Countering Preflight Anxiety


Fear of Flying - ominous boarding finer

Some who fear flying are concerned about in-flight panic. Others are worried about crashing. A few seriously question whether they will be alive at the end of a planned flight. When someone expresses genuine belief that his or her flight may not make it, I’m surprised. Why would a person have such an expectation?

It’s not based on history. Here in the United States, for example, we’ve gone for years without a crash by a major carrier. In addition to history, experience is a factor. My expectation are based on 30 years of airline flying with no mishaps.

The Wild Old Days

Still, I can understand the concern. I myself did not always have such confidence in airplanes. The first supersonic aircraft was the rocket-powered X-1. Chuck Yeager flew the X-1 faster than the speed of sound in level flight in 1947. The next supersonic aircraft, the F-100-A, was designed four years later. That was long before enough research had been done to build a safe supersonic aircraft.

When the F-100-A went into service, six of them crashed in first six weeks. The U.S. Air Force grounded the plane and sent the manufacturer back to the drawing boards. The plane was redesigned, and a year later, the F-100-A was replaced with the F-100-C. Somewhat better – weekly crashes become monthly crashes. The F-100-C landed at 210 MPH, too fast to slow down using wheel brakes alone. The plane was fitted with a drag chute. After landing, the pilot pulled a handle to allowed a parachute to drop from a compartment in the rear of the fuselage. If the parachute deployed and blossomed nicely, the plane slowed dramatically. If the parachute, instead of blossoming, was a “streamer”, the F-100-C was not going to stop on the runway. Thus a nylon strap was stretched across the far end of the runway. Each end of the strap was attached to a thousand feet of anchor chain. If the landing gear engaged the strap, the chain dragged the plane to a halt.

If this didn’t work out either, the pilot rode “the world’s fastest tricycle” until it was stopped by whatever it collided with off the end of the runway. That was just one of the hazards of flying the F-100-C. Before going out to fly the F-100, I stopped by the toilet. As I used the urinal, I thought, “This may be the last time I do this.” Considering the shortcomings of the F-100-C, that may not have been an irrational thought.

Flying Today, and What “Feels” Safe

But what about commercial airline flying today? Currently, stats tell us there is one chance of fatality in 40 million flights. If you told someone you were afraid your plane would crash, they would probably label the fear as irrational. In Russian roulette, the chance of fatality is one in six. If you told someone you were afraid of Russian roulette, they would agree that that fear is rational. If one in six is a rational fear and one in 40 million is not, where is the crossover? Where, between one in six and one in 40 million, does fear shift from rational to irrational?

If there is no definable line, can we say there is no way to regard one fear as rational and the other fear as irrational? A definable line isn’t required. Most of us decide what is safe and what is unsafe at a “gut” level. How acceptable a risk is depends upon how much we want to do whatever it is. Even if something has considerable risk, if we want to do it, we go ahead. And, when we go ahead, we don’t feel upset. Why? It’s because of commitment. At the moment we commit to a decision, the prefrontal cortex (the decisionmaking area of the brain) signals the amygdala to stop releasing stress hormones. When something is a “done deal”, anxiety about it is also “done”.

Since our judgment about safety is based on our gut, whatever we commit to feels safe to us. The converse is also true: whatever we don’t commit to may feel unsafe. Whether an activity is actually safe or not is another matter. We would be wise to understand that when we base our judgment about safety on feelings, we have based our judgment on shaky ground.

Since commitment makes an activity feel safe, if a person is feeling anticipatory anxiety, it’s because of lack of commitment. And what makes commitment so hard for anxious fliers? It has to do with something therapists call “splitting”. instead of experiencing all aspects of a situation, the person shuttles between one aspect and another. Let’s say the person feels desire to do something. Based on desire, he or she decides to do it. As the individual considers the steps to take to satisfy that desire, things that could go wrong come to mind and cause fear.

Fear, then, pushes desire aside. Experiencing fear and no desire, the person decides to abandon the plan. Fear disappears. But, when the fear has disappeared, the desire returns. When the person again decides to do the thing, the fear returns, and so forth.

Fear of Flying and Spouse Abuse?

Therapist are used to seeing “splitting” in a different context: interpersonal relationships. A classic example is the physically abused spouse. After a beating, the spouse vows, “It’s over! He’s a bastard (or she’s a bitch) I hate him/her. I’m leaving forever, that’s it.” Then, as they imagine leaving, they feel alone, and think, “Oh, he/she didn’t mean it. I really love him/her. Everything is going to be fine. He/she promised to never do it again.”

The abusee is not able to experience both the desire to be with the abuser and the fear of being with the abuser at the same time. The abusee shuttles back and forth between experiencing first one and then the other.

When commitment to leave is made based solely on anger, there are no feelings of loneliness. But then, when taking steps to leave, loneliness creeps in and anger is pushed aside. Unable to feel both anger and loneliness at the same time, the abused spouse cannot make a commitment that holds up.

I wonder if this is in play when it comes to flying. For example, you make plans to fly based on desire or need. Then, as you start to make a reservation, you think of what could go wrong. The plane could crash. That’s distressing. So, you get rid of the distress by backing off, dropping plans to fly. Then, when a feelings develop due to the prospect of not doing what you want to do, you again decide to fly. As you start making plans, the fear returns.

Solid commitment stops anxiety. To be solid, commitment must include awareness that risk – statistically small and emotionally huge – exists.

Commitment to take a flight is like commitment to make an investment; as the investment ads say, “Past performance is not a guarantee of future results”. The historic record leads to expectation of the flight arriving safely. That is reassuring. But we must also include awareness that if things go badly, they can go very badly. Consider all factors if you fly and all factors if you don’t fly. Then, commit to fly or commit to not fly. Inclusion of all factors allows your commitment be hold up. Either way, upon commitment, stress hormone release ends, and anxiety subsides.


image | dpa