VR Tech
Overcoming Fear of Flying
Dr Emma Johnston, Psychologist, Cumberland Park SA
12 February 2018

Overcome your fear of flying

As her nails dug into my forearm and the plane gathered speed as it prepared for takeoff, I realised my good friend was suffering from a fear of flying.  Upon reflection her pre-flight preparation of four gin and tonics and a panic attack when our flight was called were probably pretty good indicators!  Fear of flying, or flight phobia, refers to the acute anxiety experienced when thinking about flying, or the acute anxiety experienced when about to fly, or whilst on an aircraft. Fear of flying is a common condition, but not one that people generally seek treatment for. In fact, the majority of people with flying phobia tend to alter their lifestyle to accommodate their phobia, instead of seeking treatment.

Flying phobia can be debilitating and have a significant impact on people’s lives. The most common scenario is where a someone with a flight phobia has simply avoided flying and loved ones around them understand this and change plans to accommodate the non-flyer. Sometimes a person with a flying phobia is placed in a situation where they know they will have to fly, be it for work or a family wedding, for example. In such cases, often the flying phobic person will engage in many safety behaviours to manage the flight, such as the use of prescription medications, alcohol, or even having a ritual they need to perform in order to feel safe in the air. These strategies, whilst enabling the person with a fear of flying to fly, result in increased anxiety, discomfort and overall, a miserable flight. At its worst, it can lead to addictive behaviours, but more often simply amplifies the anxiety and overtime, makes it increasingly difficult to fly.

Fears around flying generally fall into categories including claustrophobia (a feeling of entrapment, or being unable to breathe), a sense of a lack of control, a fear of turbulence, or a fear of the aircraft crashing. One family were unable to take their son back to the United Kingdom to meet family due to his fear of crashing. He finally sought treatment at age 18. Explaining the statistics on airplanes crashing doesn’t help those with a real phobia.

Psychological treatment for phobias involves exposure – presenting someone with the situation they fear and hence allowing the “flight/freeze” system to recalibrate. People are first taught to manage their anxious symptoms to feel more prepared for being exposed to the feared stimulus. Flying phobia has been difficult to treat as exposure therapy either tends to be imaginal (working with the psychologist to imagine being on an aircraft) or in-vivo (actually boarding an aircraft and taking a flight). Due to prohibitive costs, in-vivo exposure often cannot involve the therapist being present, and imaginal exposure has been shown to be less effective a treatment.

Virtual reality (VR) has allowed clients to be exposed to the feared stimulus of flying, without having to leave the psychologist’s office. Called “in-virtuo” exposure, use of VR technology has allowed for more accessible in-office treatment for flying phobia. VR treatment for fear of flying has been shown to be time and cost effective, and a successful way to treat a flight phobia, allowing people to enjoy the option of flying.


ThinkWise Clinical Psychology is pleased to offer VR  exposure packages for treatment of flying phobia.

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