Fear of Flying

I’ve decided to re-post a series of articles on Fear and ways of dealing with it, in order to bring them together in one space and to receive your comments. Fear of flying is a very common experience. How to deal with it?

Digging a molehill

a mole digging a molehill

 Mountains out of Molehills

I’ve often had a tendency,  from childhood onwards, to be overly dramatic and magnify things.  It’s part of the empathic temperament. Mum used to say:  “You catastrophise everything”.

It’s one of the symptoms of being anxious.  And I now know that anxiety goes hand-in-hand with the Black Dog (depression). I suffered from both of these problems for a long time. Psychologists in this country use cognitive behaviour techniques (CBT) on people like me.  This involves teaching you how to change thoughts, to over-ride fearful feelings and alter behaviour.  It’s a re-education process. Therapists also encourage strategies, such as meditation, in tandem with gentle exposure to the fearful situation. Examples of things that trigger fear in people are making a speech in public, meeting new people, thinking about dying, or coming in close contact with frogs, snakes  or spiders.

Fear of Flying

What led me to this particular psychologist was an extreme fear of flying. My new boyfriend at the time was an international traveller.  It was part of his work, as a “sommelier”, and he wanted me to visit all these amazing places with him.

My therapist said: “Why are you afraid of going in a plane? What is it that scares you about it?”

“The plane might crash,” I said. He told me the statistics, and how it was much safer than walking the streets or driving in a car. “These jets don’t just fall out of the sky, you know.”

I gave him my Don’t be ridiculous look and said: “But what if it did?” My teeth began to chatter at the thought of the plane tumbling down through the ether.

“Well, you’d die  quickly, I suppose,” he said, and gave a shrug. “But it’s as rare as winning the lottery or hitting the jackpot on the pokies.”

“But, I can’t stand the thought of the terrible fear, just as the plane begins its descent, and I know …”.  I couldn’t finish the sentence; I was hyperventilating.

“I have spoken to crash survivors,” he said, and paused for great effect, “who say that a deep calm came over them, when they thought that they were going to die.”

“Well, I don’t like the idea of knowing I’m about to die,” I said. “It’s my greatest fear.”

“Would you like to get over your fear?” he asked. “If I could help you?”

“Yes, yes,” I cried, my eyes shining. “My boyfriend wants me to travel with him around the world. It’s the chance of a lifetime.”

What’s the  worst thing…?

Therapists downunder love this  little CBT game. It involves them asking fear victims about worst case scenarios:

“What’s the worst thing that could happen if you took a short trip in an aeroplane?” he asked. “Apart from crashing, that is?”

“I might hyperventilate, vomit,” I stammered, “or have a panic attack, shake all over with fear and … feel like I’m dying.”

“What’s the worst thing that could happen if you did all of those things, one after the other or all together?” he asked.

“I might feel sick.”

“Is that a big problem?”

“No.”

“What else?”

“People might laugh at me.”

“And what would be the consequence of that?”

“I’d feel bad,” I said.

“Is that all?”

“And sick.”

“Anything else?”

“No.”

To Leap or not to Leap

After many sessions like this, my therapist invited me to accompany him on a short plane trip. It was part of the package deal that I was paying for.

By the fifth trip with this kindly mentor, I’d learnt how to go up into the skies in a plane without hyperventilating, without vomiting or having a panic attack. I was proud of myself. Overjoyed. I’d be globe-trotting soon, for sure.

But then…

My boyfriend asked me, one fine weekend, to go skydiving with him. I couldn’t believe he’d want me to do this. Had I teamed up with a sadist? Was this his idea of a bad joke?

As we zoomed up into the ether in the small plane, I imagined I’d soon be toppling off the edge of the world and into the void. Matt was calm. He held me close from behind,  as we edged towards the open door of the aircraft. My teeth were chattering, and it wasn’t from the cold. I closed my eyes. That helped. The last thing I wanted to see was the void below the open hatch, like a giant mouth sneering up at me.

Matt was standing behind me, hugging me into his body. “Our parachute will open up,” he said calmly into my ear. “I will keep you safe.” I was still closing my eyes tightly to block out the view of the gaping emptiness about to swallow me up. It’s do or die, I thought. Either way was bad.

“Just peer over the edge before taking the leap” he said, “and if it’s all clear, jump, and we’ll go together.”

