Monday 23 October 2017

Family Life: How can my daughter get past her stifling flight anxiety?

David Coleman

David Coleman

My 11-year-old daughter has a terrible phobia of flying. I cannot say that any one instance triggered this; she has flown on numerous occasions, but each flight proved to be more difficult for her. She was so terrified on our way home from Portugal two years ago that she refuses to fly again.

I do not want to push this with her, but she does want to overcome it herself. Outwardly she appears to be a confident child, and she is to a certain degree, yet she seems to be over-anxious about everyday things, like getting a cut and bleeding or running out of petrol.

Most often, her anxieties are about things that are unlikely to happen.

She has plenty of friends, loves school and is fit and healthy, but at times her anxiety prevents her from doing things that she would love to do. If you could give me any direction at all I would really appreciate it.

From the outset, I suggest that you contact a psychologist to help your daughter overcome her fear of flying. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is the most common intervention approach with phobias.

I will give you some ideas here that will help and that will probably be part of any intervention, but actually it might be too much for you to achieve on your own.

That said, phobias are just extreme anxiety responses and so addressing the anxiety is the core of intervention.

Given that your daughter is also displaying more generalised anxiety, then anything you can do to help her manage or regulate her anxious feelings will be of help to her.

The fact that your daughter does want to overcome her fear of flying is a good thing, as she will have to have a strong degree of motivation to challenge herself and her fears.

The central element of resolving phobias is what is called graded exposure while using anxiety-management techniques to reduce or regulate the scared feelings as you get progressively closer and closer to the thing you fear.

At the same time you can challenge some of the beliefs that underlie your fear. Often the fears we have are irrational, that is to say that they are not based on logic or reason. You have identified that this is often the case with your daughter.

In her case, she is overestimating dangers or risks, underestimating her own coping ability and probably overestimating the likelihood of her feared events even occurring.

Typically with fears of flying, the underlying anxiety can be one of personal danger based on the belief that the plane will crash. Or sometimes it can be a fear of being 'trapped' for several hours in a comparatively small cabin space, or of picking up diseases and germs from being in an enclosed air system.

It is worth exploring with your daughter the exact nature of her fear of flying. I would guess, based on her other generalised fears, that it is to do with the danger and risk of dying in an accident.

Once you, and she, are clearer about the reason for her fear, you can try to provide the evidence that might challenge her beliefs. Typically you can challenge the likelihood of an accident based on pretty robust figures from the statistics of air crashes compared to other accident types.

However, because the fear is likely to be irrational, reason and logic alone are unlikely to make the big difference.

Your daughter will really benefit from learning some simple relaxation techniques to help her to reduce the physical sensation of anxiety.

Fear and anxiety lead to the release of adrenalin into the bloodstream and this in turn leads to your heart beating faster, your mouth drying out, your muscles tensing and your stomach feeling 'wobbly'.

The more we experience these physical anxiety responses the more anxious we feel, so having a method of reducing the sensations of anxiety will also help us to feel less anxious.

The simplest method of reducing the physical symptoms, I believe, is deep breathing. By breathing slowly, getting the air deep into your lungs, you can reduce your heartbeat and relax your muscles.

Because your thoughts are focused on your breathing while doing this, you also, cognitively, distract yourself from whatever you are worrying about and this gives you some welcome space from the worry.

Once she learns a successful anxiety management technique (and this is where professional input might help) then she can use it in situations where she feels worried or scared.

When she realises that she can regulate (in this case reduce) her worried or frightened feelings, then she can begin to feel more confident and capable generally. She will learn that she doesn't have to feel scared and that actually she can be more in charge of her anxiety responses than she probably feels right now.

Currently, she probably believes that she has no option but to feel scared. She probably believes that she has no power to change that feeling.

Learning skills to reduce the physical sensation of anxiety will give her confidence to approach feared situations knowing that she will not be incapacitated by her fear.

When she has successfully mastered anxiety management, then she can really challenge herself to gradually approach and engage with the things she is scared of (including flying).

The key thing is that she takes things slowly and learns to feel less anxious at each stage of coming closer to whatever it is she is scared of.

Time, patience, persistence and a bit of self-belief will go a long way to helping her to feel more confident and less scared.

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