I used to be freaked out on airplanes. My aerophobia wasn’t severe enough that I took trains everywhere, but it was bad. I had to force myself to board flights, and the days preceding any trip were spent fretting about the upcoming trial-by-airline instead of planning vacation activities.
My pre-flight ritual was to down a couple of stiff drinks to “relax,” attempt to convince myself that airplane travel is statistically really safe, and practice positive self-talk like, “you can’t possibly be such a goddamn weakling, can you?”
Once the plane took off, I’d spend entire flight gripping the handrests, staring straight ahead, and willing the plane to not fall out of the sky. “Fear of flying” isn’t exactly the right description for what I had. It was “fear of crashing.”
I knew intellectually and logically how planes worked, but some primal force would overtake me as soon as the wheels left the runway. A vehicle made of thousands of pounds of steel just shouldn’t be able to fly. It’s unnatural.
I’d resigned myself to a lifetime of airplane terror—but then, on a whim, I downloaded Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. It wasn’t a conscious decision to confront my fear; it just seemed like a cool game.
During my first virtual takeoff, I felt a surprising echo of my real-life phobia—that familiar drop in my stomach as the plane lifted off. But it didn’t last too long. Soon, I was piloting planes around the world, taking off into storms, making sketchy landings at tiny runways, and buzzing by national monuments.
I didn’t realize it, but what I was doing resembled a kind of homebrewed exposure therapy, and it wound up helping ease my fear of really flying, too.
How exposure therapy cures phobias
If you have a phobia—an uncontrollable, irrational, and lasting fear of a certain object, situation, or activity—you’re actually fortunate. Almost all phobias are treatable and can be cured, and the gold-standard treatment is exposure therapy.
Put simply, the idea is to expose yourself to the thing you fear until it doesn’t bother you anymore. If you can manage to calmly stay in the presence of spiders, airplane flight, and high-places long enough, you chill out about them.
It’s generally done over a series of steps. First you research the thing you’re afraid of—if it’s spiders, you read some books about spiders. When you’re cool with that, you might move up to looking at pictures or videos of spiders. From there, you might look at a tarantula in a cage. Finally, when you feel up to it, you put the spider in your hand, and you are now the master of your fear.
The trick, though, is to not freak out during the earlier steps. Our instinct is to flee from something we’re afraid of, but running away actually reinforces our fear. This is why, if you are afraid of cotton, you should not appear on The Maury Show and be chased around by a man in a cotton ball suit. Hilarious, but it doesn’t help.
Back on the airplane
After my homebrew exposure therapy, I was cool with flying a fake plane, but when it came time for my next real flight, I still spent the days preceding it in a familiar state of fear. Once we were actually airborne though, something was different. I was a little nervous, but only a little. Previously inexplicable mechanical noises now made sense, thanks to my experience playing Flight Simulator—that grinding sound is the landing gear retracting, not the beginning of a mechanical failure! Turbulence is common; it happens all the time in Flight Simulator through haptic rumbling from the flight stick.
Flight Simulator is designed to be as realistic as possible,. I took virtual planes into the worst weather imaginable and flew in completely ridiculous ways, and still only crashed if I purposefully pointed my plane at the ground, and there are tons of warning buzzers and indicators on the way down. All those hours of video game “experience” just melted my fear of crashing.
Now I like flying. I like having a few hours to just read a book or something, and I never entertain the thought of a deadly air crash.
Should you seek professional help for a phobia?
While I’m anecdotal proof that it’s possible to treat some phobias yourself, you’ll almost definitely have better results if you do it with the help of a mental health professional, especially if your fear is a serious or debilitating one. Research shows that even a single session with a therapist can have dramatic effects, and self-directed approaches are much less effective. Unlike Maury Povich, a qualified therapist will guide you through the exposure steps in a logical way, provide you with a reassuring presences, and give you mental tactics to deal with the anxiety you’ll feel initially. This is usually through mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
Technology versus phobias and anxiety
There are many apps you can download that claim to treat mental illnesses, from post-traumatic stress disorder to phobias and panic attacks, and while they probably don’t all work, the general idea of using computers as part of a treating specific phobias has a growing body of evidence suggesting it’s effective. VRET (Virtual reality exposure therapy) has been shown to help people with specific phobias. This VR experience for people with a fear of heights, for instance, seems to work well even without a flesh-and-blood therapist. Augmented reality apps for spider exposure show similar promise, and are available now if you want to check them out.
When it comes to more serious anxiety disorders, like PTSD, It’s a little trickier. Initial studies are promising, but more research is necessary.