shame. Suffering through air trips is not a great idea either.
I am familiar with the hardships of the flight fear first hand.

This is how it went for me.
Every time I was planning my flight my mind reproduced countless catastrophic scenarios.

If I was flying with my child, I felt as if by boarding him on the flight I exposed him to a deadly danger.

If I was flying without my child I felt as if I was betraying him by exposing myself to a deadly danger. And said goodbye as if I was an allied soldier on the D-Day…

In my mind the fatal ending to every flight was almost a given, a successful landing was almost a miracle. Traveling with such a conviction was a burden, no matter how pleasant or desirable the destination was.

I want to share my experience of overcoming the fear of flying, since it can be helpful to the dear readers, who also suffer the debilitating anxiety around flights.

I researched this subject and was looking for solutions because I really needed to break free of the phobia. Since improving behaviors and perceptions is one of my professional interests, I decided to allow my own fear to teach me something about removing the obstacles of phobias in general.

I researched, experimented with myself, analyzed results, researched again. This work resulted in a four-step system of overcoming phobias without medication.
I called it RARE (an acronym that make a real word, how fancy):

Recognize the phobia
Apply rationality
Remove the source of fear

Let me show you exactly how it worked for my fear of flights.

Recognize the phobia

The first step is to actually realize and acknowledge that you have the phobia. And that there is such a thing. For a long time I didn’t even consider that I could have had a phobia. When I started suspecting the condition, I really wanted to convince myself that it was not the case.

The learned lesson is:

Don’t be afraid to recognize a phobia.

The problem with self-over-diagnosing phobias is that you can start seeing it as a reason to avoid certain activities altogether. While you really don’t need to do everything other people do, some activities just can’t be avoided without significant adverse effect on the overall quality of life. Thus recognizing phobia is an important step, but one must be able to tell it apart from indulging in self-victimization.

The phobia of flying is like that. If I just ignore the fact that I’m suffering a phobia, my life is miserable before traveling and while traveling.
If I start wearing my aerophobia as a badge and allow it to stop me from flying altogether, my life will be miserable because I can’t go places.

The most powerful fear is the fear that we don’t recognize.

Recognize a phobia to know what it is you are working with. A phobia is not a good reason to miss out on life, it’s a good reason to dedicate some efforts to breaking free from it.

Interestingly, although there is a term “aerophobia” , such phenomenon as aerophobia doesn’t really exists. Or I should say, it doesn’t exist on it’s own.

Say arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or herpetophobia (fear of snakes) are evolutionarily developed fears. In the wild nature it’s pretty rational to avoid venomous creature, that have been a prime enemy of humans for many years of evolution.

On the contrary, aerophobia didn’t really have enough time to develop into a natural fear. It is a derivative phobia, based on some other more basic fears.

Aerophobia can be derived from claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), agoraphobia (fear of being trapped in busy places). Agoraphobia became the basis of fear of flights for my mom.
My phobia was based on modeling my mom’s behavior. It is very natural for humans to adopt parents’ fears and behaviors, so I did.

These phobias make people especially suggestive, attentive and perceptive to episodes and narratives of plane crashes and other threatening situations. Thus a “virtual reality” is created: because your focus of attention is on catastrophes, your “reality” is: “flying is inherently dangerous”.

At the same time, there’s nothing unnatural about the fear of flying.
It’s actually isn’t very natural to sit in a chair 40 000 feet above the sea level and move at 550 mph.
Those who fly often become used to it, but if your flights happen only several times a year the experience can be… weird to say the least.

Imagine an indigenous tribe, that doesn’t know a faster way of moving around than running. Suddenly, American researches find this tribe, take one of their men, put him in a “Hammer” truck and drive him around a plain valley at 10 mph.

You can expect that the guy would be terrified, right? Although the real danger is way smaller than the danger each of us gets ourselves into every time we drive to work in the morning.

Now imagine the same researchers visit the tribe every so often and show them videos of car crashes. And don’t show them all the millions of cars that safely make it to their destinations. How eager would the people of this tribe be about another ride in a “Hammer”?

An average person’s psyche is exposed to a similar experience about flights. No wonder more psychologically vulnerable people may develop a phobia.

Aerophobia is a real fear. But fear is not the same as actual danger.
We approached the second step.

Apply rationality

Rational thinking about flights was the first thing I would resort to when I needed to calm myself down before my next flight.
It didn’t seem to be such an effective method – I just would create a new train of thoughts in my head, on the background of my fears. Exhausting.
Inevitably my thoughts would drift to the “ok, this is how things are, but what if…” and the whole phobic drama would unfold in my head again.

Rationality is barely a good remedy for phobias on it’s on.
Yet in combination with other steps it is an important ingredient.

So what kind of rational facts would be helpful in my case.

When I was sitting at the window in an airport watching planes leaving and arriving, it struck me how many there are and how routinely they come and go.

According to FlightWare, for example, there is 9 728 planes carrying 1 270 406 people around the world at every given moment.
Every. Given. Moment. Right. Now.
And now.

At that scope during the last 10 years there has been only 310 plane crashes. Only 1/4 out of them involved victims.
Not undermining the tragedy involved with each crash and each lost life, it’s fair to say that the statistic is pretty encouraging.

According to NBC News chances to die in a plane crash are estimated to one in 60 millions. To give you a feeling of how rare it is, the chances to win a jackpot in lottery is one in 14 million.
So statistically I’m more likely to win a lottery 4 times than to die in a plane crash.

Another great rational approach is cognitive therapy, where “patients” learn everything about planes: how they are designed, how they work, what makes them fly, what various sounds mean, etc.

There are companies who offer flight simulations, aircraft educational tours and lectures to help cure aerophobias.

