Is Fear of Flying Contagious?

Trapped in a metal tube in the sky, I might be spreading my anxiety to those around me.

Krishnendu Halder / Reuters

I recently got a text message from a friend that read “Can you say something comforting re: flying?” It wasn’t the text itself that was unusual—I knew my friend was en route to Los Angeles that day—but its sender. She was someone who, until about a year ago, wasn’t afraid of flying at all. Someone who, in fact, had served the exact function for me she now wanted me to perform for her: on-demand airplane safety reassurer. I texted my friend a few of the things that usually help calm me: I told her I’d track her flight, that the weather forecast was good, that turbulence alone has never killed anyone. Privately, I wondered if her newfound fear of flying was somehow, in some way, my fault—if by knowing me (and having once lived with me), she had absorbed some of my anxiety by osmosis.

As it turns out, this is not an entirely narcissistic thing to think. A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College, tells me that the fear of flying—like pretty much any emotion—can be contagious. “We all have the capacity to be afraid of anything,” she says. “The thing that causes fear is bad experiences, whether they're vicarious or they're personal.” It makes that sense that even someone who has had no trouble flying for most of her life might develop that fear after an especially turbulent or uncomfortable flight; that they might develop that fear after someone else’s bad flight is less intuitive. Both processes, however, are born of the same brain function—it’s just that indirect experiences are absorbed less readily than direct ones. “Whenever we experience a negative emotion or we see someone freaking out around us, the amygdala, which is responsible for holding all of the things we're afraid of, registers fear responses. So the first time you see somebody freaking out, your amygdala's going to go, ‘I'm just gonna make a little note of this, and we'll remember it for next time,’” says Marsden. “And then every time you have a negative experience, that stamp in your amygdala becomes deeper and more ingrained and even harder for you to overcome.” In other words, if you aren’t afraid of flying, but regularly travel with someone who is, their fear actually can rub off on you.

Less likely is the chance you’ll develop a fear of flying from simply talking about it with someone who experiences it. It’s not the concept that flying is scary that’s at risk of being transferred; it’s the emotional response. “If someone's pointing out to their friend all the reasons they're afraid of flying, and that friend says ‘Jeez, I never thought about that,’ then they might start to feel anxious,” says Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist and the author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. “But I haven't seen too much of that.” More often, what one friend develops in response to another’s fear is an anxiety associated with that specific set of circumstances. “It's more of an anxiety toward having to deal with this person you're traveling with all the time,” says Marsden. (Here I feel the need to apologize to my partner, who says she used to love flying—before she had to do it with me.)

When I asked my friend if she thought her fear of flying was my fault, she said she didn’t think so—we’ve never actually flown together, so she hasn’t seen my terror in action. Instead, she blames a fixation with a particularly terrible famous crash (all true aviophobes will know what I mean when I refer to “Germanwings Flight 9525”), and, perhaps, an increasing awareness of her own mortality. “I've seen that as people get older they [can] develop a certain anxiety or fear about flying,” says Alpert. Besides, flying is just not a very pleasant experience to begin with. Between the waiting, the ever-evolving TSA procedures, the overcrowding, and the strange awareness of being thirty-five thousand feet above sea level, who could be blamed for approaching air travel with dread?

So what’s the friend or loved one of a fearful flyer to do? First off, don’t take on the other person’s suffering as your own, if you can help it. “It’s okay to have some form of boundary, and to take care of yourself first,” says Alpert. If that means watching a movie while your flying partner keeps her eyes on the flight attendants at all times, fine. If that means asking for the window seat so your partner doesn’t have to climb over you to do her nervous pacing, so be it. If you’re both scared, you’re no use to each other—the last thing I want when I’m anxious about turbulence is to look to my left and see that my seatmate is pray-crying with her eyes squeezed shut.

“This is one of those areas where empathy is a good thing, but too much empathy is a bad thing,” says Marsden. Something she likes to use is distraction: “Distract them with something positive so that over time, they associate those positive emotions with what's going on in their environment.” Marsden recommends asking the fearful flyer tell a favorite personal story during takeoff, landing, or periods of turbulence. As always, your mileage may vary; If my partner asked me to take a break from terror to tell her a funny story, I’d ask the air marshal to arrest her. The more I fly with my partner, though, the better she knows how to soothe my nerves while managing her own. But for me, the only thing that has made flying any easier to bear is … more flying. (Well, flying and Xanax.)