Effective Therapy for a Flight Turbulence Phobia

Among the many causes for the fear of flying, we find a collection of phobias that can turn a boring flight into a terrifying experience.  These phobias include a fear of heights phobia, a fear of being trapped in enclosed spaces, a fear of germs, a fear of dying, and a fear of having a panic attack and not being able to stop it.  These phobias can all be experienced in relation to airplane travel.  But one of the most common aviophobia or aerophobia variations is the fear of airplane turbulence. This article will open your eyes to the forces at work in your turbulence phobia, give you clear therapeutic steps to help you begin to overcome turbulence anxiety, and point the way to effective therapy for fears.

Overcoming the Fear of Turbulence

Is Airplane Turbulence Dangerous? | The Facts Say You Are Safer Than You Think

As a psychotherapist, I have spent decades treating countless numbers of people with the fear of airplane turbulence. From this experience, I have learned that a small number of those whom I treat are actually helped by knowing the stellar safety statistics for airplanes when encountering turbulence.  However for all of the rest, and that would include the vast majority of people, the truth doesn’t much matter.  These individuals, and you may be one of them, fall into a category that could be best described by the following phrase: Hey, don’t bother me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind!”

Will Rogers, the great American humorist and writer from the early 20th century, once said “The problem ain’t what people know. It’s what they know that ain’t so.”  Today, I would say the problem is not the plane; it’s what’s in your brain. 

This central issue will be addressed in the rest of this article. So if that is more interesting to you than safety statistics, feel free to skip down to the next section where you will begin to learn how to change your brain and keep the change.

For those of you who believe that statistics matter, then buckle your seatbelt and prepare yourself to be dazzled by some amazing facts.

What is the truth about turbulence and the possibility of dying in an airplane crash?

First of all, it’s not what you think.  I asked one of my clients from New York (NYC) what he most feared about airplane turbulence.  He reported that he imagined the wings buckling under the stress of the turbulence, then falling off and the plane plummeting to the ground where he would meet a violent death.

Oh, by the way, that won’t happen.  See the video below from Boeing that shows how they stress test the wings far more than what would be experienced during a flight.

Extreme Tests Planes Undergo Before They’re Ready For Commercial Flight

By Steve Reed at the Psychotherapy Center
Airplanes Can Handle the Stress

I then asked, what he thought the odds were that this nightmare scenario would happen.  He said 50/50.  This is basically flipping a coin.  Certainly, if this were the case we would have planes dropping from the sky on a daily basis.

However, such a striking distortion of probabilities is more common than you might think.  Another one of my clients from Los Angeles (LA) put the odds at 1 in 5.  That’s Russian roulette.  This is the stuff of Stephen King novels, not reality.  OK then, what is the truth?

If you have flight anxiety or a fear of flying due to airplane turbulence, then here are some of the fear of flying statistics that shed light on what really is true:

What are the odds that I will die in an airplane crash?

David Ropeik, an instructor in Risk Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health reports that the risk of being killed in an airplane crash “is about 1 in 11 million”.

The International Air Transport Association states the following statistics in their 2021 Airline Safety Performance report.  The report says that based on the overall jet fatality risk in 2021, “a person would need to take a flight every day for 10,078 years to be involved in an accident with at least one fatality.”

What are the odds that I will die in an airplane crash caused by turbulence?

That would be zero.  Looking at statistics from 2009 to the present, CNN reports that according to National Transportation Safety Board data, there have not been any turbulence-related deaths on US-based airlines, regional air carriers, or cargo carriers.

In 2022, US airlines carried 853 million passengers according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).  That is an average of over 10 billion passengers flying from 2009 through 2021.  Given this vast number of passengers and the amazing safety statistics just cited, I believe we can easily conclude the following:

Your odds of dying from turbulence are zero.

Your odds of dying in a commercial airliner crash are very close to zero.

What about injuries caused by airplane turbulence?

Based on those same BTS numbers from 2009 to 2021, 146 people suffered serious turbulence-related injuries. Eighty percent of the people who were injured were crew members—flight attendants who were up moving around.  Therefore only 29 of the people who were injured were passengers. My hunch is that these passengers were either not in their seats or were not buckled in. 

