Overcoming the Anxiety of Flying

Incidents like the Germanwings tragedy can raise anxiety even in people who are normally calm fliers. If you suffer from flying anxiety, there are ways to tackle your fear head-on so it doesn’t interfere with job responsibilities or jetting off on a family trip.

U.S. Rule Could Have Prevented Tragedy

Anxiety is so intense for 20 percent of Americans that it affects their jobs and ability to travel anywhere they must fly, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. According to Captain Tom Bunn of the SOAR flying anxiety program, an incident like the Germanwings crash isn’t possible in the United States because two people must be in the cockpit at all times. Bunn, who is an experienced military and commercial pilot, as well as a licensed social worker, explained that, if a pilot needs to leave the cockpit, a member of the cabin crew must come in first. Although it’s technically possible for the co-pilot to overpower the second person, he pointed out that it’s highly unlikely because that person would have to undo seat belts and communication equipment before being able to get up. There would be no way to quickly launch an attack.

If you’re not normally nervous about flying, that information should put your mind at ease. If you need a little extra reassurance, Bunn says you can ask the gate agent if you can board your flight a little early to meet the pilot and co-pilot. That personalizes things rather than leaving you in the hands of total strangers.

However, if you’re among the one in five Americans who tremble at the thought of flying, Bunn says that you can conquer it. He has experience in helping people do that, since he started the SOAR course in 1982.

What’s Behind the Fear?

Bunn points out that most fear of flying techniques center on relaxation and keeping your mind off the fear with a book, movie, crossword puzzles, or some other distraction. While that works for some people, he says that, thanks to a cluster of brain cells called the amygdala, it’s totally ineffective for others because stress hormones override the attempt to distract yourself.

“The amygdala is like a smoke alarm,” he says. “Particles set off the smoke alarm, and it could be a fire or could just be toast burning in the toaster. The amygdala looks for things that aren’t routine, and stress hormones are released when that happens, but it’s so quick that you usually don’t know it.”

Most of the time you realize that whatever caused the momentary stress is not a real threat, but things are different on an airplane. Something like turbulence happens and you feel the drop or hear a noise, and Bunn says, “You’re not in the cockpit so you’re not in a position to say if it’s a false alarm or not.

“Your first line of defense on the ground doesn’t work in an airplane. You can’t find a way to control the situation and you can’t physically escape. You can try to psychologically escape, like reading, knitting, or listening to music, but the amygdala is very sensitive to free fall and can grab your attention to keep you from being hurt. It’s like standing on a step ladder to paint and concentrating on your work. If you lose your balance, your concentration is instantly broken.”

Physically desensitizing your fear

There are ways to physically desensitize the amygdala, which Bunn describes in this article. His website also has a free app that measures G-forces so you can do a reality check and see if the turbulence is really as bad as it feels when you’re frightened.

In addition, you can do exercises to refocus your mind. Bunn recommends an exercise called “Five, Four, Three, Two, One,” in which you sit back and name five things you see in your peripheral vision. After you say “I see ___” five times for five different things, you move to “I hear ___.” Then you finish up with “I feel ___.” Now change the cycle by doing it all again, with four items each time. Work your way all the way down to one, then start at five again if you need to do so. You can stop when you feel relaxed, and you may even lull yourself to sleep.

Bunn explains that it works because, “as you concentrate on non-threatening things, the ‘fight or flight’ hormones that were in your body when you started get burned off. As they get used up, you get more relaxed. If you lose count, that is a good sign because it means you are getting so relaxed that you are losing count.”

A More In-Depth Approach

If you need more help, Bunn’s program can teach you to override the amygala’s response by linking thoughts of each phase of flying, from take-off to landing, to something that naturally overrides it. He points out that this ability is usually linked to reproduction, so you can learn to associate your significant other with the flying process. You won’t have to burn off stress hormones because you won’t produce them when you use this technique.

Medication might seem like an easy way to quash your fears, but Bunn warns that it can actually  be counterproductive. Medication doesn’t do anything about the root of the problem and can actually make it worse. One study found that fearful fliers who were medicated on a flight and who then flew after taking a placebo had a 71 percent increase in panic. Rather than becoming desensitized, their sensitivity actually increased.

Rather than opting for what seems like an easy answer, you can beat your fear of flying by using techniques to distract your mind or turn off the hormonal response. It takes some effort, but the end result will be a much more comfortable flight.