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Taking flight: How to cope with fear of flying

An estimated millions of Americans are afraid to fly, and the September 11 terrorist attacks, followed by the recent crash of American Airlines Flight 587, may make them even more jittery.

"Whenever there's a plane crash, it's hard for people to cope," said Dr. Page Anderson, whose Virtually Better clinic in Atlanta, Georgia, helps people overcome their fear of flying and other phobias through virtual-reality therapy. "Now, of course, it is more complicated in the wake of the terrorist attacks."

Fear of flying can begin in several ways, Anderson explained.

Having a traumatic experience on an airplane -- say an especially rough flight -- or sitting next to someone who is afraid can intensify people's own fears.

"A third way to develop fear is to actually hear information that's consistent with the fear," he added. "There's always intense media coverage of airplane crashes and that can really play into people's fears and skew their perceptions of how safe it is to fly."

But these fears can be conquered.

"In order to overcome a fear, you have to face a fear," Anderson said.

He recommends the following for coping with a fear of flying:

-- Develop a realistic perception about the fear. For instance, flying remains statistically safer than driving. According to the National Safety Council, in 1998, the odds of dying in an air accident were 1 in 390,532, but the odds of dying in a traffic accident were 1 in 6,212.

-- Challenge negative thinking or scary thoughts about flying.

-- Manage anxiety with breathing techniques or meditation.

-- Avoid alcohol on flights. While it may seem to be calming initially, it will prevent facing up to fears in the long run, Anderson said. Other experts advise that alcohol can heighten anxiety.

-- Get back on the plane. Avoiding flying may intensify the fear.

-- If you are still nervous and anxious long after others have come to terms with their fears, consider treatment.

"Treatment tends to be very brief and focused and effective," Anderson said. "Therapeutic exposure involves facing the fear in a controlled and gradual way so that you feel like you're mastering and can cope with your anxiety as you face it."


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