Nonetheless, 29 serious injuries out of over 10 billion passengers puts your odds of being injured at close to nothing and any risk could likely be avoided by being buckled in your seat.

The facts say you are safer than you think.  Turbulence is not dangerous. Fear of turbulence is a mind trick. However, in spite of the facts, phobias, such as a fear of flying and turbulence are very common and widespread throughout the world.

A large-scale research study appearing in the journal The Lancet identifies 13 conditions that are common. In fact, they are common enough that nearly half of the population will experience at least one of them by the age of 75.  Specific phobias are one of the most common conditions.  Although many of the other issues tend to develop by early adulthood, what I observe in my practice is that specific phobias, such as fear of flying and turbulence, can emerge at any time during one’s life.

Even though the facts say that flying in turbulence is completely safe, your thoughts and how you interpret your sensations and emotions are dangerous to your tranquility and well-being. This is what truly keeps people stuck and causes suffering.  This is where statistics end and fear of flying therapy begins. 

Fear of Flying | Your Thoughts Are More Dangerous than You Realize

“We suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

Seneca (from Moral Letters to Lucilius c. 62 CE)
fearful thoughts

Welcome to the scariest place on earth; the human mind. Here the cortex (thinking brain) engages in vivid imagery and frightening phrases that create a compelling mental mirage.  To your primitive emotional midbrain, the limbic system, this mental mirage is indistinguishable from reality.  Our thoughts thus trick a region of the midbrain known as the amygdala into setting off the alarm system and engaging the fight-or-flight reflex. 

Upon activation, the sympathetic nervous system begins to prepare your body to run for your life or fight for your life.  Your heart rate goes up, pupils dilate, blood vessels constrict, and blood pressure rises.  Your brain releases adrenaline, endorphins, and the stress hormone cortisol into your system.  This produces all of the unpleasant sensations we label as high anxiety or panic.  Your thinking brain then interprets those sensations as proof that you are in the presence of a dangerous threat.  This adds more gasoline to the flames of fear by exacerbating your anxiety.

“The soul is dyed with the thoughts we think.”

Marcus Aurelius (from Meditations c. 170s CE)

Suffering begins.  The most benign mode of transportation, the common airplane, becomes the valley of the shadow of death.  Here you tremble in fright, waiting for the airplane turbulence monster to leap out from the dark.

In an article I recently read on Guardian.com, the author wrote a very long piece about her perception of turbulence getting worse and how her fear was as well.  She most definitely needed therapy for fears. The article was almost a clinical study of catastrophic thoughts.  It chronicles her blindly searching for a solution yet never really grasping how the problem is clearly rooted within the confines of her thinking.

Does it have to be this way?  Does the fear of flying over water, the fear of flying in bad weather, the fear of flying in thunderstorms, and the fear of flying in turbulence have to haunt you?  Do I have to remain hyper-vigilant, over-focused on every little sound or movement the plane makes? Do we have to become the victim of our own thoughts? The short answer is no. However, the longer answer involves learning how to take your automatic negative thoughts off autopilot and take manual control of the thought generator.

Three Steps to Taking Your Thinking Off Autopilot (Before You Crash Into Panic)

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.”

Epictetus 55 CE – 135 CE (Quoted in Discourses, Book 2, Chapter 18 by Arrian c. 108 CE)

If one’s thinking is such a huge contributor to turbulence fear, then how can we change our thinking?

Here is a powerful three-step method for freeing you from anxiety-provoking thoughts about the fear of flying, worry about airplane turbulence, or any other type of irrational thought.  I call it “The Three C’s” because each step starts with a word beginning with the letter “C”.  This is an effective tool in implementing therapy for fears. These three steps can help you to Catch, Challenge, and Change disturbing thoughts.

Step 1: Catch

Every cognitive approach to intervening upon a disturbing thought begins with identifying the thought.  We must first catch the thought before we can do anything useful with it.  It is one of the first steps in phobia therapy. This may sound easy at first, but it is not.  Catching your thoughts is far harder than it sounds.  It requires one to engage in a process of monitoring one’s own thinking. It is like Eves dropping, listening in on that stream of consciousness that typically runs unexamined in the background.  Our thoughts are so ubiquitous, so ever-present that we don’t even notice them.  We are not in the habit of noticing.  However, that is exactly what we have to do in order to catch an automatic negative thought in action. 

