For years you’ve flown without issue—no breathing exercises, no pills—but suddenly you can’t board without picturing catastrophe. No one you know has recently died in a crash; you have not, to your knowledge, dwelled excessively on those Boeing catastrophes; and yet suddenly, out of nowhere, you’ve become the kind of person who’s afraid to fly.
Or maybe it’s not flying. Maybe it’s pit bulls, or clowns, or clusters of small holes. Whatever it is, it feels inexplicable: for no readily apparent reason, something you once barely cared about now sends you into a panic-spiral. For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of psychologists to get to the bottom of this phenomenon—how and why we develop fears in later life.
Licensed therapist and airline captain and the author of Soar: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying, whose program SOAR helps people conquer their fear of flying
Phobia is understandable after a person has a traumatic encounter with something. It’s puzzling, though, when a phobia starts for no apparent reason. But unexplained onset is surprisingly common. At least half of my clients originally flew with little or no difficulty. Then for no apparent reason, when about to board a flight, they couldn’t do it. The average age of onset out of the blue is twenty-seven.
This type of phobia develops when we mature and realize something could end our life. Phobias can also begin when one becomes a parent, and starts to worry what would happen to one’s child if something were to happen to them. Heightened awareness of vulnerability presents a problem. What do we need to be careful about? The list is endless, so we can’t be sure what to avoid.
A few of us turn to avoiding everything. In what is called agoraphobia, the person holes up someplace, perhaps just one room, in order to feel safe. But most of us turn to control. To keep something from getting us, we try to control everything. But since we can’t control everything, we need a backup. Our Plan B is escape. Since our ability to control things isn’t absolute, we need the ability to escape to be exactly that: absolute.
Once we settle on escape as the thing life depends on, we are set up for panic whenever escape is not immediately available. This can mean elevators, bridges, tunnels, subways, high places, a middle seat in a theater, a dentist’s chair, an MRI machine, and of course on an airliner.
Most of us have a healthier way to control feelings: a mental program that activates our calming system, the parasympathetic nervous system. When something shocking happens, though we feel alarm, it lasts for only a fraction of a second before it is automatically down-regulated to curiosity about what is going on. This automatic down-regulation is necessary for high level thinking (it’s called Executive Function) to accurately determine what, if anything needs to be done.
A person who has not developed automatic down-regulation will stay alarmed until the stress hormones that cause the feeling dissipate. Since Executive Function can’t function when alarmed, it can’t figure out what is going on or what to do about it. This collapse of Executive Function throws the person into their worst nightmare. They freeze. They are unable to act. That means no control and no escape. Panic results.
Professor, Psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose work focuses on assessment and treatment of anxiety disorders, among other things
It’s relatively uncommon for fears to develop later in life from out of nowhere. Often, people will have always had a low-level, manageable fear of flying which suddenly gets a lot worse, for a number of reasons. When you really ask about it, you find that it isn’t really so out of the blue.
One of these reasons is stress and anxiety in general—they may be worrying about work, or relationships, or an ill family member. Or it could be a positive stressor, like moving or getting married. When you have a heightened level of stress, and enter into a situation you might not be in too often, you’re going to be in a bit of a different mindset. You’re scanning for fears, scanning for danger.
Sometimes these things also happen when people’s lives change in a way that they feel they have something to lose, especially when people first become parents. They think: oh my gosh, what would happen to my kids if the plane crashed?
Fears about flying or heights or driving can all emerge later in life, as can social anxiety. I’ve seen a number of people in treatment over the years who have been fine socially, and then their spouse died, or they went through a divorce, and now suddenly they have to spent more time in the world alone—maybe they always went to parties with their spouse, and now they have to go on their own. So sometimes the change in life circumstance can do it.
Clinical Assistant Professor, Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, and author of The CBT Deck
I’ve treated many individuals whose fear developed later in life, including the fear of flying. Not uncommonly it happens with new parents (particularly moms), who suddenly feel the full weight of the implications of a mid-flight disaster. If they travel alone, they’re terrified of leaving their baby without a parent; if they’re with their child, they fear for his or her safety. Fear is intimately tied to our connection to others. When those connections are threatened, we often experience heightened fear reactions.
Hormonal changes later in life can also precipitate new fears of various kinds, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. Estrogen in particular is linked to the quieting of fear reactions; as estrogen levels drop, fear responses can increase. I’ve treated individuals who developed claustrophobia, acrophobia (fear of heights), and various forms of OCD in middle age, with no apparent trigger other than increasing age.
Finally, fears can develop later in life for some people when they start to become more aware of their own mortality. What felt like infinite potential when they were younger gradually starts to seem quite limited, as they recognize the limits of what they’re going to experience and accomplish in this life. That sense of existential threat can provoke more specific fears, which might be a way of shielding a person from the true source of terror (their own mortality).
Emeritus Professor, Psychology, University of Sussex
Fear of flying is not quite the obvious fear you might expect. It’s only rarely associated with fear of heights, but has significant links to an anxiety problem known as panic disorder. Panic disorder occurs when people begin to experience regular and uncontrollable panic attacks, and it’s often fear of a panic attack that leads to a fear of flying.
The reason for this is that when someone experiences panic attacks they like to be able to immediately escape to a “safe place” (such as their home) so they won’t be embarrassed by having a panic attack in public or they can save themselves from the physical consequences of the panic attack (many people experiencing a panic attack think they’re going to have a heart attack or are going to pass out or throw up, but these consequences actually hardly ever happen). The problem with being in an airplane that’s 32,000 feet up in the air is that there’s no escape for the person who is fearing a panic attack, and it’s fear of enclosed spaces rather than fear of heights that’s driving the anxiety.
Periods of stress in a person’s life often give rise to panic attacks and in some cases to prolonged panic disorder, and so it’s quite likely that flying while experiencing life stress may be one trigger that causes flying phobia through fear of the bodily sensations that accompany a panic attack. You don’t need to have a panic attack on an airplane to get flying phobia, but just the thought of having one may be sufficient to make you want to avoid flying in the future.”
Associate Professor and Area Head, Social Psychology, Arizona State University
Developing an unprompted phobia later in life is not impossible, but it would be pretty unusual. The mechanisms by which an intense fear typically develops after childhood do generally involve an event that becomes associated with serious danger or harm. Evidence suggests the amygdala, a brain structure people often think of as associated with fear, actually has the job of intensifying our memory for situations or stimuli that preceded trauma. When those situations/stimuli are encountered again later on, the amygdala seems to support reactivating the memory of the prior experience, and evoking the appropriate emotions. The process is essentially that of PTSD.
However, there is another route by which someone might suddenly develop a fear they’ve never had before, and that involves changes in attention. Let’s say you’re someone who has flown on airplanes your whole life, never really looking out the window or thinking about how far away the ground is. But for some reason, one day this is much more salient to you—maybe you had a recent fall, or saw a movie involving a plane crash, or have been experiencing biologically-induced vertigo. There are a number of possibilities. Whatever caused your shift in attention, you might begin to experience more fear in that situation than you had before, because now you’re attending to the height of the plane and thinking more about the potential danger than you were before. Once this process of threat-related attentional focus starts, it can escalate, because it’s like rehearsing a set of associations between a situation, the mental images it evokes, and emotional reactions.