Can You Be Afraid of Heights But Not Flying?

The wing of a Helvetic Airways plane flying above a snow-capped mountain range

If you have a fear of heights, you’ll be well aware of the situations that can trigger your phobia. Anything from peering over the edge of a balcony to standing on a stepladder can get your heart racing and the adrenaline flowing. As such, you’d expect your phobic symptoms to be particularly intense in an aeroplane, when you could be as much as 42,000 feet from the ground. However, somewhat counterintuitively, many people with acrophobia aren’t afraid of flying. Why is this the case?

In this post, we’ll explore the reasons why acrophobia sufferers don’t always experience aerophobia: the phobia of flying. We’ll break down the differing causes of these two conditions, and provide you with some handy tips you can use if you do feel nervous boarding an aircraft. Let’s get started!

Acrophobia vs aerophobia

Their names may be similar, but acrophobia and aerophobia are distinct conditions. Acrophobia is the medical term for a fear of heights. Aerophobia, meanwhile, refers to a fear of flying. Below, we’ll take a quick look at each of these conditions in turn.

What is acrophobia?

Acrophobia is a phobia of heights. Because it concerns a fear of a certain situation, it is classed as a specific phobia. This contrasts with the other major type of phobia: complex phobias. Specific phobias usually develop in childhood or adolescence, and their causes are hotly debated. Some believe that a fear of heights is genetic, while others view it as learned behaviour.

There are a range of symptoms associated with acrophobia, which may be emotional, physical or psychological in nature. These symptoms will be triggered when you are in a high place, such as a mountain or a tall building. Many people with this fear will adopt avoidant behaviours.

For a full primer on this condition, be sure to check out our What Is Acrophobia? article.

What is aerophobia?

Man sat in an airport waiting area with his legs up on a suitcase, looking out at a plane taking off outside of the window
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Aerophobia is one of a number of terms used to denote a phobia of flying. Like acrophobia, it is a specific phobia. Other names for this condition are aviophobia and pteromerhanophobia. According to an article in the Washington Post, around 40% of the population experiences some degree of fear when flying. 2.5% of us, meanwhile—or 1 in every 40 people—meets the clinical definition of a flying phobia.

The root causes of aerophobia appear to differ from person to person. Time magazine’s Jamie Ducharme, in their “Why Some People Have a Crippling Fear of Flying” article, wrote that some people’s fear emanates from factors relating to the safety of flying—e.g., concerns about whether the plane will crash. In their aerophobia factsheet, Anxiety UK writes that this group of people fear an external loss of control.

In contrast, some people with aerophobia fear an internal loss of control. These people are less concerned with the aeroplane itself and worry more about about things such as fainting or having a panic attack during the flight. This may be linked to claustrophobia, with patients sometimes noting that they feel ‘trapped’ while on board. Similarly, according to an article in Frontiers in Psychology, it is estimated that up to 59% of people with a fear of flying “will meet criteria for another anxiety disorder within their lifetime”.

The symptoms of aerophobia are varied, and include experiencing panic attacks before or during a flight. People with this condition are particularly likely to experience high levels of anxiety during take-off or when the plane is going through turbulence or bad weather. In many circumstances, people with aerophobia will simply avoid flying whenever possible.

Aerophobia: one condition, or several?

One thing you may have noticed when reading through our description of aerophobia is that many people’s fear of flying is completely unrelated to heights. So, is there a link between acrophobia and aerophobia? The answer is sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

A team of researchers at Leiden University attempted to create a “typology of flying phobics”. They found that there were four main sub-groups of people with a fear of flying. For one of these sub-groups, acrophobia was the main factor underpinning their anxiety towards flying.

However, the other three sub-groups experienced a fear of flying for different reasons. The first were those whose anxiety was triggered by the “sounds and movements of the plane”. Second was the group that either had social anxiety or who worried about losing control over themselves. Finally, the aerophobia of the third group was based on agoraphobia, claustrophobia, or the fear of water. This group is the most likely to experience high anxiety in response to flying, as well as symptoms such as panic attacks.