A form of Mindfulness Meditation called Focused Attention offers a way to practice catching thoughts. On my iPhone, I have downloaded a free app called “White Noise”.  This app provides numerous relaxing sounds.  One of those sounds is a grandfather clock.  I can turn the sound on and try to focus my attention exclusively on the ticking.  By doing this, I am now focusing my attention externally.  It is no longer in my thoughts.  This allows me to be in the present moment by connecting with one of my five senses.

Inevitably, a thought interrupts these few seconds of tranquility.  You see the thinking machine never stops.  The thought generator is always producing thoughts.  It’s what it does.  However, this provides the perfect opportunity for us to begin practicing catching thoughts.

To start, you listen to the clock ticking.  However, you are watching, observing, and listening in order to catch the thought that will eventually come.  It always does and you are ready for it.  In the meditative form of this exercise, you will simply catch the thought and release it, turning your attention back to the external clock sound.  However, for our purpose, we want to catch the thought and do something with it.  We want to learn how to challenge the thought.  You will do this in the next step. 

But first, we need to understand that catching the thought can be more complicated than it appears. Sometimes it is simple to catch a thought because there is but one single thought.  However, it becomes more complex when there are multiple thoughts disguised as one.

Occasionally, the thought you catch will be the tip of the iceberg.  There will be other thoughts about airplane turbulence hiding just under the surface.  Here is an example that I refer to as the Chain of Catastrophic Thoughts.  It is where each thought connects to a deeper and more disturbing thought just below the previous one.

chain of negative thoughts
Chain of Catastrophic Thoughts

“There could be serious turbulence on my flight.”  [Surface thought #1]

“If everyone is screaming, I might have a panic attack.” [Deeper thought #2]

“What if the turbulence is so violent that the wings break?” [Deeper thought #3]

“The plane might crash and I would die.” [Deepest thought #4]

It is more than the initial surface thought that creates distress. It is the whole chain of catastrophic thoughts about airplane turbulence that fuels the panic.  In the therapy for fears, we identify each thought and deal with it.  We do this by challenging each of the anxious thoughts we catch.

Step 2:  Challenge

 We can utilize a list of challenge questions to help us confront and challenge the validity or viability of each catastrophic thought that troubles us.  These questions help cut through bias, perceptional distortions, and irrational fears.  Some of the questions include:

  1. Was it true in the past?
  2. Is it true in this present moment?
  3. Is it probable in the future?
  4. Is this a fact or a story my thought generator has made up?
  5. Am I trying to predict the future?  If so, am I a psychic?
  6. What would I be experiencing if I did not have this thought?

These are a few of the possible challenge questions you can work with during the therapy for fears treatment approach.  Looking through the filter of these challenge questions, let us confront each automatic negative thought (ANT) in the catastrophic chain example.

[ANT] “There could be serious turbulence on my flight.”

[Challenge] “Turbulence is not disturbing, only my thoughts about turbulence are. Learning how to catch, confront, and change my anxious thoughts is a part of my therapy.  I am safe.

[ANT] “If everyone is screaming, I might have a panic attack.”

[Challenge] “I am learning in my therapy for fears how to control my thoughts and regulate my nervous system.”

[ANT] “What if the turbulence is so violent that the wings break?”

[Challenge] “Planes can handle turbulence. Engineers design them to do so. The wings will stay intact.”

[ANT] “The plane might crash and I would die.”

[Challenge] “According to statistics from 2009 to present, it’s never happened. The truth is that I am safe.”

Step 3: Change

Now you are ready for the most important step.  That is to change the thought. Because the midbrain does not work well with language but does react strongly to imagery, we must not only change the scary words but also the negative mental pictures and movies that accompany them. The antidote to toxic anxious thoughts is the positive Antidote Image. For example, you will want to visualize the airplane landing safely.  See yourself healthy and walking off of the plane into the concourse. This is an external reality.  It’s what happens millions of times per day. It is what has happened each time you have flown.

These are the Antidote Images that can calm emotion, soothe your nervous system, and plant the seeds that grow into peace of mind. However, sometimes discrediting the individual anxious thoughts is not enough. At times we must go further and discredit the entire thinking machine, the false thought generator.

