For many people, fear of flying is really fear of feelings. Some of us regulate feelings of anxiety automatically. But others control them by controlling what goes on around them. If not in control, they become uncomfortable and need to escape. If no means of escape is immediately available, the person may panic. This causes difficulty with elevators, bridges, tunnels, and – of course – with airliners. The person thinks, “What if I get overwhelmed and can’t do anything about it? I’ll panic. If I panic and can’t do anything about it, I may have a heart attack.”
We all have some ability to keep feelings under control. Our ability is learned – or absorbed – very early in life. It comes from our relationships with others. As newborns, we have almost no ability to calm ourselves. We need someone else to do that for us. We are held. We are nourished. We are comforted. So how do we learn to comfort ourselves? In the presence of an attuned caregiver, interactive stimulation helps the child discover that feelings of arousal can be tolerated. Also, when things go wrong, calm response by others helps the child learn that, even though things go wrong, the difficulty is temporary. Things will soon get better: there is “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Over time, the child absorbs the way others respond. Because the way others respond – to situations, and the child – varies, the ability to self-soothe varies. In any case, the ability to self-soothe is built in early in life. The amount of self-soothing developed early in life is used throughout the lifespan. As an adult, a person with good self-soothing flies easily. A person with limited self-soothing runs into trouble.
“Light at the End of the Tunnel”
One of the most important elements in self-soothing is the “light at the end of the tunnel.” How does this become part of a person’s self-soothing repertoire? When two guitars are in tune with each other, if a string is plucked on one of the guitars, the corresponding string on the other guitar will vibrate in resonance. When a child is upset, if a caregiver tunes in, and resonates with the child, the caregiver senses what the child is feeling. With its inner experience shared, the child feels connected rather than alone. The caregiver reassures the child, “You are going to feel better in just a minute.” The child imagines feeling better, and begins to feel better. The caregiver has given the distressed child “light at the end of the tunnel.”
If caregivers are calm and empathically responsive, “light at the end of the tunnel” becomes the dominant orientation. When things go wrong, it is not the end of the world. For many of us, calm responses and empathic relationships were too rare for us to regulate anxiety easily. While anxious fliers are filled with worry, the person sitting in the next seat may have settled into a book and appears to be comfortable and calm. Only at the end of the flight, as the plane begins its descent, is there a feeling of relief. The ordeal is almost over. It might seem paradoxical that anxious fliers are calmer during the phase of flight where most accidents happen, but such is the power of anticipated relief.
Consider the opposite. The plane is taxiing out, but stops. The pilot announces an indefinite delay. Or, during flight, the plane enters a holding pattern. Worse yet, when about to land, the plane goes back up again. The light at the end of the tunnel fades or goes out.
Is there a way an anxious flier can still use this phenomenon nevertheless? Yes. I ask my clients to recognise that, even when the plane is stopped, they are moving closer to their destination in time. Flying inevitably includes pauses. So does most sport. Think of football. Unless there is a stoppage, or an incomplete pass, the clock generally keeps running. Every second brings the game closer to its conclusion.
For another analogy, take the U.S. national pastime of baseball. The pitcher is on the mound. He looks at the catcher. The catcher gives some signals. Most of them are bogus; only one is the real signal. The pitcher waits for it. Once he has it, he composes himself. He looks away, and in his mind, rehearses the pitch. He places on foot on the pitching rubber. Again, he pauses to compose himself. All this takes time. Then, he winds up, and delivers the pitch. The ball moves toward the plate. The umpire says, “Outside, ball one.” The catcher returns the ball to the pitcher. The scene repeats. One sportswriter, using a stopwatch, found the ball to be in motion for only eight minutes of the game.
Strategy is important in sport. Important things happen when the ball is not in motion. In flying, though you may not see it, some form of progress is taking place during the pauses. So, instead of measuring progress only by physical movement, measure progress by time, as it moves you closer to deplaning at your destination. Temporary pauses are just part of the game.
Tracking Progress Helps
Some airliners display the plane’s progress. Even if your plane has a display, you can strengthen the light at the end of the tunnel by tracking the plane on your own. You will need a map. One can usually be found in the airline’s in-flight magazine. If you plan ahead, you can purchase or download a more detailed map to bring with you. When the plane takes off, look at your watch. Write the takeoff time on the map at the departure point. Add the total flying time to your takeoff time, and write that time on the map at the destination. Draw a line from your departure point to your destination. Divide the line up into one-hour segments. For example, if the flying time is four hours, mark the line between your departure point and your destination into four parts. At the first mark, add an hour to your takeoff time and write down that time. Add another hour and write that time at the second mark, etc. Once the map shows the time you will be at each of the marks, you can use your own watch at any time during the flight to figure out where you are on the map. By tracking the plane yourself, you stay connected to the plane’s progress across the earth toward your destination.
Clients have told me that when learning about turbulence ahead, if the pilot tells them how long it will last, they remain calm; they can picture relief in a specific amount of time. When that information is not given, there is still a way to keep progress in mind. There are a certain number of bumps and dips ahead. Though we don’t know how many, every bump encountered is one less bump ahead of you. Every dip you feel puts you one dip closer to smooth air. It is all too easy to imagine that turbulence will never end. It has to end. In turbulence, there are a specific number of bumps and dips. Count them. Every one you count means there is one more behind you and one less ahead of you.
Please keep in mind that while some anxious flier can use tools like this effectively, others will not be able to fly comfortably unless changes have been made to the processes that cause stress hormones to be released (the technique for this, involving memories, is discussed in an earlier post).
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.