Flying Anticipatory Anxiety

Surveys estimate that fear of flying exists in 10-20% of the population. Flying anticipatory anxiety is a specific flying phobia that is

characterized by marked distress prior to the actual flight. The person may begin to feel anxious months before a trip, as they anticipate the actual flight and “things” which may happen take the form of distressing thoughts. These thoughts may considerably affect one’s wellbeing and personal relationships, and may also compromise one’s efficiency in daily tasks, causing sleeplessness and irritability even months prior to the actual date of the flight.

Flying anticipatory anxiety is not exclusively associated with the act of flying and may result from taking someone to the airport, buying a ticket, confirming a flight, waiting at the boarding lounge, packing at home, or even watching planes on TV. In these situations, the person experiences an irrational fear that something terrible will happen.

Someone limited by a flying anticipatory anxiety may benefit from virtual reality therapy. Virtual reality exposure therapy places the client in a computer generated airport where they “experience” situations associated with flying. The client wears a head-mount display with small TV monitors and stereo earphones to receive both visual and auditory cues. In a controlled virtual environment, the client is able to experience an airport setting, talk with a ticket agent, pass through security checkpoints, and walk down the jetway and onto the plane. Virtual reality exposure therapy is conducted in the safety of the clinic and allows the client to slowly build their confidence without exposing themselves or others to unnecessary distress. Exploration of the virtual world can be repeated until the client is comfortable with the experience and satisfied with their response.

The client is taught relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing skills, and learns about physiological responses to anxiety prior to beginning the virtual reality exposure therapy. These new skills can be used as coping techniques in both VR and eventually real life exposure.

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