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Fear of Flying: Suffering From Imagination

Thoughts of something awful happening, though unlikely, can be hard to dismiss.

Fear of flying consists of suffering from imagination. Why is imaginary distress hard to avoid? Though we don't suffer from something that is purely imaginary, if something awful is even remotely possible, the thought that it might happen is difficult to set aside.

A few nights ago, my wife Marie and I were watching "House of Cards" on TV. We could see it coming; a beloved character knew too much. To keep her quiet, she was going to be killed. How long would it be before it happened? How ghastly would the murder be depicted? Marie said, "I have to remember this is a movie."

Even though it was a TV drama, the murder was hard to take. Perhaps it is because we know murders like this fictional one happen in real life. Something that can't happen is easy to discard. But, if something awful is remotely possible, it is a different story, at least for people who are afraid of flying.

Confident fliers can put worries aside if they are improbable. But, people who fear flying can dismiss something only if it is impossible. Anxious fliers tell me the crash of Air France 447 made it impossible for them to fly; their worst nightmare became real. A plane, high up, nowhere near a place to land, in the dark of night, hit turbulence, and fell out of the sky.

Some of us can set improbably disaster aside. Others require it to be impossible. Why? The answer is unclear, but I suspect a sort of PTSD from childhood plays a role. When an upcoming flight comes to mind, we are bothered by the same things that bothered us in childhood: being alone, powerless, not responded to, and unable to escape.

Children are at the tender mercies of adults - and of bigger kids - some of whom are not safe to be around. If childhood experiences with uncertainty were problematic, flying can take us back to experiences we don't want to remember or to repeat: being alone, unresponded to, ignored even in crisis, powerless, and unable to escape. Let's look at these things one by one.

Are we alone on the airplane? Yes. But, being alone is alright if we carry the love and caring of others inside us. It helps if we can link being on the plane to a memory of connecting well with another person. Also, we can ask a friend to track our flight on their computer.

Unresponded to? If not in first class, we don’t get much attention. But, passengers are responded to if a medical problem develops. An announcement is made asking a doctor to respond. Medical supplies are available onboard. If no doctor is onboard, the captain radios a doctor the airline keeps standing by on the ground.

Powerless? Yes. Though it is better for the power to be in the hands of pilots than in yours, the brain is wired up to not feel comfortable when not in control. When there is anxiety due to uncertainty, if a person can develop a plan and commit to it, the pre-frontal cortex (where decision-making takes place) signals the amygdala to stop releasing stress hormones. Commitment to action stops anxiety on the ground. But, in the air, commitment is to non-action - as the Greyhound Bus ad used to say - to "take the bus and leave the driving to us.”

Anxiety disappears if a person can commit to let go of control. Letting go of control was the key to success in the course Captain Truman "Slim" Cummings started in 1975 at Pan Am. Though letting go is a solution, it isn't in everyones repertoire. Slim told his course participants a story about a guy - let's call him John - who is sitting on top of a a cliff enjoying the view. Suddenly, the earth gives way and John begins to slide downward. Miraculously, he is able to break his fall by grabbing a root sticking out of the cliff wall. As he holds on with one hand, he knows he can't hold on forever. When he can't hold on any longer, he will plunge to his death.

John, according to Slim's story, did not believe in God. But, in this moment, he exclaims, “Oh my God!” A voice answers. "John.” John says, “Who’s there?” God says, “John, this is God. You called, and I’m answering.” John, replies, "God, is it really you? I never believed in you." God answers, "Yes, I know. But, it looks like you need some help.” John stammers, "Yes, yes, yes, God. I’m scared. Will you save me?” God says, “John, yes. Of course I’ll save you. You just have to do what I say.” John says, “Tell me what to do. I’ll do anything you say. Just save me.” God then says, "Very well John. Let go!"

John pauses, and then says, "Is there anyone else up there?" Letting go is the last thing we want to do.

Back to childhood. If we weren't responded to, we had to take matters into our own hands; we had to take control, and if possible, maintain control. Control seems be the only thing we can depend on. Yet, on a plane, we don't need to be in control in order to get from point a to point b. In fact, if we were in control of the plane, we probably wouldn't make it off the ground. Someone who does know how to get from point a to point b will do the controlling. And yet, we can't give it up.

Probably, we can’t give up control because we learned we could not trust anyone to care enough about us. But, think about it. This is a different situation. We don’t need the captain to care about us. The pilot can't get the cockpit back on the ground safely without getting the cabin back on the ground safely.

Unable to escape? No question about it. I once worked with a fearful flier whose IQ was quite low. The person asked where the flight is smoothest. I responded, "On the wing." She said, "But, isn't it cold out there?" Yes, it is. That's why we fly inside. It's also windy out there.

Planes could be built that are not fully enclosed. Parachutes could be provided. Imagine a flight attendant making the pre-flight announcement, ”We recognize you have a choice of airlines, and we’re pleased you’ve chosen to fly with XYZ airline today. But, if during the flight, if you’ve had enough, feel free to bail out.”

As things stand now, if you want to bail out, you must do it before leaving the ground. Bailing out before departure is an option. Bailing out is, itself, a form of commitment. When a person commits to not take the flight, there is relief. But getting from point a to point b by air requires commitment. And, when that commitment is made irrevocably and will acceptance of the outcome, whatever it is, anxiety vanishes.

Once committed, events unfold as they will. That’s not to say things are left to chance. They aren't. Everything in aviation is controlled. Engineering specialists - professional worriers - have been paid big bucks to think of everything that could go wrong and provide a solution for every problem that might develop.

Todd Curtis, Ph.D. runs a web site on airline safety. Todd used to work for Boeing. During the design of the 777, he and a team were assigned the job of thinking of everything that could go wrong. After doing that, they had to find a way to get the plane back on the ground safely nevertheless. He did his job well. There have been no 777 crashes due to things going wrong with the plane.

If you met Todd, you would not suspect he was a professional worrier. He's not the kind of guy who looks worried at all. And maybe there is something to be learned from that. If a person does their worrying, and does it well, they finish it. They finish it and go on with life.

Commitment, though it narrows our options to a single choice, frees us from ongoing conflict. Commitment is more easily said than done. An essay on the ability to commit to flight can be found at

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