Background: The few studies that have explored how flying phobia is acquired have produced contradictory results. We hypothesized that classical conditioning plays a role in acquiring flying phobia and investigated if vicarious (model) learning, informational learning through media, and experiencing stressful life events at the time of onset of phobia also play a role.
Method: Thirty patients with flying phobia and thirty healthy controls matched on age, sex, and education were interviewed with the Mini-DIPS, the short German version of the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule (DSM-IV diagnostic criteria) and the Fear-of-Flying History Interview.
Results: Fifty Percent of patients with flying phobia and 53% of healthy controls reported frightening events in the air. There was no significant difference between the two samples. Thus there were not more classical conditioning events for patients with flying phobia. There also was no significant difference between the two samples for vicarious (model) learning: 37% of flying phobia patients and 23% of healthy controls felt influenced by model learning. The influence of informational learning through media was significantly higher for the clinical sample (70%) than for the control group (37%). Patients with flying phobia experienced significantly more stressful life events in the period of their frightening flight experience (60%) than healthy controls (19%).
Conclusions: Frightening experiences while flying are quite common, but not everybody develops a flying phobia. Stressful life events and other factors might enhance conditionability. Informational learning through negative media reports probably reinforces the development of flying phobia. Clinical implications are discussed.
Keywords: anxiety disorders; cognitive behavior therapy; life events/stress; panic attacks; phobic disorders.
© 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.