I didn’t take any of those, therefore I can’t specifically recommend any such class. But I had a similar experience with the fear of traffic. After I was hit by a car when I was 10 years old, I was so scared of roads.
In my head cars were such “monsters” who were “after me”, and once I put a foot on a road they could get me.
I suffered that fear for another 10 years after the incident, until I made a gut decisions that may sound counterintuitive: I took a driving class. I learned how a car is designed and experienced vehicle control as a driver.
This knowledge and experience totally flipped my idea about cars and helped me overcome the persistent fear.

In the same way, experience of flying a plane in a simulator and learning everything about standard flight situations can give you the sense of control and reduce your fears.

It’s helpful to learn about things that especially scare you during the flight.
Why the engines change their sound?
What is turbulence?
What is that rattling sound during take off?

Find out more facts.

I did my homework to learn that commercial flights are actually designed to be able to fly on one engine. They can even safely glide with both engines off.
Lightning is not a danger for planes: they are designed to withstand a lightning. For those whose aerophobia is based on astrapophobia – the fear of lightning – it may be useful to know that no plane has crashed because of lightning since 1963.

For those who are afraid of turbulence there is an app called Turbcast – turbulence forecast. I believe it helps to just see how common turbulence is.

Facts like these helped me relax a little bit, especially when a next air trip was way beyond the horizon for me. But once on a plane the fear would return in its full potency again. And facts wouldn’t really help.

Therefore I developed the next step:

Remove the source of fear

As you know, cleared symptoms doesn’t equal health.
The same here: temporarily cleared anxiety by means of cognitive models is not yet freedom from a phobia.
It was pretty obvious to me way before I started handling my fear of air trips.
Cognition can only do so much to a fear or a behavior that is rooted in fears.

Fear is not just a believe or a conviction. It is an established body reaction. It would be fare to even call it physical addiction. The emotion of fear correlates with a certain chemical composition, which our bodies get used to and over time – become addicted to.
So no matter what we try to think or say, the body craves the state of fear, our subconscious mind sends us terrifying images and stories, and we feel the fear without any rational reason.

So the real source of fear is rarely a real threat.
The real source of fear is your body’s psychosomatic state.
You can trace it by reactions to fear, that are common for most people: raised heartbeat, shallow breath, concave chest, sweating palms, shrinking stomach, grinding teeth…

Because there’s not so much I could do with the physical reaction, I sat comfortably, relaxed what could relax, and started observing my physical state.
Doing nothing, not trying to fight the fear or reduce it.
I was in the plane, my fear was abundantly triggered, I noticed all the stories about plane crashes in my mind, I set them aside (the rational facts came in handy there), and put maximum attention to what was physically going on with my body. Accepting everything I noticed and just watching it.

Not to make it sound too easy: this exercise takes practice. I’m an experienced meditator, and I teach applied meditation. It takes some time to learn to observe fear in your body, but once you do you access a powerful self-psychotherapy tool.

Under the light of clear attention the fear in the body melts away.
Your mind becomes clear.
Your perception becomes intelligent.
Those wise things you heard from people and tried to make yourself believe in, become your inner knowledge.
You feel liberation in your body – that’s when you know, the source of the fear is gone.


It’s not a recipe-book cliché. Here “Enjoy” is an actual important part of the process.
When you remove the source of fear and get your relief – say, your plane has landed and you won’t have another flight for a while – you turn from fearful to neutral.
It is temporary relief – once another fight is planned you will go from neutral to fearful again.

When you remove the source of the fear, the fear is not just temporarily relieved – it is displaced. It’s displaced by the state of clarity and sharp perception of yourself and your surrounding.
You start noticing things that fear wouldn’t let you notice. You start feeling the bliss that the fear would let you feel.
Perceiving, retaining and cultivating this state is critical for successful liberation from a phobia.

You see, your brain needs stimulation, be it negative or positive. Negative stimulations are easier to get, because we are wired to watch out for danger. Positive stimulations are harder to earn. But once you can perceive the blissful parts of your reality, you have a choice where you want to put your focus to.

On that flight, after my body released the fear physically, I looked outside of the window. Something I never did on a flight before, being too scared to actually show myself where I was.
Choosing ignorance, in a way.
I was thrilled with the beauty of the view above the Norwegian Sea. The clouds, the moon, the white night, the skies… I felt that beauty with every part of my body.
I was sitting in a comfortable chair, drinking my soda, looking at the skies in such a way, that just a century ago was unthinkable of. Flying with my son across the world to see my parents.
Just an hour ago all I experienced was fear and the exhausting internal dialogue with fragile attempts to somehow reduce it.
It was the fear of something that wasn’t my reality, that created a state, where I physically could not perceive and duly enjoy my reality.
The fear made me live in a horrible narrative, while my blissful reality was passing by unnoticed.

I saw that so clear, and I allowed myself to experience the whole bliss of the situation.

So you see, it’s never about just fighting your fear and bringing yourself to neutral state. It’s about creating an alternative way of perceiving reality. A more intelligent way, and a more pleasant one at the same time.

Phobias are illusions that prevent us from experiencing the joy of life in its full.
So, it is important to consciously retain in the joy of clear perception and sincere gratitude for your reality.

Over time your mind and your body will get used to this blissful state and clear perception just as they got used to the fear. This is when you know, that you haven’t only broken free from the fear, but you improved your quality of life.

I know that next time I am to take a flight the familiar fear will reappear. But this time I will be able to recognize it for what it is – a narrative. I will be able to see my body’s reaction to this narrative.
And I will be able to choose the lens, through which I look at my trip.

Since you read all the way here, the subject must be important for you. Let’s keep the conversation going. Please share your thoughts and questions in comments field, or send me a message through contact form.

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