Fear of flying

Fear of flying can be crippling. Confronting this fear is the first step in overcoming it.
Fear of flying can be crippling. Confronting this fear is the first step in overcoming it.

Many people have a fear of flying. Some feel claustrophobic, some feel out of control and quite a few suffer from both.

Our approach may seem counter-intuitive, but when clients come to us with a fear of flying, We often take them into the fear.

In many years of clinical practice, we have discovered that trying to counter fear with logic is often useless. It is like feeding a baby a roast dinner. It cannot be taken in and it cannot be assimilated. Before any logic can take hold, we need to deal with the fear response.

Fear is a product of our emotional system, and relates to a very old part of the brain related to survival. Logic draws on our thinking system, the part of our brain that evolved later in our evolution. Although all the parts of our brain are connected, they are separate systems with their own brain networks.

Fearful people often hold beliefs that are incorrect or distorted. These beliefs can feed their fears. Logical information can help correct our illogical views, but it is only effective once the emotional charge of the fear has been neutralised.

Here, we are going to address the emotions related to the fear of flying and outline the approach taken by our therapists. In a following post, we will give you sound, logical reasons that can then help you let go of your fear of flying.

First the therapist encourages you to relax so you feel calm, safe and comfortable. Now you are instructed to imagine the very thing you fear, working through this step by step. You pack, travel to the airport and check in. Now you board, the doors of the plane close, the plane is pushed back, taxis, takes off and lifts up into the sky.

While all this is happening in your imagination, your anxiety levels are probably rising. While this anxiety is building, the therapist is pacing you, encouraging you to take slow, deep breathes and checking how you are feeling. You focus on the feeling of anxiety in your body, identifying the feeling as specific physical sensations that are unique to you. The therapist will pause when the anxiety levels get too high, encouraging you to keep releasing the feelings.

Therapist will ask you what you fear the most. She will listen very carefully to your description because within that description there are some clues to the origin of your fear.

The original cause of your fear of flying is important. Unearthing this fear can be extremely helpful. It might come from an incident seemingly unrelated to flying, perhaps a time when you felt out of control.

One client was sexually abused as a child. Sensations associated with the abuse were triggered by the experience of flying. During the abuse, she felt trapped, out of control and, to cope, she had flown out of her body, or at least her consciousness had. She didn’t realise all that was happening at the time of the abuse because she was in survival mode, trying to cope with a devastating experience.

While flying in an aeroplane several aspects of her abuse were triggered. She felt trapped being in the enclosed space. She experienced the sensation of taking off. She had a sense of being out of control, unable to fully trust of the pilots (she had trusted the abuser). All aspects needed to be addressed before her fear of flying resolved.

Fear of flying can also come from experiencing a trauma while in an aircraft. For example, a sudden, painful earache as a child, from the pressure changing in the cabin at different altitudes, relative having a heart attack on the plane.or travelling home after the shocking news of a death in the family. In these circumstances, flying has become associated with the disturbing situation.

The therapist will help you confront your fear, looking for specific sensations and memories of times when you had the same sensations often experienced as a shock, such as feeling trapped or out of control. While allowing yourself to explore your anxiety, you might find an image or memory pops into your mind. Don’t discount it, even though it might seem unrelated or unimportant. This past experience is likely to have aspects that are related to your fears. The therapist will encourage you to explore the past experience. She is looking for patterns that are related to your fear of flying so she can gently point them out. You will know when you have made the connection between the past and your fear. When you really ‘get it’ it feels  like an “Ah ha” moment. Suddenly you see things from a new perspective.

Your fear of flying is a subconscious programme that has a purpose. The purpose is survival. The original trauma, whatever it was, created a trigger so that you would respond to anything that had the same sensational quality as the original event. If you felt closed in and trapped in the original trauma then you react in a situation where you get the same sense of being closed in and trapped, such as an aeroplane. Your conscious mind was never aware of this set up because the separate brain systems, referred to earlier, can work independently. Your subconscious old brain is focussed on survival and triggering your fear response is its responsibility. This trigger initiates your flight or fight response. While you have been subconsciously programmed to run away from the aeroplane, you consciously want to get onto the plane and travel to your destination. Forcing yourself to get into the plane, your ‘flight or fight’ response turns into anxiety. One part of your brain is at war with another part. No wonder you feel uncomfortable.

However once your conscious mind is fully aware of this fear response and its origin, your later-evolved brain can override the danger signal. When you get the ‘Ah ha’ moment, you know that the over-ride ‘button’ has been switched on.

Remember there may be several aspects of this fear that needs to be addressed. That means several ‘Ah ha’ moments while unravelling the past.

Unfortunately, while you are in the fearful state, you can make new triggers. For example, if a child screams while you are anxiously sitting in the plane, your old brain might register this as danger. Any future time, when you hear a similar scream, you are back in that fearful ‘place.’ In other words, now a scream can trigger you into a flight or fight response related to the original trauma.

Obviously the sooner your fear of flying is addressed the better.