Fearless flight

Does just the thought of boarding a plane make you nervous? Do you start to sweat when the boarding call comes? Do you start envisioning the plane going down in flames?

The fear of flying is more common than you might think. An estimated 25 million adults — about one out of every six — are afraid to fly.

Fearful flyers are classified into two types: phobic and panic.

“Phobic flyers are the people who are afraid of crashing and dying,” says Robert Butterworth, a psychologist and president of International Trauma Associates, a counseling and research organization in Los Angeles.

These fears may stem from a bad experience, such as severe turbulence on a previous flight, or even news reports of airline disasters.

“If you go to an airport bar, you’ll find many of these types of people drinking,” says Butterworth. “They are self-medicating to keep from being anxious. These people will be more sensitive to sounds, turbulence and even the bags being brought on board.”

If you are this type, look for reassurances. Read up on airline safety, and don’t be afraid to ask your agent about a particular airline’s safety record, says Butterworth. Stay away from caffeine, which will add to your nervousness. Pay attention to the preflight safety instructions, and buy a book on how a plane works so you understand everything going on around you.

During the flight, stay occupied by reading, working or walking around, if possible.

Panic flyers are not necessarily afraid of dying, but develop distressing physical symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat and hyperventilation.

Panic flyers need to learn a method of relaxation to block everything out.

“They need to learn a method to slow down their breathing, or use a form of imagery to block out their anxiety or their fear of having a panic attack,” notes Butterworth.

If you are in a position where you have to do a lot of flying — and you don’t like flying — you should seriously consider getting a nontraveling job.

“For certain people, flying is so nerve-wracking, it’s just not worth it,” says Butterworth. “For managers, one of the questions you should ask potential employees is how they feel about flying. Ask them if they had a choice of a job that requires a lot of flying or one that requires little, which one would they take.

“Some people are suited for air travel and some aren’t. You don’t want the people who aren’t.”

Todd Shryock ([email protected]) is SBN’s special reports editor.