At the end of May Dr. Ian Shulman and Capt. Marc-Antoine Plourde led a group of 10 people who were afraid to fly on a two-day workshop to help them with their phobia. We met at a small facility on the grounds of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and spent two full days working on helping the seminar participants to cope with their fear and understand its origins. Most people believe that their fear of flying occurs because flying is dangerous. In fact, with all the safety mechanisms, regulations, standards and the double- and triple safeguards built into modern aircraft, being a passenger on a commercial aircraft is actually safer than driving on the highway. What we help our flight seminar participants to appreciate is that the fear of flying is actually more related to the fear of not having control.
In our experience, the one thing most fearful fliers have in common is a history of feeling truly alone or afraid at some time in their lives, usually in childhood or early adolescence. Some felt it because their parents were alcoholics or abusive; other parents were otherwise unavailable because of illness, depression, poverty, work, or when they had others in the family who demanded more of their attention. Some fearful fliers felt alone growing up in families that never talked about feelings, leaving them confused about how to make sense of their own emotions. Still, others felt alone or afraid when they were trapped in places or situations that they couldn’t escape from, like small spaces, near-drownings, or being too small to stop others from bullying or tormenting them. Those kinds of early-life experiences taught fearful fliers a powerful lesson: Remaining in emotionally intense situations is painful and to be avoided.
The 10 adults in our latest group were no different; all were able to identify challenges in their pre-adult years. Almost the entire group had flown before and only one had experienced a flight-related incident (like bad turbulence or a sudden loss of altitude) when on a plane. Instead, the most common story people told was of feeling anxious on and off over the course of their lives and using avoidance to manage it.
They all spoke of avoiding airplanes because they feared they would be unable to escape or do anything to manage their feelings if they began to feel afraid during the flight. When anxious in cars they would open windows, pull over or insist that they always drive; in elevators, they would get off at the next floor or take the stairs; or in crowded rooms they would sit by the door and ensure they knew all the exits – just in case. But on airplanes, they said, once they were in the air, they felt they couldn’t do anything to maintain that sense of control over their fears and feelings.
The keys to the success of our fear of flying workshop was that we helped the group to (a) develop realistic expectations of what would happen on an actual flight and (b) improve their ability to tolerate the anxious thoughts and feelings we knew they would experience when they took the chance of giving up their usual controls. Using group discussions, mindfulness meditation practice on board the aircraft, and showing our adult fliers that they had it in their ability to ask for the care and comfort they needed, we readied the group for the confirmation flight, a tour of the skies over Toronto.
In the end, 7 of the 10 decided to fly. All were nervous, but all found ways to cope that didn’t involve avoiding or procrastinating. It wasn’t easy, a few members of the group felt quite scared and needed reassurance, but Dr. Shulman, Capt. Plourde and the other members of the group were all there to provide it. The worst part for most, they said in the post-flight debriefing, was right before they stopped trying to control everything and gave in to their feelings. The best part was about 5 minutes after that, when they realized their fears were unwarranted and found themselves able to cope with whatever the experience gave them.
Let us know if you’re afraid to fly too, there are things we can do to help.