Fear of Flying: Causes and Symptoms

Afraid of flying?  Terrified of turbulence?  You’re not alone.

Back in 1980, the Boeing Company published a report that revealed that one out of every three adult Americans was afraid of flying.  Among the fearful fliers, 73% were frightened of in-flight mechanical difficulties, 62% of bad weather flights, and 30% of flights over water.  Not much has changed since then.

In a later study done by International Research Associates, fear of flying was found to be twice as prevalent among women as men (21% vs 9%).

My own fear of flying took me completely by surprise.  Back when I traveled for business, I never gave aviation safety a second thought.  Turbulence was no problem, and I used to sleep through take-off and landing more often than not.

Fast forward a few years.  I had a couple babies and a couple of really turbulent flights.   According to experts, either the babies or the bad weather could be the culprit.  September 11 and the shoe bomber probably didn’t help either.

Causes and symptoms

The brain of the expectant mother is flooded with hormones that cause her to become obsessed with safety shortly before delivery—anything that she perceives as a risk has to be controlled or avoided. Apparently the hormones go away after delivery, but the patterns of protective behavior can persist.

A traumatic experience (severe and prolonged turbulence on a flight home from Hawaii, in my case) can be the trigger too.   Some flying phobias begin with an initial sensitizing event that creates the feelings of fear.  Neurons get used to firing sequentially and pretty soon every bump you feel takes you straight to terror.

Very few people I know are comfortable traveling at 500mph 30,000 feet above the earth’s surface, but fear of flying goes way beyond discomfort.  Symptoms include rapid breathing, pounding heart, confusion, tension, and sweating.  In extreme cases, there may also be vomiting and panic attacks.

Conquering fear of flying

Fear of flying may be a distinct phobia or combination of other phobias related to flying.  Some people are afraid of small places (claustrophobia), while others are afraid of heights (acrophobia).  Fear of places where escape is impossible is a bad one (agoraphobia), and many people fear being out of control or being hijacked or blown up.

And now some good news:  you are statistically safer when you are flying on a modern jetliner than when you are at home asleep in your bed.  The trick is making yourself feel safe.  Check back next week for the next post in this series about choosing the right treatment.

This is the first in a five-part series about conquering fear of flying.  Topics will include:

1.  Symptoms and causes
2.  Choosing the right treatment
3.  The SOAR video course
4.  Understanding turbulence
5.  How flying works and why it’s safe

Fear of Flying TreatmentToo busy to read all that?  Flying very soon?  The online video-based fear of flying program I tried (and highly recommend) has recently published a book called SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying.  It’s available on Amazon for much less than the cost of the full program.



  1. says

    Love the post and can’t wait to read the rest. I’ve always been ashamed of my fear of flying, so I always love seeing articles/posts that make me remember how common it is and how safe flying actually is these days. Great work!!!

  2. says

    I totally believe the part about the hormones before birth, and for a long time after for that matter. I was obsessed with my sons safety for months after he was born! I was so afraid something was going to happen to him, and it was entirely irrational. Not a fun time.

    Recently, on a flight returning from Acapulco I experienced the type of turbulence I’m assuming you are talking about, and I relate to what you are saying. I thought I was going to vaporized somewhere in Texas. Yikes!

    I hope next time I board a flight, I don’t have a panic attack:)

    P.S. The photo of that baby just makes me want to find a baby to hold.

  3. Laura says

    I was a travel agent for 20 yrs flying all over the world and then one flight really bad turbulence on the way to our wedding in Vegas freaked me out…ever since that flight I freeze everytime I fly..I freak out inside and shut right down. I want to fly because I loveee to travel with my husband.

  4. says

    What a great post this is. Yes, since becoming a mother, I have been MUCH more afraid to fly. And in a few weeks I’ll be boarding a plane for the first time WITHOUT MY CHILDREN. And I am FREAKING OUT about it. Like, how dare I fly without them, what if something happens… it’s keeping me up at night… making me very stressed out! I fly often with my children and for some reason – I gueses because we are all together – I am much more comfortable with that. But yes, the fear of flying is alive and well in me, no matter how many times I fly!

  5. says

    Great post! I myself was afraid to Fly and went through a ton of Fear of Flying Courses. It wasn’t until I learned how to control my imagination that I actually learned how to enjoy Flying.

  6. says

    Found your site while googling fears and came across this post.
    As I was reading it I realized that many people have all different kinds of fears.
    My husband cannot go in an elevator and is afraid of flying as well.
    Hopefully we can book a nice trip with our family.
    Soon we will be adding a new addition to our family.
    (fear in itself)..LOL..Beautiful child # 4..
    Thanks for the great site ;)

  7. says

    Hey Jessica…there’s no reason to feel ashamed,the fear of flying isn’t a weakness..it’s just the way you’re made…but you won’t be like it forever. Have you seen the Social network for fearful flyers at LOGBOOK 24/7 it’s free and has almost 1500 members worldwide. Chat read, help, support, stories and experiences…a great way to overcome your fear. Everyone is friendly and there’s aparty atmosphere when people write in saying I DID IT I DID IT!!

    Loukia. So many people report getting feardful once they have children and the reason’s simple you see a risky world for the child in your care…that’s perfectly natural and thank goodness it’s like that but then you have to say to yourself I can’t protect my child from everything I think is risky or when it’s their turn they won’t be able to manage.

    Hope this helps a little


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