Fear of Flying: Why Me, But Not Thee?


Fear of flying oct 3 2014_edited-1

Anxious fliers wonder how others fly with so little trouble. Confident fliers can’t quite understand why anyone has trouble. Why the difference? Feelings of inflight anxiety, claustrophobia, and panic are caused when stress hormones build up. These hormones are released when a tiny part of the brain, the amygdala, senses something unfamiliar or unexpected, such as when turbulence causes the plane to drop.

Some of us regulate stress hormones automatically and unconsciously. Others regulate them consciously and deliberately. Automatic regulation works well on the ground and in the air. Conscious regulation works well on the ground, but not in the air.

To understand this, we need to go back one hundred million years ago when the brain of even the most advanced creatures consisted of an amygdala and little else. Such a creature really did not “think”; when its amygdala sensed anything unusual, it released stress hormones that activated its “fight-or-flight” response, and usually, rather than fight, it just ran away.

As time passed, humans came on the scene with a brain that included a cortex, the conscious part of the brain. As the cortex became more sophisticated, it developed the high-level thinking and decision-making we call “executive function”. In this context, when stress hormones are released, both systems – our fight-or-flight system and our executive function – are activated.

Our hotheaded fight-or-flight system demands action. But our cool-headed executive function says, “Wait. Let’s take a look and see if that is really necessary”. If executive function is well developed, it overrides the fight-or-flight system’s urging and takes time to assess the situation. In some cases, what the amygdala has reacted to is found to be inconsequential. In other cases, what the amygdala reacted to is seen by executive function as an opportunity – perhaps something to eat. If so, executive function signals the amygdala to end stress hormone release. But, if what the amygdala has reacted to is assessed as threatening, executive function looks for a way to control the threat. If it comes up with a plan, adopts the plan, and begins carrying out the plan, executive function signals the amygdala that since the matter is decided, no further release of stress hormones is needed. The amygdala quiets down.

That is how, when stress hormones are released, we regulate arousal deliberately and consciously. But some things are done better done automatically and unconsciously. For example, a baseball outfielder who can field fly balls without thinking is more successful than a player who has to figure out where to run. Similarly, unconscious automatic regulation of arousal that works much better than deliberate conscious regulation. The ability to regulate naturally is developed early in life. The amount of natural regulation an adult has varies, depending mostly on the quality of his or her early relationships.

Thanks, Mum and Dad!

Initially, a child has no ability to regulate its own arousal. When aroused, its caregiver – let’s assume its mother – comforts the child. Each time she calms the child, what she does – together with her face, voice, touch, body language, and scent – become linked in the child’s mind to the feelings of arousal. Over time, she – and what she does in response to the child’s arousal – becomes memorised. Then, when links between arousal (by the amygdala) and calming (by the mother) are fully established in memory, the mother’s calming comes spontaneously to mind even when she is not present. It is then called “self-soothing”.

How well each of us establishes self-soothing depends, of course, on how well and how consistently caregivers responded to us, and upon our genetically programmed ability to perceive the caregiver’s response, to record it in memory, and then to automatically recall it when aroused.

Ideally, the full range of emotional experience, and the many physical challenges the child encounters, are all linked to the mother’s, the father’s, and other caregivers’ calming influence. As an adult, when stress hormones are released, anxiety is automatically and unconsciously regulated based on internalised early experience that, though not consciously remembered, is recorded in what is termed “unconscious procedural memory.”

Now we can answer the question as to why some have trouble flying and others do not. When arousal is not regulated naturally and automatically, we regulate it as best we can consciously and deliberately. This works well enough on the ground if we can see what is going on, decide what to do about it, or as a last resort, escape.

But, when stress hormones are released during flight, executive function probably can’t be sure the noise or motion that released the stress hormone is nothing to be concerned about. So executive function then turns to control. Control works for the pilot because he or she can stop stress hormone release by taking action. But that option is not available to a passenger. Unable to stop stress hormone release via assessment or action, executive function turns to escape. But, escape is impossible. There is no way for executive function to stop the release of stress hormones, and the feelings caused by them persist. If the hormones continue to build up, high anxiety or panic may result.

So now we have the whole picture. A person who has automatic and unconscious regulation flies without difficulty. A person who lacks it – and thus must regulate stress hormones consciously – is unable to regulate them well enough to fly comfortably.

What can be done? In upcoming posts, I will show you how you can build in the automatic, unconscious natural regulation that will make it possible for you to fly comfortably and confidently.

Tom Bunn
, L.C.S.W., is a retired airline captain and licensed therapist who has specialised in the treatment of fear of flying for over thirty years. He is the author the bestselling book on flight phobia, 
SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying. His company, SOAR, Inc., founded in 1982, has helped more than 7,000 clients control fear, panic, and claustrophobia.


image | dpa