Afraid of Flying or Public Speaking? Understanding Fight-or-Flight Response

Nearly all fears have the same premise, as it turns out

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Have you ever wondered why so many people are petrified of public speaking or traveling on an airplane? Perhaps you’re one of them. All fears boil down to fundamental human psychology, as Professor Vishton explains.

Woman stressed about flying in airplane
Several physiological changes happen as we become anxious thinking about our fears or while experiencing heightened nervousness due to a situation that kicks in our fight-or-flight response. Photo By Maridav / Shutterstock

What Is a Fight-or-Flight Response?

The human nervous system possesses some fundamental mechanisms for regulating arousal. The fight-or-flight response is a reaction to a perceived threat to survival. When your brain detects a threat, it shifts its resources to activating muscles and augmenting sensory processing. 

Your heart rate and breathing become faster as blood is pumped to the muscles to oxygenate them. Blood vessels in the digestive system contract so that the oxygen and fuel there can be diverted elsewhere. 

The body can worry about digestion later after the threat has passed; so digestion gets shut down. When people experience fear, they tend to open their eyes wide. 

They don’t think about doing it; those muscles in the face just contract and open the eyelids all the way. When you do this, you can see just a little bit better, especially in the periphery; this is a functional change. Your body is prepared by all these things for a fight-or-flight situation.

Fear of Public Speaking

If you have a fear of public speaking, it is very likely that you have, at some point, stood in front of a group of people and said something. When you did, everyone looked at you. 

As you walked to the right or left, all of those eyes followed you. Every move and sound you made was placed under very direct scrutiny, and you, understandably, might have felt a bit uncomfortable. 

Because you felt uncomfortable, you probably didn’t speak very well. The distraction of those staring eyes dominated your thoughts enough that those ordinarily automatic processes of translating an idea into a grammatically correct sentence didn’t function as they should.

This probably made you feel more uncomfortable, which produced greater interference with those verbal processes, which made you more uncomfortable, and so on. The vicious downward spiral had been set. 

Worse still, in the future, when a situation arose in which you were confronted with even the idea of speaking in front of a group again, all of those fight-or-flight associations came roaring back into your nervous system.

Origin of Flying Phobias

We could tell a similar story for any fear. The fear of flying typically starts with the mild discomforts of being confined to a relatively small space, not having direct control over your travel, and the loud noises and shaking associated with air turbulence. 

For some people, this unpleasant experience is worse for them than for others. Eventually, just thinking about flying will cause the fear response, further strengthening this association.

“I have a pet theory that flying phobias are so common because of excess carbon dioxide in the plane while it’s boarding,” Professor Vishton said. 

Often pilots shut down the air conditioning while the plane is being serviced and inspected in between flights. That air conditioning typically stays off until everyone is on the plane, ready to go; but people keep breathing, taking in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. 

One of the best ways to induce one of these fight-or-flight arousal responses is to have someone breathe air that’s rich in carbon dioxide. Our body’s deep seated survival instincts seem to take over, and an association is formed.

For strong phobias, you don’t necessarily even have to have especially bad experiences to maintain or even strengthen them. Thus, for example, if you have a substantial fear of flying, then if you just think about flying, you will start to feel nervous. 

As you remember that time the flight got really bumpy as you landed at the JFK Airport, your sympathetic nervous system will ramp up its activity. Even though nothing new has happened—other than the experience perhaps of thinking about flying—the memory of flying will become even more strongly associated with the fear.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s article, where you’ll learn how to break that cycle.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 365 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.