Think Your Plane May Crash?

Anxiety before a flight can be worse than anxiety during a flight.

Posted Dec 07, 2018

Peter Fonagy, an authority on developmental psychology, explains that early in life a child has no idea that what is in its mind may not be real. But at around the age of three, the child discovers that what is in the mind can be different from what is real. It might appear that that would help the child alleviate some of its fears. But that takes an additional step, and not every child takes it. And, if that additional step is not taken, the child will be plagued by unnecessary fears. Even as an adult, irrational fears will persist. What is that all-important step?

The step is understanding that nothing in the mind is real. Everything in the mind is representational. Think of your cellphone's camera. If you aim it at a flower, you can see the flower with your own eyes and at the same time see an image of the flower on the cellphone's screen.

The flower is real. The image on the cellphone's screen is representational. The flower is made up of biological cells. The representation is made of tiny lights that are turned on in various colors by electricity.

A similar process is going on in your brain. The image in your mind is made up electrically. In other words, what is in your mind is not the flower. Your mind produces a representation of the flower.

Fonagy suggests that adults who don't thoroughly appreciate the representational nature of the mind experience distress that others are not troubled by. If I think of an airplane crash, I am fully aware that I am experiencing - not a real crash - but a representation of a crash. But a person who mistakes thoughts for reality is emotionally impacted by what they think.

The degree to which a person is aware of the representational nature of the mind partly determines their emotional response. A person who is not thoroughly oriented to the representational nature of the mind can be impacted by imagination for two reasons. First, they have a weak appreciation that what they have in mind at any given moment may not be true. Second, when alarmed by what they think, awareness that what they are thinking may not be true vanishes.

In the SOAR fear of flying program, we refer to this as "going into your own movie," believing your imagination to be reality. This means an imaginary threat can be experienced as a real threat. Individuals who panic often panic about things that are not true. For example, a pounding heart is experienced as a heart attack, hyperventilation as suffocating, and mental overload as going crazy.

As to fear of flying, when a client feels distress when thinking their plane may crash, I may ask if they can recognize how likely that is. Since no major US airline has crashed in over 16 years, a crash of any plane - including their plane - is extremely unlikely. Typically, they respond, "But it can happen." And here is the crux of the problem. Their limited ability to appreciate the representational nature of their thoughts makes the thought of their plane crashing real enough to release stress hormones. The stress hormones cause all appreciation of the representational nature of the mind to vanish, and what they have in mind - their plane crashing - is experienced as an inescapable reality. Fonagy calls this state psychic equivalence: what is in the mind is experienced as equivalent to reality.

Exercise One: Defeating "Psychic Equivalence"

One way a person can reduce anxiety about an upcoming flight is to strengthen their appreciation of the representational nature of the mind. How? Pretend another person has the crash in mind. "Imagine what it is like for your friend to think about the crash." This reestablishes an appreciation of the nature of the mind.

Next, imagine you ask your friend to stop thinking about a crash, and to tell you when they have stopped thinking about it."

Exercise Two: Using The Pretend Mode

Pretend it is impossible for a plane to crash. For example, as the plane nears the ground, a parachute pops out (there is a plane that does this). See

Step 1. Pretend your plane can't crash.
Step 2. Pretend your plane will crash.
Step 3. Pretend your plane can't crash.
Step 4. Pretend your plane will crash.
Step 5. Find some place in between.

Exercise Three: Using Your Mentalization Mode

Think of your plane crashing. Take what you have in mind and pretend you can project it onto a movie screen. As you see it playing on the screen, pretend you have your cell phone in your hand. Aim your cell phone at what is playing on the screen. View it on the back of your cell phone (only) on your cell phone's screen.

Now, imagine you can see yourself doing this. Imagine you are watching yourself watching your cell phone.

What we are playing around with is something that made distress less intense for us when we were children. When we know a caregiver has what we are distressed about in mind, that makes it better for the child.

As the child imagines the caregiver thinking about the experience, the child records the experience in the child's mind as an imaginary - rather than a real - experience. Thus, remembering the experience is less distressing.