Most of information on the web on how to overcome fear of flying is useless. For example, tips that recommend relaxation exercises. They work on the ground; they don’t work in the air. What about therapy? Most therapist are trained to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which claims fear is a learned response caused by erroneous thoughts. But feelings are also caused by noises and motions, particularly the dropping of the plane in turbulence.
Turbulence is the number one problem for anxious and fearful fliers. Turbulence defeats a commonly used strategy: keeping the flight out of mind. It is hard to focus on a book or a movie – or to pretend you are on a beach instead of on a plane – when it is shaking and dropping.
So, what can a person do?
- understand the cause of the problem
- take action to control the fix the problem
- meet the captain
- get a fear of flying app that has a g-force meter
- learn how flying works
- feed the problem
- expect medication to help
- expect relaxation exercises to work
- expect therapy to provide as much relief as you might like
A part of your brain – the amygdala – releases stress hormones whenever what is going on is not part of your daily routine. The amygdala does this to call your attention to what it is noticing. These hormones activate activate your Mobilization System and your Executive Function. The Mobilization System is primitive system. It produces an urge to escape. Executive Function is your sophisticated high level thinking and decision-making function. Think of it as your inner CEO. It automatically overrides this urge in order to carry out a three-step process:
A. Assessment of the situation.
B. Build a plan if assessment shows action is called for.
C. Commitment to carry out the plan.
Executive Function can end the release of stress hormones if an assessment of the situation shows that what triggered the amygdala is not a threat. If so, the amygdala is signaled to quiet down. If not, Executive Function goes to step B., and builds a plan to deal with the problem. Step C. is commitment; at the moment you commit to carry out your plan, Executive Function signals the amygdala to stop releasing stress hormones. The feelings caused by the stress hormones go away. This works very nicely on the ground. It may not work so well in the air. Why?
Flying is routine to a pilot. His or her amygdala regards flying as, “Ho hum. Been there, done that.” But, you don’t fly every day. Your amygdala regards flight as non-routine. If the flight is fairly smooth, an occasional noise or motion will cause a shot of stress hormones now and then. You may be able to reason your way through it, or keep your mind off it. But if there is turbulence, you are bombarded with one shot of stress hormones after another. A high level of stress hormones causes racing heart, rapid breathing, and tension in the body. These are the physical sensations you associate with danger.
Here is where the quality of your Executive Function matters. If you know fear doesn’t always mean danger, you continue to override the urge to escape as you look for more definitive data.
But if you believe fear means danger, these physical sensations can make you believe you are in danger. Your Executive Function looks for – but cannot find – a way to increase your safety. But, as a passenger, there is nothing you can do. Executive Function is unable to build a plan. With no plan to commit to, there is no way to stop the release of stress hormones. Stress hormone levels rise, Executive Function loses its ability to override the urge to escape. The urge to escape takes over. But since escape is not possible, the result is claustrophobia, high anxiety, or panic.
Since the problem is caused by an excess of stress hormones, the answer is to train the brain not to release stress hormones when flying.
How? Few passengers fly often enough for their amygdala to regard flying as routine. There is, however, another way to train your amygdala to disregard the noises and motions of flight.
First, you need to learn how flying works. Engineers build back-up system into the plane’s design so that if something goes wrong, there is a way for the pilots to deal with it. Second, you need to learn the steps required to train the amygdala.
For a book on how flying works, consider Cockpit Confidential by Patrick Smith and The Fearless Flier’s Handbook by Debbie Seaman. The steps used to train the amygdala are in SOAR, The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying by Tom Bunn.
It helps to meet the person who will control your flight. Pilots finish their inspection of the plane before passengers board and usually have time to talk with you. Tell the person in charge at the boarding area that you are an anxious flier. Ask that they let you board early so you have time to meet the pilots. Once on the plane, ask a flight attendant to go up to the cockpit and ask if you can visit. This, of course, has to be done well before departure time while passengers are still boarding.
Reassure yourself that you are safe when turbulence hits. Use the app to graph the g-forces. The readings prove the plane is well within the limits of what it can handle.
Becoming an aviation mini-expert takes the mystery – and much of the fear – out of flying. The more you learn about the backup systems and the systems that prevent pilot error, the more sense it makes to fly.
When there is an accident, the media rarely gets it right. In some cases, reports are sensationalized. You need facts about flying, not sensationalized reporting.
Medication, at best, only takes the edge off. That’s a high price to pay for the trouble it may cause in the long run. Research by the Stanford University School of Medicine found medication keeps a person from getting used to flying. Also, medication increases the person’s sensitivity to the noises and motions of flight. Though medication may give acceptable results in the short term, it may make flying impossible in the long term.
Relaxation exercises work by limiting what the amygdala is exposed to. When the mind is quiet and everything is routine in ones environment, the amygdala releases no stress hormones and allows relaxation to take place. Psychologists have pointed out that it is impossible to be afraid and relaxed at the same time. That is true. But relaxation does not prevent fear. Regardless of how relaxed a person may be, if the amygdala notes something non-routine, it will release stress hormones. When that happens during flight, arousal takes place and relaxation ends.
Many anxious fliers would like to get on the plane and feel nothing. It is unrealistic to have this as a goal.
Even if your goals are reasonable, therapy may be a disappointment when it comes to flying. The methods used by most therapists to reduce anxiety on the ground provide limited relief of anxiety in the air. For example, anxiety can be reduced when therapy empowers a person to take more control of their life. But in the air, control of the situation is not possible.
Fear of flying can be overcome. But if the things you have tried have not worked for you, that doesn’t mean you are hopeless. It only means the things you tried were inadequate.