Why So Many Young Women Are Terrified To Fly

ByStephie Grob Plante

It’s 9 o’clock on a Wednesday night, and I’m hunched over my laptop, watching a live chat unfold on my screen while listening in on a conference call. Both the chat and the call are populated by strangers with a common fear. My heartbeat revs, my right knee bounces, and I note the subtle tremor in my fingers. I’m researching flying anxiety among millennial women and also, I am one of these women.

This is how my fear feels: chest-tightening, stomach-hollowing, achy and hot, and somehow also cold. It’s a feeling that has a sound, a high-pitched, radio-transmission frequency. I feel it when I book a flight, when I arrive at the airport, when I board a plane. I feel it on takeoff, cruising, and descent. It ramps up during turbulence, when a flight attendant seems agitated, if a passenger raises his voice. I feel it when thinking about any of those things, apparently, considering that my pulse quickens every time someone on the chat mentions the word “crash” or “engine” or “incident.”

The chatroom and the conference call are both hosted by SOAR, an online program dedicated to overcoming fear of flying. I ask Tom Bunn, therapist, airline captain and SOAR’s founder, if he might put a notice in his weekly newsletter, asking women in their 20s and 30s experiencing flying anxiety if they’d be up to connect. “You’ll probably get a lot of responses,” he says.

46 women email me within the span of two days.

I’d long felt isolated in my anxiety, but if SOAR’s weekly chats and conference calls are any indicator, I’m not alone. According to recent estimates, one out of five Americans, are afraid to fly. There’s no hard data, though, on the demographics of who makes up that 20 percent. But when I poll my female friends, there’s a clear resonance. Do any of them know anyone our age who’s afraid of flying? Almost all of them do, if they don’t already suffer from flying anxiety themselves.

Could this be true? Are millennial women more afraid to fly than previous generations? And if so, why us?

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Being afraid of flying isn't new, and according to Bunn, women in their 20s and 30s are not more afraid of flying than previous generations. But what is new is what has happened to millennials — and their awareness of the world — over the last twenty years. Millennials contend with two anxiety boosters: We became teenagers during the airport security hysteria of post-9/11, and we hit adulthood alongside the rise of social media push notifications.

“I remember for years after 9/11, I’d get anxious just seeing a plane in the sky,” says Erin Malley, a 28-year-old labor and delivery nurse in Ann Arbor, who was 12 at the time. “I really do feel like every time I get on a plane, I'm facing my own mortality. And then when I get off I'm like, ‘I beat it. I faced death and I won.’” Today, even away from the airport, she’s fed constant news, an unholy cocktail of emergency landings, airline “incidents,” and international terrorism.

“I looked out the window, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, what if I don't land safely?”

The average age of flying anxiety onset, says Bunn, is 27. “So when you're 20, you don't know anybody who has fear of flying, and when you're about 30, you know a lot of people who have fear of flying.”

It’s tricky to pinpoint when exactly my flying anxiety began, but I didn’t always feel dread wash over me at the thought of boarding a plane. I studied abroad in college with zero fear, hopping on low fare Ryanair flights every other weekend. In my early-to-mid-twenties, I managed tours for comedians, a job that required quick trips up in the sky every other day. And yet, at 26 I nearly missed a flight from Washington D.C. to Chicago, immovable in my panic and crying so hard I couldn’t breathe, convinced that were I to get on that plane, I’d die.

Our 20s and 30s are a time of major life transitions, says Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist and founding board member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “It doesn't matter if it's a good change or a bad change, because our body reacts to stress similarly.”

Birth, death, marriage, divorce, new job, lost job — it all feeds into the same headspace soup. And although a particularly turbulent flight or scary experience — or hearing about someone else’s — can ignite anxiety’s first spark, psychologists say that fear of flying has more to do with the pressures that pervade a mature, adult life than with flying itself.

Adulthood, says Chicago-based clinical psychologist David Carbonell, means “more responsibilities, more challenges, more realizing, ‘Gee, I'm on the front lines now, it's time for me to make what I'm going to make of my life.’” That invisible but palpable clock of Father Time looms overhead; we read about tragedies in the news, Facebook alerts us to the deaths of people we went to high school with, and we realize that our time is limited. We’re not invincible. We must consider our own mortality.

We also begin to think about who we’d leave behind, were tragedy to strike, which is part of why first pregnancy is a major flying anxiety trigger for women in this age bracket.

“I’ve been known to shake people’s seats and yell, ‘We are going down.’”

Misti Nicholson, a psychologist and director of Austin Anxiety and Behavioral Health Services, was 27 and a new mom to twins when she first experienced flying anxiety herself. “I looked out the window, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, what if I don't land safely? What would happen to my kids?’ I remember my heart started racing. And I was like, ‘I really get it. This is what it feels like.’”

