Its name might be daunting, but Pteromerhanophobia (or “fear of flying” to you and me), is one of the most common phobias out there. And it seems to affect all kinds of people, to a greater or lesser degree, no matter how much they fly.
Even Martin Scorsese, a man who’s probably taken a few flights in his time, says, “Every time I get on an airplane I know I’m not really an atheist. ‘Oh, God, dear God,’ I say the minute the plane takes off. ‘I’m sorry for all my sins, please don’t let this plane crash.’ And I keep praying out loud until the plane lands.”
But the fear of flying is a great example of how important the mind can be in dictating how we experience any given situation. Two people could be sitting side by side on a plane and one of them will be gripping the armrests, knuckles white with fear, while the other is fast asleep.
So if the problem originates in the mind, it’s something that mindfulness can really help with. Like any kind of anxiety, a fear of flying is self-reinforcing. You begin with the sense of danger – maybe just the sensation of the plane taking to the air is enough to set you off. This feeling of fear sets the mind racing. You might start to consider how far up in the sky you are, wondering how firmly the wings are bolted on, or how many times the pilot has made the trip. But ironically. this sequence of thoughts, which you perhaps intended to reassure yourself, exacerbates the feeling, which in turn produces more thought, and so on.
Mindfulness teaches us to try to observe our thoughts without identifying with them so strongly. I often return to the idea that meditation is like sitting beside a road and watching the cars passing. The cars represent our thoughts, so if we can watch them as they pass, rather than getting in among them, we have a much easier time of it. By observing our thinking in this way we can intervene in that vicious cycle of panic before it gets going.
If you do suffer from fear of flying, the Singles section of the Headspace app contains guided meditations that might just help you get the head space you need next time you fly. And they’re certainly more restful for the person sitting next to you than praying aloud.