Pilots have trouble understanding why so many people are afraid to fly. They think that if a person just understands how safe it is, they will be fine on a plane. It is not that simple. After all, elevators, bridges and tunnels are safe, and yet, those situations can cause anxiety or even panic. Why?

The most basic way we regulate emotion is by approaching what appeals to us and distancing from what frightens us. When boarding a plane, that basic system is lost. We need to rely on more sophisticated systems if we are to regulate our feelings.

Start with the amygdala, a cluster of brain cells similar in size and shape to an almond. (Amygdala is the Greek word for almond.) The amygdala's job is to monitor what goes on around you. If everything is routine, it does nothing. If anything happens that is unexpected or non-routine, the amygdala calls it to your attention by triggering a release of stress hormones.

The stress hormones activate the systems that regulate us emotionally and physically. The Mobilization System (MS) revs up the body in case it turns out you need to run or fight. The MS also produces an urge to escape. But a more sophisticated system, Executive Function (EF), overrides the urge to escape, and starts a three-step process:

a. Assess the situation. Is this irrelevant, an opportunity, or a threat?

b. Build a plan. If something needs to be done, what am I going to do?

c. Commit to the plan. Take the action needed to carry the plan out.

If EF assesses the unexpected situation as irrelevant, it signals the amygdala to stop the stress hormone release. If EF assesses the situation as an opportunity, the stress hormones cause feelings of excitement. But what EF assesses that there is danger? The stress hormones cause feelings of fear. If EF can come up with a plan that it thinks will deal with the danger, it commits to the plan. At the moment it commits, EF sends a message to the amygdala signaling it to stop releasing stress hormones.

To stop the release of stress hormones—and thus stop the feelings the hormones cause—EF must develop a plan and commit to it. An anxious passenger may not be able to do that. The first step is assessment. When there is a noise, how can the passenger be sure it is benign? Learning more about how airliners work can help. If the noise or motion can be identified as benign—even though the amygdala regarded it is non-routine—EF can dismiss it, and stress hormone release stops.

With regard to the second step—building a plan—the only plan available is to remain seated on the plane. Sure, the passenger committed to that plan by getting on the plane. But, when the noise caused the release of stress hormones, the commitment needs to be renewed. If the passenger isn't sure enough about the noise, EF can’t recommit to the plan. Stress hormone release will continue. Anxiety will rise, and the urge to escape will increase.

Even if a passenger knows what the noises and motions mean, EF can get overloaded and be unable to keep up with the three-step process. On takeoff, there is one noise and motion after another. Each triggers the release of stress hormones. If these noises and motions could be spread out over several minutes, EF might be able to assess them, one after another, as no threat. But when noises and motions come one on top of another, EF has trouble keeping up.

The same is true in turbulence. Even if a passenger understands that turbulence is not a safety problem, it remains an emotional problem. If the bumps came at the rate of one per minute instead of one per second, EF could finish the three-step process initiated by the first bump, assess that there is no problem, and signal the amygdala to quiet down.

Instead, there isn’t time for EF to finish the three-step process before another bump hits and starts the process all over again. As the turbulence continues, EF gets more and more overloaded, and stress hormones build up. The Yerkes-Dodson law tells us that if stress hormone levels rise too high, EF weakens. If EF collapses, it can no longer override the urge from the MS to escape. Control reverts to the MS. But, at 30,000 feet, the only solution it knows—escape—is blocked. The anxious flier feels out of control. And they are, for neither the person's sophisticated Executive Function nor their primitive Mobilization System has any way to stop the barrage of stress hormones. High anxiety, and possibly panic, result.

There is a solution. We can tap into another emotion regulating system. More on that in the next blog.

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