Conquer Fear Of Flying

How to beat aeroanxiety and more

Once Again, the Subject Is Turbulence

More than anything else, the anxious passenger dreads turbulence.

On the message board, someone wrote: "A group of friends are planning to spend Christmas/New Years in Miami . . . . However what's putting me off is this fear of flying over the Atlantic during the Winter! . . . .

What I desperately need to know is, is flying over the Atlantic bumpy in Winter . . .  The thought of it at the moment is really scaring and freaking me out at the moment!!!"

 My response:

Having crossed the Atlantic year-round for thirty years, I never was impressed with seasonal differences in turbulence. But I don't know whether this is because there are none, or because—knowing full-well that turbulence is (to a pilot) a non-event—it didn't seem worth paying attention to (which it isn't).

I'm impressed, however, with how amazingly important it is to an anxious flier that there may be more or less, or whatever, when it comes to turbulence. The amount of focus a person places on turbulence is worth looking into.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Why does it matter so much? If the passenger should really understand that turbulence is not a safety issue, does that end their obsession with turbulence? No. It is because they fear turbulence for a round-about reason: turbulence makes it impossible for them, while their body is on the plane, to keep their mind elsewhere.

As the plane flies their mind is on a beach someplace, or engrossed in a novel or a movie. They can pull this off ONLY IF they don't feel the plane move. Though they are able to escape into an imaginary world, physical sensations pull them back into the real world.

That's the problem with imagination. If there is no physical-ness to deal with, the mind can go wherever it wants, and make whatever claims it will that what it has in mind is all there is. But if physical-ness intrudes, it messes up the mind's game.

If they can't keep the mind miles away from the plane, they might become terrifyingly aware that they are—indeed—30,000 feet in the air, where they—though remarkably safe - are not ABSOLUTELY safe. They can control the stress hormones and the feelings that stress hormones cause only is absolutely safe, in control of the situation, or able to escape. On a plane, the only avenue of escape is mental, not physical, and when the physical movements of the plane intrude into the mental hiding place, the game is over.

Perhaps we love imagination so much because we hate reality so much. Or, said another way, we adhere to our imagination so tightly because we fear reality so intensely. Why else would some of us escape to watching soap operas every possible moment?

The world is too much with us . . . .

Little we see in Nature that is ours . . . .

I'd rather . . . Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn.

     Wordsworth 1806

Now, if we dare risk leaving the world of imagination for a moment (where we are in control of our private "reality") and enter—God forbid—a version of reality that lurks beyond our control, we would see that when driving, accidents do take place that a person cannot walk away from. Escape is there, of course, for a person remains both conscious after impact and able to rise and walk away on their own two feet, but far too many automobile mishaps leave a person unable to do so, because, alas, they are dead.

Which brings us to the main point. Most fearful fliers don't have a problem with being dead; the problem is getting dead. The problem arises from imagination, the very domain where we seek refuge. The problem is again, physical, the physical feelings the person imagines they will have when about to become dead: it is called "terror." Is it as Woody Allen said, "I don't have a problem with death, I just don't want to be there when it happens." I would say, ". . . be aware when it happens." So often anxious fliers ask whether or not passengers were conscious, and aware they were falling toward the earth after TWA 800 exploded, or when Pan Am flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie.

It would be fine to be on a doomed airliner so long as they were accompanied by an anesthesiologist who kept them "knocked out." Everything is fine in their two favorite worlds: unconsciousness and imagination. Please, don't make me conscious of reality: reality bites.

So that is the problem with turbulence. It causes reality to bite. Ironically, it takes over control of their imagination causes the person to imagine something they don't want to imagine. If the flight is smooth, they can imagine what they want to imagine. If it is bumpy, they can't imagine what they want to imagine, and imagine - instead - terror.

But we still have a missing piece. Why, if the anxious flier cannot control their version of "reality," do they experience terror? Ask Steven King. I think he must know. But my view of it is this: the person who does not feel safe enough in the world cannot control the release of stress hormones unless they can: a. have absolute safety or the illusion of absolute safety, or b. control of the situation, or c. escape.

None of that exists in "real" reality. And that is the problem. For the person who does not feel secure enough in the real world, some other world is terribly necessary. This issue with imagination and reality leads me to question where we truly live. Do we live in the world? Do we live in the real world when we are on its surface? Or do we - always - live in a fairy tale?

is it as Robin Williams said, "Reality . . . what a concept!" Where do we live our lives? In reality? Or in a "concept?"

Psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy has written about what he calls "the pretend mode." If I understand him correctly, he said that if a child is too traumatized by the world and the relationships forced upon him or her, the world of "cause and effect" leads to imagination of awful things others could cause to happen. Since the child is powerless, the child imagines what awful things could be caused. And, if they could really happen, they may happen. And if they may happen, the probably will happen. And if they probably will happen, the feared cause-and-effect event is imagined as if it is happening now. This state, in which imagination becomes reality, is what Fonagy calls psychic equivalence. Psychic equivalence can mean terror. To escape it, Fonagy believes the child moves into "the pretend mode" in which nothing is "cause and effect." The world of cause-and-effect is too terrifying unless they have control or escape. And lacking both physical control physical escape, they escape psychologically. They seek the protection of pretending no cause-and-effect world exists.

If Fonagy is right, this is what anxious fliers do when flying. They escape the world of cause-and-effect. They turn to a magical world of imagination where, even there is cause-and-effect, they are in control of it. But, when turbulence intrudes, it messes that up. It causes the real cause-and-effect world to return.

So, now that the shaking of the plane has forced them to return to reality, whatever is possible in imagination is possible - they believe - in the real world. Falling out of the sky seems possible. What the person fears and believes is possible is imagined as if it were happening; they get lost. Unable to distinguish imagination from reality, and helped by the up and down movements of the plane, they move into psychic equivalence. They experience the plane falling out of the sky.

If a person is unable to separate imagination from reality, they must successfully pretend they are not on the plane. For if they allow their awareness to put them on the plane, their plane will fall out of the sky. And that is the problem with turbulence; it keeps the person from (when flying) pretending they are not on the plane.

Knowing that, most of us struggle, like a gymnast, to stay on the balance beam between the cause-and-effect world and the pretend world. Reality plus imagination leads to psychic equivalence that frightens us. If the real world frightens us, we would like to run away from it. We wold like to escape into the pretend world we - at least usually - can control. Fortunately, or unfortunately, (I'm not sure) we have thousands of pretend worlds, movies and novels, ready-made into which we can escape.

Perhaps learning to deal with turbulence is a way of learning to deal with life in general. Could we, instead of being magnetically drawn toward our own imaginary inner version of reality - or to someone else's imaginary world - become attracted to what is real? I've had this thought for years: are the Walt Disneys and J. K. Rowlings of the world the our number one threat to mental healthy and real person-to-person relatedness? Dare we experience the world just as it is? Could we when flying, experience the plane's movements just as they are? Could we go "cold turkey" into the real world of flight in which the plane is simply moving forward at great speed and, as it encounters little imperfections in the air, gets bumped. Can we feel the bumps, JUST AS THEY ARE, and not what we imagine they might mean?

 

Captain Tom Bunn, L.C.S.W., is an airline pilot and author who has dedicated 30 years to the development of effective methods for treating flight phobia.

more...

Subscribe to Conquer Fear Of Flying

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.