Conquering Fear of Flying
By Ronald Ruden, MD, PhD
If you are afraid to fly, you may be suffering from a specific phobia known as aviophobia. Commonly called "fear of flying phobia". In this article, we will discuss what causes a plane phobia, how to stop the fear of flying, and the flight phobia treatment that can best help you.
A phobia is defined as a marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation. In your case, the situation occurs when you are on an airplane. Thought, like one of the five senses, can also activate the fear response just by bringing the situation to mind, hence anticipation of being on a plane or flying can produce fear.
This brief introduction to conquering the fear of flying will not provide statistics about safety, not explain the funny sounds you hear when you are flying, and not get you familiar with the aircraft at all. That would be a waste of time. Fear does not lend itself well to amelioration by rational calculation. What we will do today is to understand how the problem was encoded in your brain and how we can get rid of it.
In many programs designed to change behavior and motivation, the desire to get rid of the fear of flying or improve the phobia of flying is critical. Motivation plays a very little role here. Little hard work or effort is required and we have a 96% success rate. Does this sound too good to be true? Let me explain.
What is fear? Fear is a survival response. It makes us ready to fight or run for our lives. It tenses our muscles, makes us breathe harder, and can make us aware of our heart. It makes us sweat. It is very uncomfortable. Being scared decreases one’s ability to evaluate a situation. We get racing thoughts, obsessive thoughts that say ‘getaway’. Indeed this biological orchestration is meant to improve our chances of survival literally causing us to feel our life is at stake. It works great if survival is at stake. Sitting in business class, cruising at 35,000 feet with a drink in one’s hand hardly qualifies. Yet one can become terrified. In medical terms, it’s called a panic attack and you may think you are going to die. It is very uncomfortable and it is difficult to explain it to someone who has not experienced it. You can try to explain to yourself that the plane is safe, and there is no danger, but your body tells you differently. Your body always wins. You are afraid.
How does this fear response get generated and in the case of flying, why can’t we shut it off by ourselves? Here is an example, you are walking in the woods and something moves by your feet. You jump, startled, you are frightened for a moment and you look down and it’s just a twig. Your fear goes away. That’s how the fear system should work, but in a phobia, the system does not shut off. To understand this we must introduce a little biology.
Since fear is a response to a survival need, rapid action is required. Sometimes, like the example I just gave, we respond and then think. This is an important few seconds for if it were a poisonous snake instead of a twig we might have saved our life by jumping out of the way. Here’s how it works.
Sensory input is first sent to an area called the thalamus. This is the first stop before the information is sent to our thinking and evaluation part of the brain called the cortex. When we experience what we call an Unconditioned Fear Stimulus (UFS), the thalamus branches part of this signal directly to an area that is involved in producing the fear response. This area is called the amygdala and it was designed to protect us.
SENSORY INPUT --> THALAMUS --> AMYGDALA
For survival, no thought is needed, only avoidance is required. It makes us jump, duck, and produces that funny feeling in our gut.
AMYGDALA STIMULATION --> FEAR RESPONSE
The signal also goes from the thalamus to the cortex where we figure out what’s going on. This takes a few seconds longer and the cortex sends a signal that can either inhibit the amygdala from continuing the fear response or sustain it.
SENSORY INPUT --> CORTEX --> +/- AMYGDALA
In order to maximize survival, the system needed to identify threats the first time. Sometimes you don’t get a second chance. It needed to have hard-wired patterns that shouted danger, no training required. Well, there are fear stimuli that evoke a need for action and vigilance in all animals. These are called Unconditioned Fear Stimuli and they include:
UNCONDITIONED FEAR STIMULI (UFS)
- A closed space
- An open space
- Loud noises
- Low-pitched sounds (think Jaws)
- Creepy crawly slithery things
- Things out of left field
When the evaluation of these signals proves not to be of any danger, the cortex sends an inhibitory signal to the amygdala, and the fear response is stopped. This is a very clever and simple solution.
UFS in the Amygdala --> /NO FEAR
(unconditioned fear stimulus) BLOCKED BY THE CORTEX
The system alerts us, and if danger is not present, calms us. But what happens in a phobia? Why does a seemingly benign situation turn frightening? Let’s look at the fear of flying phobia specifically.