Nicholson adds that there are more opportunities for millennials to develop this phobia, in part because we’re flying more than generations before us. After the airline industry’s financial downturn of the early- and mid-aughts, flight routes are again on the rise, and flying is, at least compared to our parents’ generation, affordable (minus new-ish, annoying up-charges, like baggage and seats fees). Careers in the internet age often require travel for job assignments and interviews, satellite offices and conferences; and when it comes to our personal lives, our families are typically spread out all over the country, sometimes across the oceans. Today the Federal Aviation Administration serves more than 42,000 flights, 2.5 million airline passengers and over 29 million square miles of airspace — everyday.

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Carly Plett is outgoing. Carly Plett is adventurous. Carly Plett enjoys bungee jumping, paragliding, riding roller coasters and cliff jumping. Her fear of flying, she says, makes no sense.

“From the minute I enter the airport, tears are welling up in my eyes,” says the 29-year-old director of photography from Vancouver. “I’m sweaty, and my heart is pounding, and I feel like somehow, this is my death sentence.”

Her hands tremble, her legs bounce. “I’ve been known to shake people’s seats and yell, ‘We are going down.’ I hyperventilate so bad I almost pass out. My hearing can go, and my eyesight gets all starry.” Every flight that she panics on not only feels like torture, but humiliates her, too. She recalls one rough takeoff in Calgary when a kind stranger held her hand just as readily as she remembers a turbulent flight from Mexico when an angry passenger complained about her behavior. “But I was panicking, and there was nothing they could do for me. I just shut my eyes, listened to my music and cried into my hands.”

Fear courses through the body differently for everyone, but there are some frequent hallmarks: sweaty hands, heart palpitations, nausea, lightheadedness. Rebecca Major, a 30-year-old model in Mount Ulla, North Carolina, sweats so much from her anxiety that she wears clothes that will “hide the physical evidence of stress” whenever she flies. Sarah Hegner, a 35-year-old project manager in northern Kentucky, says her body aches after a flight as if she’d finished an intense workout. Malley wore an Apple watch on a recent flight, and watched her heart rate tip into the 140s. “I think my watch thought I was doing cardio.”

This anxiety is work. “I feel as though I age myself five years every time I fly,” says Major. Adds Malley, “It’s exhausting.”

The labor-intensive bodily sensations tripped by fear don’t come from nowhere. Intrusive, obsessive thoughts seize hold of us.

Plett ticks off the list: “Mechanical error. Someone didn't check something, and we are going to go down. Turbulence that will cause pilot error. Intoxicated pilots, terrorism— It all leads to, ‘We are going down, and going to die.’”

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There’s good news for these women (and me): Our fear is unwarranted. Flying is safe, and it’s never been safer. Before the Southwest incident last month, there hadn’t been a single U.S. airline fatality since 2009.

“Yeah, but that wasn’t that long ago,” I say after my husband delivers this stat. I barely register the “hadn’t been” part. I fixate on the fatality.

“One death in nine years,” he says. “Think about it that way.”

I do, but that doesn’t help. I’m thinking about the woman who died, picturing the scene on the plane when the engine exploded and the window cracked, imagining how frightened she must’ve been in her last moments, and how devastated the family that mourns her must be now. (See: intrusive/obsessive thoughts.) Or, as Malley puts it: “What it would be like.”

Seif tells me that for 70 percent of people with flying anxiety, the primary fear is not of crashing, but of panicking while on the plane. Flying phobia, I learn, is something of a misnomer, a catchall that unfolds to reveal any number of individual fears. Claustrophobia, fear of heights, social anxiety — all distinct, but often overlapping. Fear of flying, then, is something of a litmus test to uncover other things going on that need addressing.

“I love to travel. It’s my passion. And yet I have to go through this dooming death experience to do my passion?”

That stat, though, is surprising to me. I fall into the category of folks who fear crashing, the other 30 percent.

“So someone like you is a what if-er,” says Seif. “And you have vivid imagery, and you react physiologically to the imagery. And you might be a worrier, because that's consistent with that sort of thing, you might be a good planner— These are all things that go along with the ability to sit in your living room, imagine taking a flight tomorrow and think, ‘Wow, what if the plane goes down while I'm on it,’ and get terrified and say, ‘Oh, I don't know if I want to go on it.’”

I’ve never felt more seen.

Nor have I felt more frustrated with my inability to get over it already. And I know there too, I’m not alone.

“I love to travel,” says Plett. “It’s my passion. And yet I have to go through this dooming death experience to do my passion? That’s insane. So I need to do something about it. And I feel like it’s getting worse as I get older, so I need to kick this in the butt.”

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Part of therapists’ tactic for working with flying anxiety involves teaching their patients how flying works. It’s the first step in SOAR’s 3-part program, designed “so you know how well-controlled everything is.” The second step “trains your mind to control feelings automatically and unconsciously.”

Control is the operative word here. We’re trapped, with no mode of escape, for x number of hours, at the whims of the pilot and mechanics and weather and engines and, and, and.

“The role of passenger, the way I think of it, is baggage that breathes,” explains Carbonell. The airline will say, ‘Here's our plane, come on board, we'll tell you where to sit, we'll tell you when to sit, we'll tell you when you can have a soda and when you can't, we'll tell you which bathroom you can form a line for and which one you can't, we'll run everything, you just sit there and relax and enjoy it.’ And fearful fliers hate that. They want to feel like they're in control of something.”

