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Desensitization Works For Other Phobias. Why Not Flying?

Gradual exposure desensitizes. If flying can't be done gradually, what do we do?

For most phobias, systematic desensitization, developed by Joseph Wolpe, can be used to gradually expose the amygdala to a phobic situation. By gradual exposure, the amygdala becomes accoustomed to the situation and stops responding with the release of stress hormones.

Another type of desensitization, flooding, repeatedly exposes the client fully to the situation. It is expected that the amygdala will learn that nothing awful happens, and stop releasing stress hormones.

Even if an anxious flier is able to achieve desensitization, it will not hold up unless the person flies very frequently. A crew member's amygdala regards flying as routine since flight is a near-daily activity. Most passengers do not fly that often. If an anxious passenger goes too long without a flight, whatever desensitization has been accomplished will be lost.

Instead of desensitization to silence the amygdala, I have clients link the things that happen during flight to a memory that triggers oxytocin. Oxytocin inhibits the amygdala. Links between flight and an oxytocin-producing memory accomplish what—as regards flying—desensitization cannot accomplish.

A few days ago, I read a post by an anxious flier who is trying to desensitize by repeated exposure to turbulence. Recognizing how futile this effort is, I posted that a person is unlikely to achieve lasting desensitization to turbulence. The most effective desensitization, Systematic Desensitization, would have to start with exposure so slight that the amygdala would not respond. This would have to continue flight after flight with so gradual an increase in exposure to turbulence that the amygdala would not notice the difference. Gradually increased exposure would have to continue flight after flight until full exposure to turbulence would not cause the amygdala to respond.

It should be obvious that there is no practical way to adjust exposure to turbulence. Systematic Desensitization cannot be applied. In the other desensitization, Flooding, the client is exposed fully and repeatedly to turbulence. When repeated exposure does not result in disaster, the subject's amygdala is supposed to learn to ignore turbulence. This approach has at least four problems. One, the client may be unable to tolerate the "treatment." Two, the "treatment" may permanently traumatize the client. Three, the "treatment" may cause panic, in which case the amygdala will not regard the exposure as a non-disaster. Four, the fact that the plane didn't crash does not prove to the client that it will not crash in the future.

Desensitization, when it comes to flying, is a highly problematic endeavor. Even if desensitization is achieved, unless the person continuously exposes himself or herself to flying, desensitization will be lost: the problem comes back just as though desensitization had never been achieved

When I explained this on that message board, I got angry responses. When trying to get over fear by flying again and again and again, some become invested in doing so even if the results are poor. Others give up. On that message board, those who claim to have cured themselves advise others to keep trying. Keep flying, they say, and someday you will cure yourself, too.

An effective solution for in-flight anxiety, claustrophobia, and panic exists. Anxious fliers who cannot accept help may achieve something to take pride in, but most likely it will not be lasting desensitization.