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Fear of Flying: How Major Life Transitions Contribute

By Nathan Feiles, Lmsw @therapynathan

I have worked with many people on overcoming fear of flying who were actually able to fly comfortably until sometime after age 20 (various points beyond this). Though there are a number of possible reasons a person can become afraid of flying when they weren’t previously, for this post I’m going to focus on the role of major life transitions.

As part of the “Underlying Causes” component (one of the four components) of the Balanced Flying Method, we look to understand what underlies your fear of flying. This is invariably different for everyone, and for each person, working through underlying causes happens in its own personal way (it is not a one size fits all approach).

When learning about a person’s history, I’ll often hear something similar to, “I was never afraid of flying. It only started when I was 26 years old (for example).” When I inquire further about what happened at age 26, I’ll hear different types of answers. But quite often, many of them center around a major life transition, and many times, the level of emotional impact of the transition is discounted as “normal” or “not a big deal”. This could be the loss or illness of a parent or other family member, leaving school to enter the “real world”, getting married, having children, getting divorced, changing careers, and more.

What is it about major life transitions that can lead to a fear of flying?

Before going into the specifics types of transitions, it is important to know that life transitions in general tend to cause at least a temporary emotional disruption. They change our daily routines that have possibly been in place for many years, if not throughout our lives, depending on the transition. These transitions change our relationship to our environment and the world around us in certain ways and force us to reconfigure how we live our lives, whether practically, emotionally, or both.

Life transitions essentially can change our footing from a previously safe, secure, grounded way of being in the world into an uncertain, ungrounded, less secure, and therefore less emotionally safe and more emotionally vulnerable environment. This can be especially difficult if the change is sudden.

Change isn’t easy for many people as it is, but it’s not only the process of the change itself that’s difficult, but sometimes it’s the longer term ripple effects of these changes that can cause a deeper emotional impact that may not even be fully conscious or noticed until later.

For any possible life transition, people can be affected in a number of ways. Losing a loved one won’t necessarily have the same long term impact from one person to the next. For many it causes a sense of role change in their family and in the world, which can cause its own anxieties, as well as conscious and/or unconscious feelings related to mortality.

Getting married or having children may also affect people differently. For example, becoming responsible for more than just oneself, loss of a certain type of freedom, change in role in the greater family picture as the generations tick up a notch, and other possibilities.

Moving from school into the workforce tends to create a sense of leaving the safety of childhood where there was less responsibility, possibly more structure, more sense of what would happen from one day to the next, having to now care for oneself financially, maintain a job, friends moving away, and more. This transition tends to open up a great sense of vulnerability for many people. The sense of the invincibility of childhood and adolescence goes away and suddenly the awareness of risk and danger in life increases.

What essentially happens in these and other situations is that we go from a sense of relative emotional stability (or familiarity) to a environment of vulnerability and uncertainty. Things that never bothered us emotionally before can suddenly start to trigger us. Especially things that bring our vulnerability and lack of control in the world into our awareness — such as with flying (though this may not be realized until getting on a flight one day and suddenly feeling anxious).

Now, this begs the question: Everyone goes through major life transitions, but why isn’t everyone afraid of flying?

Where I see major life transitions having the greatest negative impact is where these transitions triggered underlying emotional crises (so to speak) that were never acknowledged or addressed and resolved. For some, they have managed to fully block out the impact since day one, compartmentalizing the emotional discord and taking control in some other way. It is a coping mechanism that can work well for some — until it doesn’t anymore. The emotions start spilling out in other ways.

This is where loss of control, such as in an airplane, becomes emotionally overwhelming. The emotions can no longer be compartmentalized in a plane because there’s no action a person can take to stop the vulnerability. For example, in turbulence, you can’t stop the turbulence, and you can’t walk off the plane. You’re forced to sit with and face the emotions.

Therefore, as part of working out the underlying causes of fear of flying, I’ve seen it greatly help ease one’s fear, in conjunction with the other parts of the method, when people are able to safely face these stored emotions. It ends up allowing a person to both let go, and also have some sense of control by seeing the emotions don’t have to be in control of them.

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