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Turbulent Times: Air Disasters in the News and the Impact on Aerophobia

There is something about plane travel that sparks fear in many of us — around 40% of Americans say they feel some anxiety about flying. Plane crashes still provide a rich vein of TV and movie drama and, as happened recently, when a real-life air disaster occurs it becomes a headline-grabbing story.


Of course, the prominence of air disasters in our headlines reveals how unlikely they really are: for the tens of thousands of flights that occur daily, it’s instant news when something goes wrong. But this fact doesn’t help those with a fear of flying, for whom anxiety takes over the facts.


So let’s take a closer look at the recent turbulence that has made the news. If these stories make you dread an upcoming flight or cancel holidays altogether, you’ll want to read on for our tips on tackling fear of turbulence and aerophobia.



Dramatic Drop: What Happened on Flight SQ321


While air accidents are rare, they play into our worst fears. If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, it will have been hard to miss the severe — and deadly — turbulence that hit Singapore Airlines Flight SQ321.


One person died of a heart attack while over a hundred passengers sustained injuries when a Singapore Airlines flight from London to Singapore hit turbulence, likely caused by thunderstorms. The plane made an emergency landing at Bangkok airport in the wake of the disaster. Passengers described a sudden, unexpected drop and many didn’t even have time to put their seatbelts on. The entire event took under 90 seconds, but saw the plane dipping and then reclimbing hundreds of feet.


A second event took place just a few days later on a flight from Qatar to Dublin. While not as significant, and the plane wasn’t forced to make an emergency landing, 12 passengers were injured. Anyone with a fear of flying will have watched these events take place with alarm. 


How Safe is Air Travel in 2024?


In a word: incredibly. Statistically speaking, flying is the safest form of long-distance transportation, and as safety measures improve the chance of being killed in an air accident is 1 in 13.4 million. You’re around one thousand times more likely to be struck by lightning, and let’s not even get started on motor vehicle accidents.


To find out more, we spoke to an Air New Zealand pilot with over 35 years of experience He described how the equipment and operating parameters make flying safely clear-cut:


“We also have some really great equipment on board the aircraft that helps protect us and give us a warning of when things are getting too rough, wind shear alerts, and those are all set out in operating procedures as well… The outer margins are all defined and they're all very conservative.”


Objectively, air travel is safer than ever and events like those seen last week are one in a million, or less. But phobias aren’t rational: they’re intense fears, disproportionate to any real danger, that take over our minds and push away the reality of safety. If that sounds familiar, you may suffer from aerophobia.


Overcoming A Fear of Turbulence and Aerophobia


Facts and statistics offer no solace to those suffering from aerophobia. Aerophobia, an intense and irrational fear of flying, resists the objective truth of safety. Stories of turbulence and plane crashes appear to confirm your deepest fears and exacerbate your phobia, and no amount of rationalization can lead you out of the maze of a phobia.


While turbulence is inevitable on a long-haul flight, the reality is there’s very little danger on an aeroplane. Avoiding air travel might mean missing out on the holiday of a lifetime, or losing the opportunity to meet up with friends or family across the globe. If a fear of flying is holding you back, what can you do about it?


Aerophobia can be managed and treated. From relaxation techniques to ease your anxiety before a flight to therapies like CBT and exposure treatment, here’s how you can tackle fear of turbulence and flying:


Relaxation and Mindfulness:

Symptoms of anxiety or even panic attacks can appear in the run-up to a flight, or when you encounter a few bumps along the way. These can be managed with the right techniques. Deep breathing exercises and meditation can counteract the physical effects of anxiety, slowing your heart rate and calming your nerves. Meanwhile, mindfulness techniques can divert your mind from running wild.


A body scan, focussing on parts of your body one by one from the heat of your toes to the breeze on your hair can be grounding, while the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique of noting 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste diverts your attention away from anxious thoughts and back to the present moment.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is a popular and proven [1] treatment for phobias, including the fear of flying. CBT teaches you new patterns of thinking, replacing the irrational connections that let your phobia rule your thoughts. By learning to challenge irrational thoughts and beliefs you can contextualize your fear without it taking over.


Exposure Therapy:

Exposure therapy works by exposing you to the object of your fear — in a safe, manageable and controlled way. Slowly, whatever it is you’re afraid of loses its power as you become desensitized to triggering actions such as rumbling engines and bouncy turbulence.


For a fear of flying, virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is proven to be effective [2]. VRET can be more realistic than video exposure, without being as intimidating as real-life exposure — it’s safe and gives the user total control to approach their fears.


If turbulence is one of your triggers, oVRcome’s app-based VRET has specific environments to help you face these fears in a controlled manner. One user, Liam, 34, said “the program provided me with a virtual experience of flying in a plane, including takeoff, turbulence, landing – and one of my worst fears – people freaking out around me during turbulence! This allowed me to face my fears and work through my anxiety in a safe and controlled environment.”


Wrapping Up


While the drive to the airport is considerably more dangerous than your transcontinental flight, our mind doesn’t always respond to facts. A fear of flying is common and, after all, hanging out in a steel tube 30,000ft in the air does seem pretty weird.


Given the media’s habit of publishing flying horror stories, these events are often inescapable — but a fear of flying doesn't have to be. If your fear of flying has reasserted itself in the wake of turbulence news stories, then it might be time to face those fears in a safe, clinically proven way, all from the comfort of your own home.


Try our free fear of flying phobia test today to find out how oVRcome could help you.


References:


1. Kim, S., Palin, F., Anderson, P., Edwards, S., & Lindner, G. (2008). Use of skills learned in CBT for fear of flying: Managing flying anxiety after September 11th. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22(2), 301. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.02.006\


2. ​​Krijn M, Emmelkamp PMG, Olafsson RP, Bouwman M, van Gerwen LJ, Spinhoven P, Schuemie MJ, van der Mast CAPG. Fear of flying treatment methods: virtual reality exposure vs. cognitive behavioral therapy. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2007 Feb;78(2):121–128

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