Having discovered several different classes of aerophobia, the researchers determined that a “fear of flying appears to be a heterogeneous problem and […] not a unitary phenomenon.” In other words, you shouldn’t think of a fear of flying as a single phobia, but instead a group of different conditions, each with their own origins.

Afraid of heights but not flying (or vice versa)

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With multiple explanations existing for aerophobia, it becomes clear why some people can experience this condition without having acrophobia. What is perhaps harder to explain, however, is the fact that many people with a fear of heights are unfazed by the prospect of flying—even in the full knowledge that they’ll be miles higher than any point on land. There’s even anecdotal evidence suggesting that many pilots are afraid of heights.

One possible explanation for this is that many people talk about having a fear of heights when they actually have a related but separate condition. It’s very common, for example, to conflate acrophobia and height vertigo. The theory goes that height vertigo may come about when there is a large enough distance between a person and the object they are looking at. When you’re mid-flight, however, you don’t actually see how far you are from the ground, and thus don’t experience this effect.

Another condition that’s often confused with a fear of heights is a fear of falling. This is also known as basophobia. You may well experience this when standing near the edge of a cliff, or when looking down from a height. When you’re on a plane, however, you’re likely to be staying put in your seat for the duration. Even staring out of the window is unlikely to trigger any symptoms, as your brain will know that the space isn’t large enough for you to fall through. If you were to fall over on an aeroplane, it would be much the same as falling over in your own home—a bit embarrassing, perhaps, but not exactly life-threatening.

Alternatively, it could be the case that your fear of heights is only triggered in certain situations. If your phobia only rears its ugly head when you’re exposed to the elements, then it’s unlikely to affect you inside an aeroplane. Likewise, your symptoms might be alleviated because you’re not the one in control of the aircraft, and thus can’t fear the potential loss of control. Or perhaps your phobia is the result of a traumatic event unrelated to flying, and only appears when memories of this trauma are triggered. Lastly, it might simply be the case that you know the flight is almost certainly going to be safe, and that this logic overrides your fear.

Fly free from fear

People climbing stairs to board a Ryanair plane
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If you’re one of the unlucky ones whose acrophobia does make you afraid to fly, then this section is for you. Here are some tips that will help you to feel more at ease on your next flight:

  • Take it step by step. You don’t have to throw yourself in at the deep end! To get yourself used to the sounds of an aeroplane, you can start with something as small as watching a YouTube video. You could then progress to going to an observation area at your local airport.
  • Try exposure. Some airlines, such as EasyJet, offer courses specifically designed to help people overcome their fear. This includes technical information, as well as advice on how to cope with your aerophobia whilst on board. You’ll finish by taking a short flight.
  • Learn more about your flight. When you’re unfamiliar with flying, everything from taking off to experiencing a spell of turbulence can be anxiety-inducing. Taking the time to inform yourself about how aeroplanes work will help to demystify these experiences.
  • Distract yourself. There are plenty of things you can do to take your mind off your fear of flying. This can be as simple as flicking through a magazine or getting engrossed in a novel. Some people find puzzles work especially well, so stop off at the kiosk and grab yourself a Sudoku book before you board!
  • Don’t dismiss your thoughts, but don’t dwell on them. No matter how well prepared you are, you will probably feel anxiety or fear during the flight. Rather than attempting to ignore these feelings, accept them and let them pass.

Beating your phobias for good

Lufthansa flight taking off
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One of the most effective methods you can turn to to overcome your phobias is therapy. There are a variety of therapeutic options available which can help you to beat your fear of heights or flying, including exposure therapy, hypnotherapy, virtual reality and cognitive behavioural therapy. Using techniques such as these, you can change your mindset, and in turn approach flying in a whole new way.

If you’re interested in this option, be sure to consider the Climb Above Fear Acrophobia Programme. This will see you working together with a professional therapist to tackle the causes of your phobia. You’ll also gain valuable coping mechanisms that will help you in situations that cause you anxiety. Take the first step by contacting our team today.