In the aftermath of an airline accident, it is unwise to speculate. But in this accident, the writing was - not on the wall - but on the seawall and the pavement. It could not have been clearer. After studying the flight recorder, National Transport Safety Board chief Deborah Hersman has confirmed the plane was flying far too low and far too slow. "We're not talking about a few knots," she said.
Where does this leave anxious fliers? By recommending cognitive ways to deal with anxiety, many therapists send anxious fliers down a dead end. A part of the brain, the amygdala, triggers the release of stress hormones whenever it notices something non-routine. A securely oriented person will, if they see no obvious problem, dismiss the matter.
But for the insecurely oriented person, this cognitive approach will not work. Why? An insecurely oriented person cannot dismiss the feelings that arise when stress hormones are released unless they can prove there is no danger.
Though flying is remarkably safe, it is not absolutely safe. Thus, when flying, a passenger can never prove there is no danger whatsoever. When all danger cannot be ruled out on the ground, the person naturally looks for a way to cope with the situation. They seek to be in control. If they cannot find a satisfactory way to control the situation, they seek to escape the situation.
The passenger has no control of the situation. Physical escape is not available. Thus, the person's only means of calming his anxieties is psychological escape. He must focus his attention elsewhere.
That is a fragile strategy. In turbulence, the mind cannot be kept elsewhere, and high anxiety or panic ensues.
In spite of the fact that cognitive strategies do little for anxious fliers, psychologists still offer the cognitive approach. On television today, for example, Dr. Robbie Levin advised "a lot of self-talk" to reassure yourself that you are safe, and Dr. Marc Siegel told anxious fliers to remind themselves that the chances of being in a crash are very low.
Since the problem starts with the release of stress hormones, the most effective method of dealing with flight anxiety is to train the mind to not release stress hormones when flying.