We have been flying airplanes since 1903. By now, virtually anything that can happen has happened. For anything we know that could go wrong, there is a procedure, a backup system, or a warning system designed to prevent recurrence.
After learning about these systems, my clients with fear of flying usually ask, “Why then do planes still crash?” Posed this way, the question suggests planes are crashing all the time. Are they?
Can we grasp how safe we are on a plane? Is there a way to feel as safe as we actually are? Some anxiety comes from the fact that air is invisible. We can’t see anything holding the plane up. With nothing – at least nothing that we can see – holding the plane up, it should fall. To counter that, look at this video.
Our feelings also have to do with how the mind is wired. When we are in control of a situation, if something goes wrong, we can do something. As we begin taking action, the stress hormones that lead to anxiety begin to subside. Why? Stress hormones are released to get our attention when there is uncertainty. When we decide what to do about the situation, we don’t need stress hormones any longer.
Consider your phone. Your phone rings for the same reasons the brain produces stress hormones: to get your attention. Once you take action and answer the phone, it stops ringing. It would be hard to carry on a conversation if the phone kept ringing. Similarly, it would be hard to carry out a plan of action if feelings caused by stress hormones kept vying for your attention. So, when you commit to a plan of action stress hormones release stops, and anxiety goes away.
This can help us understand why driving feels safer. People say, “If my plane crashes, I’m doomed. But, if I crash my car, I can walk away.” Commitment to this plan of action – though injury could make it impossible to carry out – stops the release of stress hormones and relieves anxiety in the driver’s mind.
What I suggest to you is the same plan. Due to changes in the cabin interior, airplane emergencies are largely survivable. Most passengers can, just as in a car, walk away. Next time you board, locate the nearest emergency exits ahead of, and behind, your seat. Count the number of rows of seats. In an emergency, if there is smoke, you then can count the seats as you make your way out. Make that your plan. It’s a good one.
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