Fear of flying hero

Beat your fear of flying

Meet Henrik Nystedt, pilot and psychologist at AGL-Psykologi.

October 2022
Is the person sitting next to you gripping the armrest for dear life? Therapist and pilot Henrik Nystedt says you shouldn’t buy them a drink. Talk to them instead.

An estimated 10 percent of Scandinavians have an intense fear of flying. As a result they miss out on vacations with the family, or pass up a dream job if it involves long journeys. About 40 percent are estimated to be so unnerved that they need a drink or a sedative before boarding a plane.

Those people are usually easy to spot.

“You can tell when someone is scared or unable to relax because they’re extremely tense and retreat into their shell,” says Henrik Nystedt, a psychologist and SAS pilot.

A fear of flying is acquired in the same way as other phobias: either through one uncomfortable experience, such as strong turbulence, that etches the fear on your brain – or acquired behavior.

At first, there may be just a slight feeling of discomfort, and often people turn to a drink or a sleeping pill as the answer. However, the next time you fly, that pill or drink becomes the guarantee that everything will be fine. Then it becomes a necessity, so that after four or five times, your fear behavior becomes an established pattern.

“A drink or a pill is a short-term solution that only increases your fear in the long run and makes you more tired when you arrive at your destination. The latest research shows therapy is an effective way of beating phobias,” Nystedt says.

It’s good to talk

If your fear is paralyzing you, seek professional help. There are lots of cognitive behavioral therapists who specialize in fear of flying. It is treated in the same way as other phobias.

If you have a specific fear – the wings dropping off, say, or the plane going into a nosedive, talk to the crew. They can answer your questions.

Once you’ve taken your seat on a plane, however, there’s no time for therapy. The key then is to try and get the person in question to break free of the fear that has taken hold of them.

“If you know the person, you can ask them if they’re scared, and perhaps put your hand on their shoulder. It can also help to get the person to talk about something, to distract them from flying. Perhaps you can plan the work you are about to do or talk about the vacation you are about to go on,” Nystedt says.

Once is not enough. You need to keep the person engaged in something other than flying.

“If it’s someone you don’t know, you should be careful about making physical contact. The last thing a scared person wants to do is lose focus on the fear; it almost becomes a lifeline for them. But you can ask them about it. This kind of dialogue can form the basis for a change of focus.

“Just remember that safety is the crew’s utmost priority. We wouldn’t fly if it wasn’t safe.”

Text by Emma Olsson