Last Sunday we were at a friend’s house when he told us about the latest news: Air Asia Flight QZ8501 had gone missing.
We talked about the tragedy, and then our friend said that he was flying soon and that the Air Asia disappearance — coupled with other high-profile plane disasters — had triggered a minor fear of flying.
It’s a natural thought and one that we had felt ourselves.
While our thoughts and prayers go out to the Air Asia passengers and their loved ones, NewsWhistle wanted to talk with an expert about how to deal with a fear of boarding a plane – especially when it’s trigged by a headline-making event.
Dr. Martin N. Seif, a clinical psychologist and anxiety treatment specialist, was kind enough to supply us with his copyrighted essay “8 Steps to Overcoming Your Fear of Flying,” which we are printing in full.
8 Steps to Overcoming Your Fear of Flying
Martin N. Seif, Ph.D.
1. Latch on to triggers that set you off.
Fear of flying is not a single phobia. People who are afraid to fly are often afraid of different things. Some are claustrophobic, some fear turbulence. Others fear terrorism, mechanical failure, or crashing. Figure out what frightens you (it doesn’t have to be just one) and examine how your anxiety reaction is triggered. Your triggers initiate your fears, which quickly become intense because of a rapid interplay between scary images in your mind and fearful feelings. You may not be aware of this because you do not become conscious of the process until you are terrified. Your goal is to identify your particular triggers, so you can manage your fear when your anxiety levels are low. Learning what sets you off makes it easier to turn it off.
2. Step onto the airplane with knowledge.
When you are dealing with anxiety, ignorance is not bliss. In fact, the opposite is true—anxiety thrives on ignorance. To combat this, learn about the airline industry, how pilots are trained, turbulence, and anything else that frightens you. Our anxiety is fed by “what if?” catastrophic thoughts. When you don’t know about a subject, you make up scenarios based on your imagination, and your catastrophic thoughts are limited only by your creativity. Once you become knowledgeable, your “what if?” thoughts will be limited by the facts. Become familiar with the facts. They will not eliminate your anxiety, but will help to keep it more manageable.
3. Anticipate your anticipatory anxiety.
Be prepared to be anxious. Anticipatory anxiety is the anxiety we experience in anticipation of something we fear. It is often the most intense anxiety you will experience during your flight. Anticipatory anxiety increases with your indecision (i.e., should I take the flight or not?) and starts to level off when you commit yourself to an action. Here are two facts you should keep in mind: first, anticipatory anxiety is not an accurate predictor of how you will feel on the flight. Ninety-five percent of the time, anticipatory anxiety is far greater than the anxiety you actually experience. Second, after taking the Freedom to Fly Now class, by the time your flight takes off, you will already have experienced at least seventy-five percent of all your anxiety on both the flight and return.
4. Separate fear from danger.
Your task is to break your connection between anxiety and danger. Anxiety has all the sensations of being in danger, but the trigger for anxiety is not an external threat. It is a series of threatening images in your mind. It is often difficult to separate anxiety from danger because your body reacts in exactly the same way to both. It is your anxiety that makes you feel like you are unsafe, even though you are perfectly safe. You must label your fear as anxiety. Tell yourself that anxiety makes your frightening thoughts feel like they have a high probability of occurring. Remind yourself that feeling anxious doesn’t mean you are in danger. You are safe even when feeling intense anxiety.
5. Recognize that common sense makes no sense:
Part A: Anxiety tricks common sense.
Common sense tells us that the best course is to use our gut feelings to guide our actions. But this is not always true, and it is never true when dealing with the fear of flying. Anxiety is an excellent trickster and bluffer, and it will tell you that you are in danger when you are perfectly safe. Anxiety is reinforced by avoidance. Your gut feelings from anxiety will always tell you to avoid, and—if you follow your gut feelings—you will always be reinforcing your anxiety.
Part B: You can outsmart anxiety.
You need to learn not to follow what anxiety tells you to do. As a rule, aim to do the opposite of what your anxious feelings are telling you to do. Be paradoxical. Do the opposite of what anxiety wants you to do. Fight what anxiety is telling you to do, but embrace the feelings (and that means discomfort) that anxiety engenders. If your anxiety is telling you to stay in your seat and grip the armrests, then open your hands, get up, and move around. If you feel so anxious you need to walk around, try to stay in your seat. Outsmart anxiety by taking a paradoxical approach.
6. Smooth over things that go bump in the flight.
Airplanes do not always fly smoothly. Learn about “chop,” turbulence, noise abatement maneuvers, and the movements, sounds, and sensations they produce. Understand how the aircraft is designed to cope with turbulent stresses. Seek out your central fears about bumpy flights. These can include crashing, sensations in your body, vomiting, others observing you, or a fear of the fear itself. Focus on managing your anxiety rather than when the turbulence will end, or how severe it might get. Stay as close to the present as you can. Remind yourself that you are safe.
7. Educate fellow fliers how to help you.
Other fliers need to know what frightens you, along with what helps you most to cope with anxiety during flight. If you ask, pilots can speak with you as you board. Flight attendants will give you additional attention if you let them know what you need. Family, friends, and other passengers can help you monitor your anxiety, keep you focused on the present, and help you steer clear of catastrophic mental imagery. Steer clear of “frenemies” who relate their own frightening flights. They might think they’re funny, but they will more likely trigger your own anxiety. Your task is to be clear about your triggers and specifically ask for what you find most useful.
8. Value each flight.
Exposure is the active ingredient in overcoming your phobia. Every flight provides you with the opportunity to make the next one easier. Maximize the benefits of exposure in two ways. First, record your anxiety levels during the flight. You will be surprised at how short a time you are highly anxious during the flight. Next, search out and eliminate the many “mini-avoidances” you go through to make your discomfort seem more manageable. Do you insist on a certain seat? Avoid specific airports? Grip your seat in terror until the “fasten seat belt” light goes off? Focus on the flight attendants to reassure yourself that all is going well? Avoidances like these prolong your anxiety and work against the therapeutic effects of exposure. Remember that your goal is to retrain your brain to become less sensitized to triggers that set you off.
Dr. Martin Seif, Ph.D., ABPP is a master clinician who has spent the last thirty years developing innovative and highly successful treatment methods for anxiety disorders including: Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Specific Phobias, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In addition to helping found the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (www.adaa.org), Dr. Seif served on its Board of Directors and Clinical Advisory Board.
He has offices in Manhattan, NY and Greenwich, CT. For the last 15 years, Dr. Seif has functioned as the Associate Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center for White Plains Hospital Center (www.phobia-anxiety.org). He also trains psychiatric residents and psychology fellows at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
* The above essay is written and copyrighted by Dr. Martin Seif. All rights reserved.
* Image courtesy of Dolly MJ/Shutterstock.com