"I often have visions of the plane going down, and I can imagine myself thinking, ‘If I would have just decided to not get on this plane, I would not be in this situation.’”

Many with flying anxiety boast successful careers in high-pressure industries, adds Bunn. They’re pros at maintaining responsibilities, and achieving goals. But the qualities that make them great at their jobs are the same that eviscerate them when they’re forced to relinquish control.

“I understand how irrational this fear is,” says Jackie Endress, a 34-year-old sales operations manager in Denver. “But that perceived lack of control really gets me. I often have visions of the plane going down, and I can imagine myself thinking, ‘If I would have just decided to not get on this plane, I would not be in this situation.’”

The women I speak with add that they know their fears are “out of proportion to the danger,” as Seif puts it, and that flying is safer than driving a car. Seif points out that the life insurance rates for commercial pilots are comparable to rates for office workers. Bus drivers, on the other hand, pay far more — they’re involved in more accidents.

“We can give people facts until we're blue in the face,” says SOAR’s director, Lisa Hauptner. “But it's not about facts. It’s about the emotional side of this that says, ‘It doesn't matter, I know all the facts, I know it's safe, it doesn't feel safe.’ The feelings win over the facts all the time.”

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My pre-flying routine is predictable. It’s something I can control.

I wear the same shirt every time I fly, a grey tank top advertising my old yoga studio that closed six years ago. If I’m flying alone, I drink a glass of wine at the airport. If I’m flying with my dog — my co-pilot, truly — I drink half a glass. I don’t want to knock myself out, but I want my edges blurred, a medium-bodied haze. On the plane, I text my husband and parents, “Take off! Love you so much!!” followed by a well-worn pattern of emojis, back-to-back Revolving Hearts and Growing Heart as many times as it takes to fill the line.

My friend Grace Witsil, a 30-year-old attorney in Boise, takes half an Ativan an hour before her flight, and the other half during her layover. Once it kicks in, her nausea fades and jitters melt away. “[It’s] like a little superhero cloak. I can be like, ‘Okay. I can do this.’” If she feels especially anxious, she’ll dig into her stash of “airplane bottles,” small liquor bottles that she’s saved from previous flights and refilled with vodka at home. “It’s my Ziplock bag of shame,” she laughs.

“I figure if I’m going to die, I would rather be drunk.”

Others opt for different benzodiazepines, quick-hit drugs designed to treat anxiety in the moment: Klonopin, Valium. (Note: It's important to talk to your doctor before taking any of these.) Major, the model from North Carolina, takes half a Xanax to keep her hands from shaking, followed by a drink. “I figure if I’m going to die, I would rather be drunk.”

For some, though, benzos and/or alcohol yield more anxiety. Hegner, the project manager from northern Kentucky, says that at her worst, she’d lose a day of vacation needing to sleep off the volume of prescription drugs she’d take “to feel ‘okay.’” One benzo gave her amnesia. Another intensified her heart palpitations, sweats and shakes. Sometimes she’d dose herself too early, requiring her family to drag her, half-unconscious, through the airport.

Peppermint oil, lavender spray, pictures of dogs (raises hand), working out, cleaning the house, skipping coffee, downing coffee, upbeat music, meditative music, the gem malachite — all of these things can help get an anxious person on the plane. But be forewarned, say experts, that an aid doesn’t become a crutch.

“Rituals provide temporary relief from anxiety,” writes anxiety specialist Nicholson in an email, “but over time, rituals reinforce anxiety and make it stronger. A person attributes a positive outcome to the ritual rather than the safety of the plane, or their personal strength and ability to cope.”

Tackling flying anxiety in therapy can be daunting, not just because therapy dredges up so much painful muck. Clinical psychologist Carbonell operates a fear of flying class that requires students to fly on a commercial airline to “practice being afraid on the airplane,” as he puts it. Together, students encounter their anxiety, observe their symptoms and work on their breathing. The trick with flying anxiety, he says, is not to internalize and fight it, but to “recognize, ‘Well, just because I'm feeling miserable right now doesn't put me in any danger. This is discomfort rather than danger.’”

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I can’t lie: The fact that accepting discomfort is the key to conquering this fear is a major bummer. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Maybe added reassurance that nothing will ever go wrong ever? But would my what-if-ing mind ever believe that? Accepting discomfort almost feels like accepting defeat.

But it’s not.

Accepting defeat would be accepting that this self-made terror is the inescapable reality for all time.

“I will only get on a plane if there's something really good on the other end of it,” says Malley. “It's limiting in that way, though. I haven't really done any international travel because of it. That is sad to me, that I let it have that kind of control over what I do in my life.”

Her voice catches. I feel a knot rise in my throat. I completely get it. I think of all the once-in-a-lifetime trips I didn’t take, just because I was scared of getting there.

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed Jackie Endress' quote about "a perceived lack of control" to another source. It has been updated for accuracy.