Clients often ask what they should do on the plane. Once the mind has been trained to prevent the release of stress hormones when flying it isn’t necessary to do anything. But, without that training, turbulence makes emotional control difficult or impossible.
Here’s why. In 1908, two Harvard psychologists, Dodson and Yerkes, found that our high level thinking is inoperative in two situations: a.) when we are free of stress hormones and b.) when stress hormone levels are too high. There is a stress hormone level “sweet spot” where the mind works well.
When we wake up in the morning, cognitive ability is limited. But, as we get going, we produce enough stress hormones to blow the cobwebs out of the mind. A cup of coffee may help us along as we look for the level of stress hormones we need to operate intelligently.
As stress hormone levels rise, our high level thinking continues to work, but only up to a point. Dodson and Yerkes found that if stress hormones rise too high, our high level thinking called Executive Function, falls off a cliff. When highly stressed, though we are wide awake and extremely worked up, our ability to think is no better than when we first woke up.
When we dream, we usually don't know we are dreaming. To separate what we dream from what is real, our high level thinking has to be working. When stress hormones rise too high, our high level thinking works no better than when we are asleep. When highly stressed, we lose the ability to recognize what is real and what is imaginary.
In turbulence, stress hormones are released each time the plane drops. Bombarded with stress hormones, it may become impossible to reject imagination that the plane is falling out of the sky, as something that is not actually happening.
Back in the 1980s, the SOAR Course was the first program to employ tools based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). These tools were very helpful to some clients, but clients whose stress level spiked quickly were not helped by them. When flying in turbulence, their high level cognition collapsed. They had no cognition left with which to use cognitive tools. For years, we could not help these clients. Now, we can.
Have you had the experience of driving your car, and deep in thought, gone past your exit? Most of us have. So, let me ask you. If your high level thinking was employed, deep in thought, who was driving the car? It was your subcortex. When you were a new driver, you spent many hours behind the wheel driving consciously. As you did, you were, without knowing it, teaching your subcortex to drive. In the subcortex, your unconscious procedural memory learned how to steer the car. But that’s about it. The subcortex can’t make decisions. It can't tell when to hit the brakes. It does not know when to turn off at an exit, unless you always take the same exit. In that case, your unconscious procedural memory can take that exit. So, here is another question for you: Have you ever gotten off your regular exit when you had planned to go past it? Again, most of us have. If you always take the same exit, your unconscious procedural memory will exit the highway at that point unless you, consciously, are on top of things and override your unconscious procedural memory. If your conscious mind drifts off, your subcortex will drive right past your exit.
It is said of policemen, firemen, and soldiers that they do not “rise to the occasion” when in a life-threatening situation, but rather, they “descend” to the level of their training. Why? Under high stress, they may exceed the stress hormone level at which their high level thinking is active. People whose job it is to deal with emergencies practice, step-by-step, what to do in the high stress situations they will face. What they do in an emergency may have to be done by the subcortex, not by Executive Function in the cortex.
So, to deal with fear of flying, we train the subcortex to prevent the release of stress hormones. We train the client's subcortex to release oxytocin when they walk on the plane, when they sit down in the seat, when the door closes, etc. Throughout the flight, oxytocin is produced by the subcortex every three to five minutes so that the amygdala, the part of the brain that releases stress hormones, remains inhibited. With the release of stress hormones inhibited, high anxiety and panic are impossible. Executive Function is protected and imagination that the plane is falling out of the sky is recognized as imagination—not mistaken for reality.
Fearful fliers are usually very competent people. Most have tried their best to control their feelings when flying. Having failed to do so, many come to believe nothing will work. But, notice why they failed. They failed because they were trying to use their high level thinking, the part of the brain that collapses under stress.
If you are a fearful flier, and if you have tried everything, please understand this: The things you tried required use of your conscious mind, the part of your mind that is vulnerable to stress hormones. Strategies to control stress that depend on cognition don't hold up under stress. Methods that depend on distraction, or relaxation, fail when stress hormones are released automatically in turbulence, unless of course, the amygdala is inhibited by training established prior to the flight.
The answer is to use the part of the brain that continues to work normally under stress. To use it, you have to train it. Once trained, it will control your feelings on the plane by inhibiting the release of stress hormones and by overriding their effect.