Experts offer coping tips as fear of flying takes off in wake of plane crash
TORONTO -- For many people with a fear of flying, Sunday's deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash may have triggered fresh bouts of anxiety about taking to the skies in the future, especially as the tragedy came less than five months after the same model of aircraft plunged into the ocean off Indonesia, also killing all on board.
TV and newspaper images of the African crash site, coupled with an outpouring of comments on social media, can exacerbate those fears for both children and adults, say experts.
In fact, some airlines have been dealing with nervous passengers booked for flights on the same model -- Boeing's 737 Max 8 -- seeking to switch their tickets to another type of aircraft. That comes amidst a growing number of countries ordering that the aircraft be grounded while the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed all 157 passengers and crew is investigated.
"If you see that an airplane has crashed recently and you're going on an airplane in a few days from now, your brain does the math and it basically says 'Oh, if it happened to them, it can happen to me,"' said Dr. Ian Shulman, a psychologist who specializes in phobias, including fear of flying.
"It just amplifies the appearance that it's happening all the time," he said, despite the fact that flying is considered among the safest forms of travel. In 2017, for instance, there were no fatal passenger airline accidents worldwide.
Anxiety about flying is often related to feelings of loss of control, and for some the claustrophobic discomfort of being trapped inside an object hurtling through the atmosphere with no way to escape.
While travelling in a vehicle on a highway is statistically far more perilous than flying in a commercial aircraft, people know they can roll down the window for air or pull off at the next exit if they feel nervous, Shulman said Tuesday from Oakville, Ont., where he practises.
"When we fly, we're not able to have those same opportunities ... So it takes us out of that place where we believe that we are in control," he said. "I think that's a huge element to the fear."
But pointing out that "the real fear happens in the head," Shulman said coping strategies can be learned to help people overcome their anxiety.
"One of them is to really pay attention to your own thinking: what are you telling yourself about this? Are you over-generalizing and saying because those two planes had problems, then all planes will have problems? Because that's probably not accurate."
Shulman advises people to pull back from that kind of thinking and to realize that "because we think something might happen, it doesn't mean that it will happen."
Of course, adults aren't the only ones susceptible to a fear of flying. Children and teens exposed to grisly images of the plane crash sites and hearing that some of those lost were young people like themselves may also develop nervousness about taking to the air.
"When children hear things on the news that are frightening, they can certainly become worried about them," said Madison Aitken, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
"And I think it's really important they feel comfortable talking with their parents, so they can discuss those fears openly and perhaps be reassured about them or just understand them a little more together."
Parents can reassure their child or teen that aircraft crashes are extremely rare events, she said, adding that they might encourage their young travellers to focus on the destination and the fun activities they can engage in once they've arrived.
"One thing is being really prepared and minimizing stress on and around the actual travel and walking your children through what they can expect, and going early (to the airport), so you're not feeling stressed about getting through security and those kinds of other situations around flying that can raise stress levels in general."
And if parents themselves feel anxious about flying, Aitken recommends that parents talk about their own emotions with their children, "as long as they can do it in a way that they're able to model their successful" coping skills.
"So if you're going to talk about feeling worried yourself, that's OK, and then adding ... that 'even though I'm really feeling nervous, I can get through it and here are the things that I do."'
There are a number of programs in Canada that provide help to people who are nervous or phobic about air travel, including a weekend course in the spring and fall offered by Shulman, called Afraid to Fly.
The two-day course helps participants better understand their fears, discusses coping strategies, and includes having a commercial pilot come to the Oakville clinic to answer their questions about aircraft and flight. On the second day, the group heads to a nearby airfield for a flight in a small plane in which the class practises their newly learned coping skills under Shulman's guidance.