They clutch armrests and push mindless conversations on seatmate strangers. They bite their nails or bow their heads in prayer as engines roar for takeoff. Some load up on antianxiety drugs or alcohol—perhaps both—in an attempt to get through the air-travel experience.
Yet, experts say rituals can actually hurt nervous passengers because they reinforce their fear. "They are maintaining their anxiety by subtle avoidance," said Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist in New York and associate director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center for White Plains Hospital Center.
The good news: "A lot of people get very discouraged, but it's really manageable," Dr. Seif said.
An estimated 10% to 25% of the population has a fear of flying. Even though commercial air travel is far safer than driving, the anxiety is understandable: Flying can seem so unnatural—a heavy metal tube hurtling through the air, seemingly defying gravity. We weren't born birds, after all.
Psychologists say phobias often take root when people are in their late 20s and typically affect those with above-average intelligence. They may know all the safety statistics, and yet merely booking a reservation can trigger mental pictures of horrific plane crashes.
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