Pre-Flight Anxiety: What Causes It, What Stops It

Commitment stops anxiety. For a person who sits on the fence, anxiety persists.

Posted Jul 05, 2018

Recently, someone emailed about pre-flight anticipatory anxiety. As I began thinking about what to tell the person, my thoughts went back to being nine years old. Every summer in North Carolina, a typhoid fever shot was required. One day each week, the county doctor, Dr. Bullah, and his nurse, set up a table on the sidewalk by Nowell’s Drug store, a block from my home in Wendell.

At the beginning of the summer, I planned to walk down the block and get the shot so it would be over and done with. But, when I looked at the number of people lined up, my resolve melted. I would have to stand in line all that time thinking ahead about the needle. I bailed out.

I went back next week. The same thing happened. This went on all summer. Commitment is not a nine-year-old’s forte. The summer was partly ruined by anticipatory anxiety. Finally, the last day Dr. Bullah would be there, I got the shot. Why? Because the rule was, if you missed getting a shot, next summer you had to get three shots. Anxiety about three shots next summer overrode anxiety about getting the shot on that last opportunity this summer.

Remembering how difficult it is for a kid to deal with anticipatory anxiety, I wondered if there was a lesson there about flying. I think so. Anticipatory anxiety builds while waiting to board a plane like it does waiting for a vaccination. A worse alternative can help a person stick it out. For a kid, three shots next year was a worse-enough alternative to do the trick. Three shots versus one can push even a nine-year-old into commitment.

Is there a worse-enough alternative that can help when boarding a flight? If you bail out, you get instant relief. The relief lasts a couple of minutes. When it fades, it is replaced by guilt and shame that last for months. When thinking of the instant relief, throw the lasting feelings into the calculation.

It is commonly thought that control keeps anxiety at bay. That isn’t necessarily so. If you have control but can’t commit to a plan, anxiety continues unabated. When Executive Function (the high level thinking responsible for our decision-making) commits to a plan, it ends anxiety by signaling the amygdala to end the release of stress hormones. The fearful flier is in a position to determine what they do, but so long as they sit of the fence, they suffer anxiety due to lack of commitment.

If we are fortunate, we are automatically calmed by internal resources. If we lack adequate internal resources, we may turn to others to calm us. Or, as stated, Executive Function can control stress hormone release through commitment. Otherwise, the person — or their proxy — must control the situation at hand so that nothing happens that is upsetting. That doesn’t work in the air. Turbulence causes anxious fliers to think the plane is out of control or may go out of control. The fact that pilots can’t always predict and avoid turbulence is highly disturbing.

A new app can help with that. SOAR In-Flight allows an anxious flier to enter their flight data. The app then researches the flight path and determines where turbulence is expected. As the flight proceeds, the app lets the user know when turbulence is coming up, how strong it will be, and how long it will last. The app is available for iPhones at this link and for Android here.

But what about anxiety during the flight? Since emotion cannot be controlled by being in control or by escaping, what can help?

  • One, inhibit up-regulation. The sympathetic nervous system up-regulates us when stress hormones are produced. Oxytocin inhibits the release of the stress hormones. Prior to flying, an oxytocin-producing memory is linked to the events that will take place on the flight. As the events take place, oxytocin is produced by association.
  • Two, activate down-regulation. The parasympathetic nervous system down-regulates us when the vagus nerve is stimulated. Prior to flying, a vagus-stimulating memory is linked to the events that will take place on the flight. The vagus nerve is stimulated by the face, voice, and touch of an attuned and non-judgmental friend.

Once these links have been established to inhibit up-regulation and activate down-regulation, arousal is automatically controlled during the flight.

When I work with a client on fear of flying, I make sure these links are established. I know the client will be fine on the plane. But, from their point of view, this new ability to self-regulate automatically on the flight is untested and unproven. If, instead of making a commitment to fly, they sit on the fence, they experience anticipatory anxiety. Anxious fliers are used to controlling feelings by being in control of the situations they participate in and being able to escape a situations where control is not assured. Taking a flight requires setting aside control and escape, the two things they have learned they can depend on. Taking a flight means trying to control feelings with newly established internal resources. They know that if this works, it will open up the whole world to them. But, if they have tried other methods and not gotten good results, naturally they will have doubts whether what I have taught them will work.

Instead of depending on control and escape to control feelings, some clients depend on others to calm them. A person who must fly alone has anticipatory anxiety for another reason. Dr. James Masterson found that people who depend on others for calming find it hard to take action that is in their own best interest. In technical language, Masterson said, “(1.) self-activation (2.) leads to dysphoric affect which (3.) leads to defense.”

In layman’s terms, the emotionally dependent person runs into trouble when they (1.) decide to act independently. As they begin independent action, (2.) separation from the people they depend on causes them to feel alone. When high anxiety, or panic, results, they (3.) bail out to get relief.
Commitment, the one thing that ends anticipatory anxiety, is hard to do. It requires going forward with a plan, instead of sitting on the fence thinking “what if.”

Masterson laid this out clearly. He made sure clients saw the whole picture, and understood its implications: to commit is to discover the satisfaction of directing the course of one’s life rather than be the victim of circumstances.

Masterson said people who avoid commitment are like sailors who, instead of steering their boat, allow it to be blown by the winds and the currents. Then, when they don’t like where they end up, they blame the conditions - rather than their inability to direct the boat - for where they are.

Flight anxiety can be controlled by inhibiting up regulation and stimulating down regulate. Anticipatory anxiety can be gotten rid of by commitment.