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Science

Learning to fly - without fear

After a disaster like the Germanwings crash, aviophobia increases among the population, says Keith Stoll. The psychologist, who works with British Airways, told DW why being afraid of flying is natural for humans.

DW: Dr. Stoll, how do you help people who are afraid of flying?

Dr. Keith Stoll: I'm a clinical psychologist and have been the psychologist involved in the British Airways fear of flying course for the last 25 years. In the course, a couple of pilots give the background on why planes fly and why they actually work the way they do. I explain why we have anxiety and more importantly what we can do about it. This is followed by a flight we charter here at British Airways.

What sort of impact does a disaster like the Germanwings crash have on the people you work with?

After every plane disaster, understandably, people are more wary. We've got people reporting more difficulties now. It drops back to normal levels after a while. People will eventually go back to flying with the same sort of calm that they had before. But it takes a while to get back there.

What do you tell people who are afraid of flying after a disaster like the recent Germanwings crash?

In a way, we have to realize that nothing is 100 percent safe, including crossing the road. We don't really think about people being run over by cars. We tend to absorb it.

This is different with flying because we're in a plane and it feels unfamiliar. We look at the odds differently. Statistically the number of people who are electrified by toasters or die in a fall are far higher compared to plane crashes. But people don't see it that way and I can't expect them to see it that way.

There's also a difference between fear and phobia. Phobia makes us avoid our fears. The difficulty with flying is that it's not natural for us. A large part of the bird brain is used to process the experience of flying, because if the bird is afraid of flying, it would have a very short life span.

Germanwings crash site. (Photo: DENIS BOIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The pictures of plane crashes stay in people's minds much longer than those of car accidents

But the human brain is hardly geared towards understanding flying. And what the brain doesn't understand gives rise to fear. And so we try to avoid such situations because our brain says 'Don't even go there.'

I wouldn't say I have a phobia, but I'm definitely uncomfortable with flying. So I try to get an aisle seat. Even though I know it's irrational, I have this idea that if something happens, I can get out easier than sitting by the window. It doesn't make any sense, but it makes me feel a little better. Is that something you hear from your patients as well?

The fact that it might make no difference is not important. The important thing is that you feel safer. I understand why people do this. Some people won't fly on a day that doesn't look very sunny, others won't fly unless they got their good luck charm with them. It's part of being human where we try to give ourselves as much safety as possible. We feel better about it. The reality is that it's one of those areas where we don't have control and that's difficult.

Can you recommend any breathing techniques or something similar for passengers who are nervous when they board a plane?

The most important thing is to breathe out first and breathe in afterwards and make sure you breathe diaphragmatically rather than at the top. The body's natural response to fear is to breathe in a very specific way that keeps fear going.

I recomment people to break that vicous cycle that through breathing and squeezing certain muscles. There's also a number of other techniques: I suggest acupressure points which cover anxiety. There's a whole bunch of things that people can do in order to counter the fear once it occurs. Once the brain learns that you can counter the anxiety, it happens less and less.

Dr. Keith Stoll is a clinical psychologist with a practice in London. He is also the psychologist with British Airways' "Flying with Confidence" courses that aim to help people with aviophobia.

The interview was conducted by Carla Bleiker.

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