Peter Kinderman: Fighting fear of flying

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Thinking slow can help curb natural dread when hurtling through skies.

We should remind ourselves that air travel is still  safe. Photo / Getty Images
We should remind ourselves that air travel is still safe. Photo / Getty Images

Fears about air travel are common and entirely understandable. Human beings have not evolved to fly (beyond the fact that we have evolved brains sophisticated enough to invent aircraft).

In an alien environment, suspended above nothing but air, and especially when strapped into a passenger seat entirely dependent on the aircraft crew, it's almost normal to be a little bit anxious.

And, from a psychological perspective, it makes sense that recent crashes will cause people to have a heightened anxiety about flying.

Most anxiety - even rather odd or very severe phobias - is explicable if we take the time to understand where a person is coming from. Certainly, being apprehensive of flying in a thin-skinned metal tube, supported only by air pressure (and potentially fallible jet engines) several kilometres above the Earth, is a pretty understandable anxiety.

Anxiety is a necessary survival strategy. Children are, for obvious reasons of survival, likely to be nervous of unusual stimuli until they learn to navigate the world in safety.

And, for various reasons, we may learn to remain anxious.

So, in general, anxieties are explicable. They are even meaningful consequences of understandable ways of making sense of what is happening.

As well as merely reacting to the physical stimuli of air travel, people are making judgments about their situation when they have concerns about flying. They are evaluating their likelihood of safety. So when there are high-profile tragedies, as there have been recently, it's not surprising that these fears are exacerbated. In part, this is down to what's called the "availability heuristic". Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have described how many of our judgments are the product of simple, rapid "rules of thumb", rather than detailed logical deductions.

With air travel, a quick succession of tragedies means we are very aware of the dangers and so are more nervous.

So what can we do about it? Daniel Kahneman would probably encourage us to "think slow". This means we should be aware that we tend to use these rapid ways of thinking, and the possible consequences of that; the errors we could make. Then, he might argue, we should take a mental step backwards, and weigh up, more objectively, the likelihood of something bad happening.

Objectively - statistically - we might conclude that air travel is safe. It's still more likely that we are involved in an accident driving to the airport than in an incident involving the flight. We may also remind ourselves that our route does not cross disputed international territories.

All the noises of flight may trigger anxiety. But rather than leaping to the conclusion we're about to fall out of the sky, we can remind ourselves that the thump is just the undercarriage deploying.

I'm planning to fly in a week's time. I will not be particularly nervous. But I may just check the flightpath of my route.

Coping in the cabin
*Being apprehensive of flying is an understandable anxiety.
*Fears are exacerbated when there are high-profile tragedies.
*To help combat this anxiety, we need to "think slow".
*We should take a mental step backwards, and weigh up, more objectively, the likelihood of something bad happening.
*Rather than leaping to the unnecessary conclusion that we're about to fall out of the sky, we can remind ourselves that the thump we heard is the undercarriage deploying.

Peter Kinderman is professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool.

theconversation.edu.au

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