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Fear of Flying – Part 2

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Eliot C. Heher, MD

My last column discussed fear of flying and began a discussion of its treatment. To reiterate, every successful program starts with the fearful flyer learning as much as they can about the safety of air travel, the operation of airplanes and the air traffic control system.

Once the fearful flyer has begun to trust the industry, most psychologists and fearful flyer programs recommend a set of suggestions on how to control behavior. R. Reid Wilson, Ph.D., a psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina who founded the American Airlines Fearful Flyers program, recommends a six step program. (Dr Wilson’s website, www.anxieties.com, is a wealth of information and self-help tools). Of course, the first step in Dr. Wilson’s program is to trust the airline industry. The other five steps are described below. Remember, there are many approaches to this problem so be sure to review the “Other Resources” listed below.

  • Accept your feelings. Instead of denying your panic and anxiety, anticipate these feelings and accept them. “If you struggle against your anxious feelings, you will cause an increase in the symptoms you are trying to reduce,” says Dr Wilson. Rather than fight, say to yourself “It’s OK I’m feeling this way. I expected to be nervous. I can handle this.”
  • Handle your worries. Even with your renewed trust of the airline industry, you will still worry. “What if the engine falls off?” “What if I vomit?” “What if I have a panic attack?” You need to actively choose to stop these worries. Dr. Wilson recommends that you reassure yourself with supportive statements such as “Turbulence is not dangerous,” or “These negative thoughts aren’t helping me. I can let them go.” Some psychologists recommend that you put a rubber band around your hand and snap it whenever you have a worrisome thought–to literally snap yourself out of the negative thought pattern.
  • Breath! There are many different relaxation techniques that involve breathing. You can learn more about them at Dr. Wilson’s site (www.anxieties.com), through a fearful flyers course, at a number of other websites or through a qualified mental health professional or relaxation expert. One technique Dr. Wilson recommends is the Calming Breath: “Completely exhale, then take a long deep breath. Hold your breath to the count of ‘three.’ Exhale very slowly, saying the word ‘relax’ under your breath. Now rest for about 15 seconds. Let your muscles go limp and warm, loosen your face and jaw muscles, and quiet your thoughts. Repeat that process two more times.”
  • Relax. Again, there are a number of techniques to relax muscles–but learn one of them because there is excellent evidence that relaxing your muscles will automatically reduce your anxiety. Dr. Wilson suggests a “Ten Second Grip.” “Grip the arm rest of your seat slightly, while you contract your upper and lower arms, stomach and leg muscles. Hold that grip for ten seconds as you continue to breathe. Let go and take a nice long Calming Breath. Repeat this two more times. Shift around in your seat, shaking loose your arms, shoulders and legs. Gently roll your head a few times. Close your eyes and focus on your gentle breathing as you invite your body to feel relaxed, warm and heavy for the next half a minute.”
  • Take supportive actions.
    • keep your mind distracted.
    • Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake on the day of flight.
    • the crew.
    • If take-off is a particularly tough time for you, plan for it by taking Calming Breaths (see above) or wiggling your toes.

Other Points to Remember

Some business travelers discover an increased sense of control and comfort if they make their own flight arrangements instead of relying on the corporate travel agents–the beauty of the internet is that it often lets you make your own arrangements while obeying your corporate travel policies. In addition, you should decide in advance where you will sit. An aisle seat allows you to move about the cabin more freely. The window seat allows you to control the window shade. It’s also best if you avoid detailed press coverage about airline accidents. You don’t need to shun it but the mind has a way of remembering the strongest emotion. So if you savor the blow by blow account of the Concorde accident too intently you may stimulate negative thoughts the next time you fly.

Other Resources

There are many excellent sources of information on the Web, in addition to Dr. Wilson’s site (www.anxieties.com). The Fear of Flying Clinic website (www.fofc.com), provides an excellent FAQ about the airline industry and a list of fearful flyer courses around the world, perhaps including one in your area. SOAR, Inc. (www.fearofflying.com) also offers an excellent FAQ with answers provided by Capt. Tom Bunn, MSW, CSW, LCSW. SOAR hosts a message board on fear of flying and a live chat every Wednesday. In addition, according to Capt. Bunn, their program is guaranteed and has a very high success rate.

Final Comments

Some businesses will pay for employees to take fearful flyer courses or visit a specialist but many employees pay their own way because they prefer privacy.

There are some excellent books for fearful flyers as well, available from such common sources as Amazon.

Finally, a qualified mental health professional can be of tremendous assistance in helping your cope with fear of flying–and anxieties in general.