Why do I suddenly have a fear of flying?

Having flown happily for years without experiencing any sense of fear – what causes sudden fear of flying?

Fear of flying
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Suddenly developing a fear of flying can be unsettling, especially if you’ve previously been comfortable with air travel.

This anxiety might stem from a specific incident, such as a turbulent flight, or it could emerge without a clear cause.

The fear can manifest as a feeling of intense unease or panic at the thought of boarding a plane, potentially leading to avoidance of air travel altogether. It’s important to recognise these feelings and consider seeking support, as many effective strategies exist to help manage and overcome this phobia.

What causes sudden fear of flying?

Sudden onset fear of flying, also known as aviophobia, can be a perplexing and distressing experience for individuals who previously had no issues with air travel.

This sudden fear can arise due to a variety of factors, often interlinked, including psychological, situational, and physiological elements.

One significant cause is a traumatic experience. This could be a particularly turbulent flight, an emergency landing, or even witnessing a distressing event related to aviation, such as a news report of a plane crash.

Such events can imprint strongly on the mind, leading to anxiety and fear the next time one faces a similar situation. This type of fear can also be linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where the individual re-experiences the traumatic event and associates flying with those negative feelings.

Another cause can be the development of generalised anxiety. Sometimes, a sudden fear of flying can emerge as part of a broader anxiety disorder.

Life stressors such as work pressure, family issues, or personal health concerns can exacerbate anxiety levels, making individuals more prone to developing phobias. In such cases, the fear of flying might not be an isolated issue but a symptom of a larger anxiety problem.

Phobias can also develop from a fear of loss of control. Flying involves placing one’s trust entirely in the hands of the pilots and the aircraft’s technology, which can be unsettling for those who are generally more comfortable when they are in control. This loss of control can be particularly frightening, leading to the sudden onset of aviophobia.

Cognitive factors also play a crucial role. Misconceptions about the safety of flying, often fuelled by sensationalised media reports of aviation accidents, can cause a disproportionate fear response.

Despite air travel being statistically one of the safest modes of transportation, the dramatic nature of aviation incidents can leave a lasting impression, creating an irrational fear based on perceived rather than actual risk.

Health issues can contribute as well. Physical conditions such as vestibular disorders, which affect balance, can make flying uncomfortable and induce fear.

Similarly, claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces, can make the confined space of an aeroplane cabin intolerable for some, leading to panic and avoidance behaviour.

Additionally, psychological associations and learned behaviours can be significant. If someone close, such as a family member or friend, has a fear of flying, it can influence one’s own perception and potentially trigger a similar response. Observational learning and shared anxiety can play substantial roles in the development of phobias.

Lastly, fear of flying can sometimes be a manifestation of other underlying fears, such as fear of heights (acrophobia) or fear of crashing (basophobia). These deep-seated fears can become more pronounced in the context of air travel, leading to a sudden onset of aviophobia.

Understanding the root cause of a sudden fear of flying is the first step toward managing and overcoming it. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and cognitive restructuring such as Allen Carr’s Easyway to Enjoy Flying programme can help tremendously. It is a wonderfully positive thing to be able to cure your fear of flying and it opens up a whole world of possibilities.