Flying without fear: How to overcome a phobia of air travel

Flying without fear: How to overcome a phobia of air travel
The arrival hall of Changi Airport Terminal 1.

After Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing in March, teacher Lim Shu Ling begged her travel companions to rework their plans for an upcoming holiday to Europe.

That trip next month would have involved five flights within the continent. Ms Lim, 29, managed to convince her friends to limit it to just one flight and travel instead by train to 10 cities in Italy, France and Scotland.

"I've always had a massive fear of flying and every air disaster frightens me so much," says Ms Lim. "I've tried many ways to overcome it but I always break out in a cold sweat on flights. Once, when turbulence was really bad during take-off, I started crying in my seat."

The high-profile disappearance of the Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight in March - as well as other recent plane malfunctions reported in the news - has intensified the fears of many already-anxious fliers.

Dr Adrian Wang, a consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, says it is natural for air crashes to trigger some degree of anxiety among most people who travel.

"Because it is a large-scale crisis involving multiple casualties and is constantly reported in the news media, it stays in people's consciousness for a longer time than usual," he says.

He adds that, while psychiatrists do not see a spike in patients seeking treatment for a phobia of flying after an air crash, many generally anxious or depressed patients will display heightened anxiety and want to talk about it.

He says that being apprehensive about flying is very common, affecting up to 30 per cent of people. "I have a fear of flying myself. It's a mild fear - not that bad - but it's still there," says the 48-year-old. "But a severe fear of flying to a degree that air travel has to be completely avoided is less common and affects only 2 to 3 per cent of the general population."

Dr Shrikant Srivastava, a consultant at the Institute of Mental Health's department of general psychiatry agrees, saying that "only a minority of patients" seek psychiatric consultation for their fear.

He adds: "These patients have most likely harboured the phobia for a long time and consultation with a specialist only happens when it significantly affects their lives or at the insistence of their partner or spouse."

Chronically nervous fliers have found their own ways of dealing with their fears so that they can still take flights.

Ms Olivia Cain, who works in digital marketing, says she has had a fear of flying for more than 10 years.

"The lack of control is what is scary - it's hard to tell what's going on when you hear noises or feel bumps," says the 26-year-old Danish national who works here but flies to Denmark at least four times a year to visit her family.

To reduce her anxiety, she makes sure she has sufficient rest before a flight so she can mentally prepare for it. It also helps to inform the flight attendants about her fears.

"I tell them I'm a nervous flier and ask if they can come visit me in my seat if I buzz them. Usually, they are really supportive and some even bring candy or tea to help put me at ease.

"If I just sit there, my anxiety intensifies, so it really helps to have someone talk me out of it."

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