If there were never a plane crash or near-miss or another mental image of this big bird falling out of the sky you would think that we would not have fear of flying. But we are in an aluminum tube 35,000 feet above the ground traveling at 500mph with no way of getting off until the plane lands. There are plenty of other reasons to be afraid to fly.
So how is a phobia encoded?
UFS (e.g. Closed Space) --> FEAR --> PLANE --> MEMORY
ENCODING A PHOBIA
You are on a plane and the doors to the plane close. You hear a strange noise or turbulence that makes you feel that you will crash and die. You look out the window. You become afraid. Interestingly, you may or may not be aware of why you are frightened. Now your mind associates the fear generated with being on the plane. You now fear being on the plane. This association is true for any anxiety state you experience on the plane be it during take-off, in-flight, or landing.
There is one big problem, you cannot avoid being on the plane, so the fear continues, there is no escape. The association becomes stronger by the minute. Now every time you bring up the thought of being on the plane you have been conditioned to have a fear response. Schematically we can look at the plane as a conditioned stimulus (CS). In the replay, sitting at home in your chair, thinking about the plane produces fear. You have been conditioned.
THOUGHT OF PLANE (CS) --> UFS (e.g. closed space) --> FEAR
EXTINGUISHING A PHOBIA
So how does one cure a phobia or in this case cure the fear of flying? There are several ways that have been typically utilized in fear of flying treatment. They include:
- Exposure Therapy
- Cognitive Therapy
- Systematic Desensitization
However, I believe the best way to do this is to de-link the Conditioned Stimulus from the Unconditioned Fear Stimulus. Is this possible? The answer is yes! We want to de-link the thought of being on the plane from whatever Unconditioned Fear Stimulus it hooked up with. These ideas have been developed by two groups Joseph LeDoux’s group in NY and Roger Callahan in California. In essence, these researchers and therapists have found that when a thought can activate a fear response it had to be re-stored so that it could fire again. Under normal circumstances, this occurs. As mentioned earlier, thought can be just like a sixth sense. It can activate a fear response. Now if I think about being on a plane and can activate a fear we can, by using certain sensory inputs prevent the link between being on the plane and the fear from being re-stored, and the fear of flying is cured. What Roger Callahan found was that by tapping on certain acupuncture points, this connection could be prevented from being restored. This work was later confirmed by LeDoux.
This will seem quite remarkable to you and some will not believe it at first. How can something so embedded as an airplane phobia, airplane turbulence fear, or any form of flight anxiety be removed so readily? (For those interested in the biology of the process see Why Acupressure-Enhanced Psychotherapy Works from a Western Scientific Perspective.)
In the hundreds of individuals I have treated, not just for fear of flying, but all phobias and traumas this has been the most remarkable therapy. It has led me to an understanding of a broader group of treatment modalities that I call Psycho-Sensory Therapy. They include the application of non-specific sensory input, such as light therapy for SAD, yoga, acupuncture, acupressure, and the like. In my view, Psycho-Sensory Therapy will ultimately constitute the third pillar, along with psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies in the treatment of disorders arising from the mind/brain/body connection.
The forms of Psycho-Sensory Therapy practiced by Steve B. Reed, LPC, LMSW, LMFT include Quick REMAP therapy for the fear of flying, the REMAP process, EFT for the fear of flying (Emotional Freedom Techniques), and TFT (Thought Field Therapy).
To schedule an appointment with Steve to get help for fear of flying therapy, call 972-997-9955 today.
Steve Reed is available for an office appointment for your counseling and psychotherapy needs in the Dallas, Fort Worth, DFW metroplex, including Addison, Allen, Arlington, Bedford, Carrollton, Colleyville, Denton, Euless, Fairview, Flower Mound, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Highland Park, Hurst, Irving, Keller, Lake Highlands, Lewisville, Lucas, McKinney, Mesquite, Murphy, Plano, Richardson, Rockwall, Rowlett, South Lake, and University Park. He provides therapy at his office in Richardson, TX.
Treatment is also available via phone or video counseling to people worldwide.
Steve can also be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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