For the third time this year, the media has been transfixed by an airplane-related tragedy: The crash of AirAsia Flight 8501, debris and bodies from which were just recovered from Indonesian waters. As with Malaysia Airlines 370 in March and Malaysia Airlines 17 four months later, this air tragedy is dominating headlines across the globe, as news organizations focus on both the mechanics of the crash and the human misery it produced.
We know, statistically, that flying has never been safer. But plane crashes are uniquely cinematic events, so the 992 people who died flying in 2014 globally received 43 percent more attention — as roughly measured by Google Trends — than the 1.24 million ground traffic fatalities around the world annually. Intense fear of flying, known as aviophobia, affects an estimated 6.5 percent of Americans, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. Does the wall-to-wall coverage make that phobia worse?
Not necessarily, experts say. That’s because the nature of phobias isn’t rational to begin with.
“Fear of flying is a feeling. Feelings aren’t facts,” says Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders. “And almost every person who’s afraid will say ‘my fear is out of proportion to the danger, and I can’t reason my way back.’”
Seif started treating aviophobia after suffering from his own terror of the skies. Now, he travels by air with no problems; he flew out of Moscow the day after Malaysia Air Flight 17 went down over Ukraine. Since exposure is the best medicine, he takes patients on flights to help work through their fears (part of a cottage industry of flight therapists). This particular kind of anxiety, he says, isn’t as simple as a fixation on plane crashes.
“When people talk about fear of flying, it’s almost a misnomer,” Seif says. “It’s actually a confluence of a lot of different phobias.” Airplanes become the object of other fears and anxieties because of a bunch of environmental triggers. News about a downed plane might intensify anxiety at the gate for an aviophobic waiting to board, but likely won’t lead to a more widespread outbreak.
“The most common person who’s afraid of flying is someone who’s claustrophobic,” Seif says. “That has nothing to do with fear of crashing. Once someone becomes very frightened, they can think of a reason why they’re frightened, but that’s not the primary fear.”
Now, passenger traffic did take a sharp dive after the hijackings of September 11, 2001 and public opinion polling did show a spike in fear of flying. But that was accompanied by official government warnings about the apparent threat of terrorism, so the aversion to air travel may have been a somewhat more rational response.
Generally speaking, Seif says, research shows that the prevalence of fear-related anxiety disorders has stayed fairly constant over many decades, and even across different cultures with varying levels of sophisticated technology. That suggests that phobias can attach themselves to any number of different environments, and are rooted in something called “anxiety sensitivity,” or the fear of fear itself.
That’s why a successful treatment of aviophobia can help reduce all kinds of irrational fears — the afflicted learn to separate things that are actually dangerous from those that are simply generating a panic reaction for no good reason.
“It’s becoming more knowledgeable about the way your brain works, the process that goes on, and recognizing the fact that as an anxious phobic person, your brain may send out an alarm of danger,” Seif says. “You may not be able to control that. But you are able to say it’s a false alarm.”