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C-Force: The Longer the Flight, the More Grounded the Health Concerns

: Chuck Norris on

Last week, I presented a rather pivotal question posed by Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, senior faculty editor of Harvard Health: "Are you worrying about the right things?" Among his examples of misplaced worries was the thought of dying in a plane crash. "The yearly risk of being killed in a plane crash for the average American is about one in 11 million," says Shmerling.

According to Lisa Fritscher of Verywell Mind, aerophobia, or fear of flying, is common. "Research suggests that between 2.5% and 40% of people experience flying-related anxiety each year," she writes, but "only a much smaller proportion actually meet the criteria for a phobia diagnosis." The higher estimates near 40% "are likely the result of self-rated symptoms of flying anxiety.

"Some people with a fear of flying are reasonably comfortable at the airport, but begin to experience symptoms just before boarding the plane. Others have difficulties that begin as soon as they reach the airport. ... The fear of flying may be caused or worsened if you have certain other phobias and anxiety disorders."

For example, people with claustrophobia, a general fear of heights (acrophobia), social anxiety disorder or germ phobia often fear flying. "Even watching extensive news coverage of airline disasters can be enough to trigger a fear of flying," Fritscher says.

She stresses that fear of flying is treatable. One approach is cognitive behavioral therapy, which "focuses on changing the negative thoughts that contribute to fearful behaviors." Medications can also be prescribed to help alleviate aerophobia symptoms like nausea or anxiety. "If you are experiencing a fear of flying that is negatively affecting your life, it's best to make an appointment with a qualified mental health professional," Fritscher says.

"Flying is objectively low-risk, and 2023 was the safest year for jet travel ever, according to the International Air Transport Association," reports The New York Times' Sarah Lyall. "But fear of flying hardly seems irrational, what with reports of aircraft malfunctions (and) overworked air traffic controllers." One of the best ways to overcome aerophobia is through controlled exposure. That's why airlines such as British Airways are instituting programs designed to reassure and overcome fears of flying.

 

"Nobody wants to go through a flight racked with fear or beset by emotional upheaval," Lyall writes, "and airlines have an obvious interest in calm, unterrified passengers. A number of airlines, including Air France, Lufthansa and Virgin, offer fear-of-flying programs."

The British Airways course includes "a deep dive into the mechanics and operation of an airplane." In one section on how pilots are trained to handle response scenarios, the course leader invited attendees to identify specific worries. "The day ends when the attendees -- or at least those who didn't leave early -- board an actual plane for a real-life flight. ... Several people fretted by the door and failed to board the plane. One woman successfully got on but quickly got off, sobbing."

Which lands us right back on Shmerling's question: "Are you worrying about the right things?"

"While airline seat size and pitch (aka legroom) have shrunk since the 1990s, time passengers spend in the air is noticeably increasing," writes National Geographic reporter Terry Ward in a recent report. "When Qantas launches its nonstop Sydney to London route in late 2025, it will be the longest flight in the world at 20 hours of flying time. ... From dehydration and muscle soreness to nausea and indigestion, the typical discomfort and pain (of passengers) can all be explained by unnatural conditions on long flights.

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