Thursday, 17 September 2009

Fear of flying - a phobia or just plain common sense.

Perhaps I may seem to be playing the devil's advocate but I want ot try and determine in my own mind if there is a thin line between phobias and just a plain and rational fear of something. I wish to take the common example of fear of flying or fear of driving. Firstly, statistics would show that both activities can be dangerous. Planes do fall from the sky and cars do crash with horrific consequences. Logically I can be afraid of using such means of transport. Even within my life-time flying has become an everyday event for many people. Growing up as a boy in Ireland I imagined it as a once in a lifetime experience. Habit, social conditioning have taught us to treat flying as the most natural hting in the world - perhaps it isn't?
Let me take another example to show you what I mean. If I was afraid to go outside because I had a fear that an aircraft - like the actual one in the picture - woudl fall from the skies and kill me. I think we could all accept that this is a fairly irrational fear as the number of people actually struck by an aircraft crashing is very, very small and the chances of it happening are very, very small. There I would agree that this could be described as a phobia as it lacks rationality. Flying, on the other hand, seems to me a rational fear - should we call it a phobia?


  1. I love to fly. I mean whats the worst that can happen. You smack the ground going 300+ miles per hour. If that was to happen you would not feel a thing. Great blog

  2. It's important to remember that fear is a survival emotion. Without fear, people would be heedless of danger and would tend to die before reproducing. So we have fear to warn us about danger so we can decide whether we *really* need to go ahead and, if so, take precautions.

    If a fear is baseless, such as a picture of an airplane causing an anxiety attack (because a picture can't cause harm), then it's a phobia.

    If a fear is based on a real possibility of harm, such as an anxiety attack on a plane, then it is probably not a phobia. It may or may not be a sufficiant nuisance that the person wishes to do something about it.

    If a fear paralyzes someone's ability to think rationally, it is a phobia. Normally one can compare the size of the risk to the size of the gain, and the probability of mishap to the number of occurrences -- but a phobia blocks those.

    If a fear does not paralyze someone's ability to think rationally, but influences their decisions, it is probably not a phobia. It may or may not cause enough inconvenience that someone wishes to change it.

    Ideally, a fear warns you that something you're contemplating is risky. If you don't have a compelling reason to do it, you probably shouldn't do it. If you do have a compelling reason, you should try to make it safer. This is a risk-to-benefit analysis followed by a decision and proper planning. A phobia short-circuits this process.

    For example, I enjoy flying, but I have no intention of going near an airport again unless our society changes a lot. I have heard way too many stories about people being harassed by "security" there. Face a terrorist, whom I'd be free to fight in the face of probable death? No problem. Face an armed squad of guards who could strip-search me or worse because they didn't like my shirt, and I'd have little or no legal recourse? Um, no. Too big a risk for too little gain, for me personally. If some emergency demanded me going through an airport, I could do it; but it would be so risky and emotionally expensive that it doesn't make sense to do it for lesser reasons.

    When dealing with fears, worries, concerns, doubts, aversions, etc. you always need to consider what you stand to gain or lose. If the need is not compelling, it may not be worth the draining effort of forcing yourself past your comfort zone. If the need is compelling, you can grit your teeth and charge ahead. But if you *cannot* force yourself past your comfort zone even for a compelling need, then that could cause a serious problem. Similarly, if the issue rarely comes up, like flying for most folks, it may not be worth intense effort to fix. But if it comes up frequently, like driving for most folks, then working hard to fix it is more likely to pay off. Whether or not you need to fix a phobia, or even just a strong ordinary fear or aversion, depends mainly on whether and how much it actually gets in your way.