Fear of flying grounds UK transport chief

Transport minister Patrick McLoughlin has made an embarrassing confession: he is afraid of flying. Should we try to overcome our fears or can terror teach important lessons?

Starting a new job is enough to make anyone feel anxious. But when Patrick McLoughlin was made transport minister last year, he had reason to feel especially worried.

His role meant responsibility for aviation policy and a jet-setting schedule. But McLoughlin has suffered from a profound and lifelong fear of flying.

He is not alone. An estimated one in ten people are afraid to fly, making pteromerhanophobia one of the world’s most common fears. Some suffer so intensely that getting on a plane can induce a panic attack; many avoid air travel entirely.

Why are so many people afraid of flight when, statistically, air travel is safer than the road? The answer varies: some imagine terrorist attacks, others suffer from claustrophobia. Often, people are spooked by a lack of control – a common cause of anxiety in all areas of life.

Other common phobias can be explained from an evolutionary perspective. Early in human history, spiders, snakes and even dirt posed a genuine threat: those with a strong aversion would have been more likely to survive and then to pass those fears on to their offspring. Today such once-useful terrors remain, though their objects pose no harm.

Phobias now inspire a thriving industry. Airlines run £250 courses in overcoming a fear of flying, and those struggling against any number of strange aversions are offered myriad cures. The dominant message? Face your fear, and it will disappear.

The mantra does not just apply to ultra-specific phobias. The belief that people should overcome everyday fear is a mainstay of modern self-help psychology. Fear of failure, an aversion to new situations or a lack of confidence, it is thought, hold people back from achieving their full potential.

The philosophy made waves with Susan Jeffers’ 1987 book ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’, a classic that has sold over 15 million copies. It argues that anxiety narrows people’s lives: that rather than worrying, people should challenge and improve themselves by facing what scares them.

Fear the enemy?

So should we all throw off the chains of anxiety? Absolutely, say Jeffers’ followers. Fear prevents people from living their lives; those who stick to what is familiar will miss out on countless amazing experiences, and might never know the extent of what they could achieve.

But fear can be useful, too. If someone were afraid of a raging tiger or cautious about taking illegal drugs, few would argue they should boldly face their anxiety. Often, someone’s ‘comfort zone’ is a place of confidence and happiness: why should anyone expose themselves to uncomfortable, dangerous or even challenging situations?

You Decide

  1. What is your biggest fear? Why?
  2. What is more important: being content with what you have, or having challenging and enriching experiences?

Activities

  1. Create a team game: phobia call my bluff. Research different phobias, and for each one write down the real definition and two made-up meanings. Can the other team guess which is real?
  2. Research the biological reaction to fear, and create an infographic that explains what happens when people are confronted with something that scares them.

Some People Say...

“If you don’t feel fear, you can’t be brave.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m a very nervous person, so I’m not really interested in ‘feeling the fear’.
That’s fair enough. There is evidence, too, that suggests you might not be able to help your attitude to risk. Have you ever noticed that some people are adrenaline junkies, while others reel at the slightest possibility of danger? Some psychologists think this reflects genetic characteristics.
But I’d really like to do something out of my comfort zone!
You can! In her book, Susan Jeffers reiterates a crucial point: just do what frightens you. That might be a big effort: facing scary situations won’t be pleasant, things might go badly and sometimes risks will fall flat. But whatever happens, you will learn from your experiences – and doing something is better than doing nothing.

Word Watch

Air travel is safer than the road
The death rate for air passengers in 0.6 per billion miles; for road travel the rate is 24 deaths per billion miles.
Evolutionary perspective
Evolutionary psychology is a way of thinking about where behaviour traits come from. It looks at psychological traits as adaptations, which helped prehistoric people to survive. Those that were prepared to take risks, for example, might survive by being successful hunters, and would then pass on risk-taking genes to their offspring. It is worth remembering, however, that evolutionary psychology it is not an exact science – theories are based on difficult-to-test propositions about the very distant past.
Spiders, snakes and even dirt
Arachnophobia, ophidiophobia and mysophobia, respectively.
Susan Jeffers
An American housewife who started studying psychology after having children, Jeffers struggled to find a publisher for ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’. She says she used the the lessons of her book to turn her own life around.

Subjects

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