I did what he said. I opened my eyes wide. My heart went up into my mouth and I couldn’t even scream. But I did it, and we soared together:  he  the carapace of a large flying tortoise,  I the soft underbelly.

And my fear suddenly left me, as we sailed down through the sky,  my boyfriend on top of me and the parachute opened above both us like a smiling promise.

I jumped because, after all, not leaping seemed to be a much bigger risk.

rtw skydiving Cairns

 

Editor’s Note: This is a fictional piece of writing, partly tongue-in-cheek.
If you have a real problem with Flight Phobia you might need to try a different approach than the one suggested here.

Captain Bunn founded SOAR to develop effective methods for dealing with flight anxiety. Therapists who have found this phobia difficult to treat will find everything they need to give their clients success. Anxious flyers who have “tried everything” to no avail can look forward to joining the nearly 10,000 graduates of the SOAR program who now have the whole world open to them as they fly anxiety free wherever they want. See his book on Amazon:

Fear of Flying

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13 thoughts on “Fear of Flying

  1. In your article ‘How I overcame my fear… and got to see the world’ you ask, “Do you think what follows is a true story or a made-up one? (Fiction or Memoir?)” and I am hereby accepted the challenge.

    From research on the net I found Salt Lake City Skydiving blurb which says; “That feeling of delight and accomplishment that follows a skydive is a powerful ‘happy drug’ — with no chemicals required — that helps normal people battle fear and become calmer, happier human beings”.

    I only know you through your writing, but that can be very revealing, so that is where I start. You admit to once being ‘a scaredy-cat’, deeply bothered by anxiety and depression and even afraid of flying. I can understand and accept your process of overcoming these problems through professional therapy and force of character. So that part is true … memoir.

    What I find much more difficult to accept is the thought of you jumping out of a perfectly functioning aeroplane … and voluntarily at that! I’m told a skydive is a small thing. It’s a couple of minutes of a lifetime, after all — a handful of beautiful, intense moments. Despite this you are the kind of person who likes to be in control so being convinced by a boyfriend to do something you are fearful of seems impossible even if said boyfriend talks of a nightmare that doesn’t exist in any statistically significant way. You are the iconic Ms In-charge, you wouldn’t be swayed by a mere male so that part is false … fiction.

    My conclusion: The story is both memoir and fiction, a mixture of both … and good writing as a result.

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    • Hi Ian
      It’s actually fiction, as I would never ever skydive; I know my limits. The knowledge about psychology that is practised here in Australia — CBT — I have knowledege of, but not through personal experience. I’ve always been interested in psychology, but when I was in need of therapy, psychodynamic Freudian or neo-Freudian therapies (Fritz Perls and Gestalt) were still in vogue, not so much today. The themes or motifs of fear, depression and anxiety are probably where the two genres become mixed, knowledge and experience combining. But, overall, I’d say it’s fiction rather than memoir. It’s too neatly structured, the end is in the beginning… and everything in between is moving towards that. Thanks so much for the comment, Ian. Will get on to your story next.

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  2. another interesting topic, Anne. anxiety and depression and facing our fears. as you mention, the question to ask the afraid-person is, ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen?’

    and good to see you’ve incorporated “But then …” as a story device.

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  3. Definitely fiction, Anne, and clever fiction at that. I can’t imagine you either having CBT, or voluntarily jumping from a ‘plane, but you write about both convincingly. The ‘But then…’ device suggested by Libby works well to give the fiction a narrative structure.

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    • Thanks Dina. This blogging is an obsession, n’est-ce pas? I must get onto my novels!!! I’ve read your stuff and done some editing. Just haven’t got around to sending it yet.

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    • Dina, I have tried CBT, but only for things like making a speech in public, and for “mopping up” of residual anxiety, after I had embarked on successful (often painful) depth psychological therapies. It can work for some people, for some things, but perhaps not for deeply held subconscious issues. Thanks as always for your comments.

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  4. I used to be terrified of flying. You can check my first blog post if you want…I mentioned it there.
    My dad’s a pilot and I never travelled by plane til I was in my mid-20’s unless he was the captain.
    It’s irrational, I know. I was even too scared of the “Back to the Future” ride at Universal Studios coz it felt like it a simulated flight. Yes! Crazy, huh.
    I don’t know what happened, now I can even ride an adult roller coaster and I want to try sky diving and buy a Harley. Am I going nuts??? LOL

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