You Don’t Have to Believe Everything You Think: Detaching From the Thought Generator

“The misuse of the mind is to believe that your thoughts are who you are.”

Eckhart Tolle (from the Power of Now)

You are not your thoughts. Realize that you are something more. It is possible for you to become the observer who monitors the thinking machine; the watcher that keeps an eye on the thought generator and the stories it makes up.  None of its stories are reality.  At best, they are an interpretation of reality.  At worst, the thought generator and its stories are an internal brainwashing device that warps and distorts the fabric of reality.  You are not that automatic negative thought machine.  It can however affect you, but only when you believe it.

The secret is learning not to believe everything you think.  If you can step back and begin to observe the thought generator as separate from the real you, then you begin to create a distance that allows you to question the entire thinking mechanism.  You can begin to question the validity of the source of thought and not just a singular thought.

For example, if you were in the checkout line at a grocery store, you might notice tabloid newspapers near the register.  Some of these tabloids can have outrageous headlines, such as ‘US President Seen Consulting with Bigfoot’.  Hopefully, you would not take such a headline seriously nor would you consider the tabloid a legitimate news source. 

What if you could view your own thoughts and the thought generator that produces those mental stories in the same way; with healthy skepticism?  You might be less inclined to believe them. 

Is turbulence really dangerous?
What your untrustworthy Thought Generator looks like when telling a false story.

The next time you have an anxious thought about airplane turbulence, imagine a street person holding a piece of cardboard with your scary thought on it.  Then look at it.  Would that be the source you would put your trust in?  Or, see that tabloid newspaper with the headline “Bigfoot Doesn’t Fly Due to Risk of Turbulence”.  Again, would you trust the source? 

Now, stand back and watch your thoughts.  If you have a phobia, anxious or negative thoughts the one thing you can believe is that your thinking machine is good at telling scary stories.  However, you don’t have to believe everything it tells you and you can learn to discredit the source of those automatic negative thoughts. This is part of effective therapy for fears.

Soothing Your Nervous System | Turning Off the Alarm

“Acupressure can be an effective and feasible alternative treatment for decreasing anxiety.”

Mayo Clinic2

In Cognitive Therapy, there is a concept that our thoughts trigger sensations and emotions which then influence our behavior.  We could diagram it like this:

Thoughts – > Sensations & Emotions – > Behavior

This top-down model represents the effect of the thinking brain (cortex) on the midbrain (limbic system).  This is where mental mirages trick the midbrain alarm system into fight-or-flight.

However, sometimes beginning the intervention at the level of thought does not work.  This is because when a person experiences a traumatic event or panic attack during airplane turbulence, the midbrain imprints this directly and the alarm is set.  This is how a fear of flying phobia is born.  Then in the future, any sensory reminder of that prior overwhelming event directly activates the midbrain and the fight-or-flight response without the involvement of any thought. 

In such a situation we need to engage in behavior that directly intervenes upon the sensations and emotions.  By employing this type of therapy for fears, we can indirectly alter the thoughts we have in response.  We could diagram this model like so:

Behavior – > Sensations & Emotions – > Thoughts

Quick REMAP is a treatment method that is a form of Behavioral Therapy. It is successful in treating the fear of flying. In this airplane phobia treatment approach, one self-activates evidence-based acupressure points.  Research at Harvard Medical School3, 4 shows these acupressure points rapidly soothe the amygdala, the alarm center of the midbrain, thus turning off the fight-or-flight reflex.  By engaging in therapy that teaches you how to control this on-off switch, you can learn a method of regulating and soothing your nervous system.  This becomes a tool you can use for turning off panic.

Below are examples of two of the acupressure points from Quick REMAP that you can use in order to soothe the sympathetic nervous system and stop the false alarm.

4th Treatment Point on the Large Intestine Meridian
St. 36 Acupoint
Acupressure Point – Stomach Meridian # 363, 4

The following video will provide further information on the location and use of a few of the acupressure points utilized in Quick REMAP.

Anxiety, Stress & PTSD Treatment Quick REMAP part 6 Dallas, Plano, Richardson TX

By Steve Reed at the Psychotherapy Center

When you master these tools, you will never have to fear panic attacks.  You will have at your fingertips the means to stop them.

