Aviophobia:  The Fear of Flying and Its Potential Treatments

Jul 11, 2017 | Categories: Travel

Up to 6.5% of the American population suffers from Aviophobia, a fear of flying.  Though this sounds as though this may be a small group, it could be as many as 20 million people.  Flying has become a way of life for Americans.  Road trips are not considered adventurous or glamorous anymore.  They are, in fact, the last option when considering vacation plans.  Careers and workplaces are spanning the nation and continents.  Traveling for meetings and covering large sales areas is becoming commonplace.  Air travel is no longer the luxury it used to be.  It is a necessity and/or an expectation.  So for those who suffer from Aviophobia, what occurs within the individual when they are experiencing phobic anxiety and what are the treatment options? 

A phobia of flying, or any other phobia, is defined as an intense, persistent, and unreasonable fear of an object, situation, or activity (Comer, R., 2015, p. 144).  Phobias are learned fears.  Whether they are learned from parents or personal experiences, the physical reactions and the fright imprints itself and is remembered until the next time it is experienced when it is recalled.  Each time it is reinforced in the mind.  After a while, the mind and body will begin to anticipate and elevate the level of fear and impending danger.  For the individual suffering from Aviophobia, the fear of flying is ever-present in the mind, but comes forth when he or she thinks about the process of flying, standing in line for TSA (the American Psychological Association has found this to be increasing the levels of anxiety in many passengers, but particularly those who suffer from Aviophobia (APA, 2010),) preparing to fly, sitting in an airport, boarding a plane, landing, or even disembarking.  The important piece to keep in mind here is that the individual does not have to be in process of the activity, but simply must be thinking about the activity to engage the phobic reaction of his or her mind.  The human brain has a small almond-shaped structure called the amygdala which is designed to send out warning signals in the event it detects impending danger and immediately sends out emergency messages to other parts of the brain.  For the individual who does not have a phobia, the prefrontal cortex will help to evaluate the situation and override the signal from the amygdala to let it know there is no impending danger and suppress the emergency messages being sent to the rest of the brain and body.  For an individual who has Aviophobia (or any other phobia,) the message is not suppressed, and as a result of these warnings, the person’s heart rate will increase, they will begin to sweat, become hyper-aware of things happening around them, and breathing rate will increase as well.  The amygdala is an extremely useful and necessary portion of the brain, as it keeps us safe from things like walking in front of a speeding car or confronting a large and hungry bear.  However, it is meant to operate on a short term basis.  For a person to experience this level of fear for an extended period of time is exhausting and physically draining.  The fatigue felt sometimes cause a rise in the levels of anxiety creating a snowball effect.

A common therapy to address Aviophobia is Systematic Desensitization via exposure in conjunction with introducing relaxation and anxiety-reducing techniques.  There are many approaches to how this might occur.  There is a gradual approach where individuals will be exposed to their phobia at a minimal level at first and then incrementally increase the level as they go through therapy.  For instance, they might begin by thinking about flying and then move to looking at pictures of airplanes on the ground and then pictures of a plane in flight, etc.  There is a flooding approach where an individual may actually fly several flights with their therapist.  New to the therapist’s arsenal of exposure therapy is the world of Virtual Reality (VR.)  There has been success using these new programs.  In fact, in a small study conducted by Dr. Samantha Smith and Dr. Barbara Rothbaum of Walter Reed Army Hospital and Emory University School of Medicine respectively, the patients using a VRE (Virtual Reality Exposure) and a Standard Exposure (SE) protocol saw the similar lowered anxiety levels once on an airplane an in flight. 

Another therapy option, but less commonly accessed, is hypnotherapy.  Hypnosis is a way for an individual to learn relaxation in situations where they have typically felt anxiety.  Replacing one reaction with another has been quite effective for many.  This is often a fairly quick fix, as it usually requires only a few sessions to accomplish freedom from the phobia if one is easily hypnotized.


Bricker, J., (2010).  Fear of Flying During Heightened Security.  American Psychological Association.

Comer, R., (2015). Abnormal Psychology.  New York, Worth Publishers.

Seaney, R.,  (2013). Fear of Flying?  Some Things to Know.  ABC News To Go.

Smith, S., Rothbaum, B., (2000).  New Virtual Reality Technique Helps Conquer Fear of Flying, Say Researchers.  American Psychological Association.