Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

My Phobia: Now You See It, Now You Don't

How a fear of flying suddenly appeared and then disappeared from my life

I have never had what a clinician would call a "phobia." 

A phobia is a class of anxiety disorder that is strong, pervisive and irrational. To be classed as a phobia, the person must be afraid of something that isn't actually threatening. (There is a nice summary of information on phobias here.) Being nervous when climbing a high, rickety ladder isn't phobic—it's a normal cautious reaction. Being unable to cross a bridge in a car is probably phobic.  

I've seen phobias in action. I was once riding in a car in Chile with a 13-year-old girl. A HUGE spider—the kind called a "dinner plate spider"—ran across the road. It was big—I first mistook it for a squirrel. But it was OUTSIDE the car and 25' away.

The girl got hysterical, sobbing and shaking for over five minutes. That's a true phobia. Her response was fairly typical of someone who is truly phobic. Her heart was racing, she was trembling violently, she was wildly fearful, and would certainly have run if she could have. (Unable to flee, she curled up on the floor of the car with her hands over her head.)

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Most people seek treatment for phobias when they start interferring with their lives. Or they don't, and live inconvenienced by them. A member of my husband's family would habitually get out of the car and walk across bridges because she was afraid of driving across them. When she could not walk, she would put her head in her lap and cover her eyes while humming. For her, this combination was enough to distract her from her very real terror.  

Fortunately, most people's milder phobias tend to be relatively amenable to treatment. Through a combination of desensitivation, where you become progressively habituated to what you fear, and dealing directly with anxiety through therapy and medication, many people who have just one or two phobias can learn to function very well. Specific fears can often be treated.

Which is why I, as a psychologist, found my sudden development of a phobia interesting.

 

Claustrophobia to Fear of Flying

Although I don't have claustrophobia per se, I am also not crazy about tight spaces. The first time I ever remember feeling this way was when I went camping as a Girl Scout and slept in a crowded loft around 2' under the eaves. I had sprained my ankle just before bedtime and remember staring at that very close ceiling all night while becoming more and more overcome with pain.  

I was never fond of really tight spaces again. Going into caves, sure. Squeezing into little tight cracks in caves...Well, not something I'd be really enthusiastic about.  

As I have gotten older (and a bit heavier as well), crawling under tight beds, under cars, or under bathroom cabinets to fix plumbing could all begin to evoke that kind of irrational, fearful, I know there's nothing wrong but I feel kind of panickly, feeling. It was one of the many small annoyances of middle adulthood. Not a phobia yet, but an annoying known irrationality on my part.  

I had never been afraid of flying, however. In fact, I love flying. I fly all over the world to do research, which is why it was so darned annoying when, out of the blue, I was suddenly afraid of flying.  

I can tell you EXACTLY when it started.  

I read an article in The New York Times: "Anxiety: Things To Fear and Loathe." It was an interesting piece about odd things people were afraid of (things clustered together, honeycombs, sports mascots, etc.)

The article mentioned in passing that some people's fear of flying was due to claustrophobia. HUH.  Claustrophobia? I had never though about that before.  

But suddenly I did. And suddenly, I was terrified.  

I imagined how crowded my feet were under the seat. And that way too big person squashed in next to me so I couldn't move. And that really sickly smell coming out of the air vents. And that smell of sweet disinfectant from the lavatory. And...

Suddenly, I wasn't too happy about flying. Which was too bad, as I was about to get on a plane for eight hours to go to a conference. I could imagine myself sitting in my seat, getting ready to take off, and just panicking.

I'd be hysterical.

I'd be embarassed.

And I'd have to get off the plane.

The thought of it just made me feel sick. Not the thought of flying. The thought of being AFRAID of flying and losing my cool. And I mean not just a little nervous. Racing heart and feeling of rising fear and bile. Real fear.  

Real v. Imagined Fear.

Fortunately, my fears weren't realized.

I got on the plane, just like always, and felt fine. We took off, and everything was fine. Just like always.  

I got ready to fly home, thought of how I might panic and felt, well, panicky. An incipient phobic response.

Again, I got on the plane, breathed deeply, forced myself to relax, and was fine.

Since then, I've made three or four flights, all without incident. Every time, I become somewhat less scared that I was going to panic.

This morning, I thought about my two upcoming—and very long—trips. And I felt...NOTHING.  Nothing except excited about the trip. The fear was gone.

Just as suddenly as it had arrives, my budding phobia had disappeared.  

I think, actually, that I had habituated to it. I had never been afraid of flying, but rather had been afraid of being afraid of flying.  

Once I had gotten used to the idea that I might be afraid, I had several "corrective experiences" where I was not. In addition, I had been thinking, intellectually, about what was causing it and why, I had become comfortable with my fear.

And becoming closer and closer to it intellectually, had made it go away.

Habituation in minature.

It was amazing to me how fast and suddenly such a phobia could arise and, even more so, how quickly it could extinguish.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

more...

Subscribe to Thinking About Kids

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?