Does Fear of Flying Worsen as We Get Older?

...as in, when you're old enough to know that s*** can and does really happen?

As a kid, I actually liked turbulence. I remember thinking it was kinda reassuring — like we’re just on a road trip, not in some magical flying machine. But over the last several years, flying has become much more stressful for me. And I’m not talking about carry-on luggage juggling and overbooked flights. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a legit fear of flying, albeit a mild case.

Now, instead of enjoying the ride, I regularly check flight stats to make sure we’re not descending into the ocean. My stomach lurches at the slightest drop in altitude. And I think, who will clear my browser history if this thing goes down?!

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when the new anxiety developed; maybe it was after 9/11. And yes, I know air travel is almost as safe as sitting on the couch, but fears don’t always make sense.

And while there are no actual studies on the theory that flying anxiety worsens with age, I know I’m not alone. (My unscientific polling among folks reveals that it isn’t just me who’s gotten more anxious.)

Clinical psychologist Martin Seif, a specialist in anxiety treatment, and particularly fear of flying, says that some people (like myself) may have reached an age when they “start to recognize that s*** happens.” So maybe it’s simply a case of no longer being young and, well, fearless.

New York-based therapist Nathan Feiles adds, “I get the impression that the invincibility complex of being young drives this a bit. Unless [people] have prior reason to be fearful flyers, which can certainly be the case as well — many people fear flying under the age of 25 — many won't give it a second thought,” he says. “Fear of flying can start as they grow older and become aware of the realities of the world and their own mortality.”

Feiles says that he has noticed a trend towards people tending to either experience worse fears with age or, even if they weren’t fearful flyers, become fearful as they grow older. “As life experiences build up, the reality of ​our own vulnerability as human beings can set in,” he adds, saying that sometimes the new fear may be triggered by the loss of a family member, the onset of an illness, parenthood, or marriage.

Plus, TV shows, movies, and news stories that depict flying as scary can also make flying anxiety worse, Feiles says. (Also, that recent slew of news stories about airline nightmares doesn’t help.) Because of this negativity, our brain starts to think that flying is dangerous and that safe flights are the exception.

That’s why he suggests tracking flights online on a regular basis to help “normalize” flying. Since it’s not a common experience for most people, “the brain hasn't had enough exposure to ‘normalize’ it in the same way that the brain has normalized driving, no matter how dangerous that is,” Feiles explains. “People drive as if it's nothing, without panic or fear, even though it has shown to be much, much more risky than flying.”

In addition, as Seif points out, fear of flying is really a misnomer. It really should be fears of flying, he says, since people suffer from related issues like claustrophobia or a fear of a panic attack, terrorism, or heights. So in order to conquer flying anxiety, those underlying root causes need to be addressed.

For example, one of psychologist Patricia Thornton’s patients specifically dreaded the anticipatory sound of people screaming as the plane fell from the sky. Her prescription: Watch videos of people screaming to overcome the fear. Thornton champions this approach to treating all anxieties, not just fear of flying. She believes patients should go towards the anxiety and face it head on, instead of trying to avoid or suppress the thoughts and feelings.

Also, tried-and-true deep breathing may work to slow down any physiological and emotional responses, Feiles says, but “it's important to note that breathing techniques don't cure fear of flying.”

Noted. For now, I’ll just sit back and imagine I’m gliding through the air in a Winnebago with wings.

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