Transforming Turbulence through Intelligent Exposure | Therapy for Fears

“What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way.”

Marcus Aurelius (from Meditations c. 170s CE)

Avoiding irrational fear will strengthen the fear.  Confronting irrational fear through Intelligent Exposure will weaken the fear. Exposure therapy is an important component in the therapy for fears.

Fear of flying exposure therapy is the process of exposing yourself to the object of your fear in small steps.  During each step, you will engage in calming your anxious physical reactions and changing negative thinking. The goal is to override the fear with a relaxation response.  Each time this happens the fear weakens.  Finally, your midbrain learns to forge a new association of relaxation with what has previously triggered the alarm reaction. When this happens, flying becomes comfortable and eventually boring.  The sensation of turbulence becomes nothing but motion without meaning. 

To transform airplane turbulence into something benign requires the intelligent application of exposure therapy.  This involves monitoring the intensity level and applying effective tools such as Quick REMAP to keep the nervous system at a level far below panic.  For example, let’s use a scale from zero to ten to measure the intensity of distress.  Here ten is a full panic attack and zero represents complete calm.  On this scale, we want to always keep the intensity below level seven during exposure.  Eventually, we want to get the intensity level all the way down to zero.

We might begin exposure therapy for the fear of flying anxiety by first imagining being on a very turbulent flight.  You might recall a panic attack while flying or especially a panic attack during turbulence.  If that imagery tricks the nervous system into an anxiety response, we can then use the interventions described above to calm the sympathetic nervous system back to a tranquil state.  We then repeat this therapy for fears process multiple times until the thought of being in turbulence is no longer upsetting.

Next, we can employ the use of videos of passengers flying during turbulence. “Your brain learns to relax here too, as you watch these videos repeatedly and use interventions to calm your mind and body.”

Eventually, you will be ready to take what you have learned and apply it during a flight.  Although turbulence can be unpredictable, often people will experience turbulence when flying into airports that are around mountains.  This is where the airflow pattern over mountains creates a condition that can produce turbulence.  It may require a few flights, but this gives you the opportunity to master your response to the sensations of movement that you will experience.  This treatment approach to the fear of flying helps you to learn how to get over the fear of turbulence.

Schedule an Appointment for Airplane Turbulence Treatment, Therapy for Fears, and Help

Help is available by phone or video appointments in the USA and by video appointments worldwide.

To schedule an appointment, call Steve B. Reed, LPC, LMSW, LMFT at 972-997-9955 or reach him by email at stevereed@psychotherapy-center.com

Steve provides therapy for turbulence phobia, fear of flying, flight anxiety, and panic attacks while flying.

Treatment is routinely provided to people in major US cities including Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Boise, Boston, Charlotte, Cheyenne, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Washington DC.

Local treatment is available for people living in the Dallas, Fort Worth, DFW metroplex, including Addison, Allen, Arlington, Bedford, Carrollton, Colleyville, Denton, Euless, Fairview, Flower Mound, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Highland Park, Hurst, Irving, Keller, Lake Highlands, Lewisville, McKinney, Mesquite, Murphy, Plano, Richardson, Rockwall, Rowlett, South Lake, University Park, and Wylie.


  1. McGrath, J. J., et al. (2023) Age of onset and cumulative risk of mental disorders: a cross-national analysis of population surveys from 29 countries. The Lancet Psychiatry, 10(7), 672-681. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(23)00193-1.
  2. Yang, J., Do, A., Mallory, M. J., Wahner-Roedler, D. L., Chon, T. Y., & Bauer, B. A. (2021). Acupressure: An Effective and Feasible Alternative Treatment for Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Global Advances In Health and Medicine10. https://doi.org/10.1177/21649561211058076
  3. Wu MT, Hsieh JC, Xiong J, Yang CF, Pan HB, Chen YC, et al. Central nervous pathway for acupuncture stimulation: localization of processing with functional MR imaging of the brain—preliminary experiences Radiology 1999; 212:133-41.
  4. Hui K, Liu J, Makris N, et al. Acupuncture modulates the limbic system and subcortical gray structures of the human brain: evidence from fMRI studies in normal subjects. Human Brain Mapping. 2000; 9:13-25.
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