Don't Let Recent Events Cause Panic at the Airport

Bombs, ISIS, vanishing planes, suicidal pilots. What's an anxious flier to do?

Posted Nov 06, 2015

The news is disturbing. If we keep it out of awareness, we feel better. But, avoided concerns can catch up with us. If they hit all at once as we board a flight, panic may result. We are better off if we deal with disturbing news as it happens.

Concerns that are not dealt with are like snow accumulating on a mountainside. When the mountainside can barely contain the build up, a slight tremor can trigger an avalanche. Panic is an avalanche of thoughts and semi-thoughts left unprocessed and allowed to build up. Since unawareness is so attractive, and yet so troublesome, we are wise to aggressively seek mindfulness.

It is like your computer, or your cell phone. If you keep opening programs without being mindful to shut some down, more becomes demanded of your computer or cell phone than it can process. It locks up. When your brain locks up, it stops regulating arousal. 

Ordinarily, arousal is regulated unconsciously and automatically. Arousal starts with the amygdala. The amygdala monitors what is going on. If things are routine and familiar, no stress hormones are released. But, if the amygdala senses something non-routine or unfamiliar—since that might be a threat we need to deal with or an opportunity we don't want to miss out on—the amygdala releases stress hormones that snap us out of it if we are daydreaming, or grab our attention if we are focusing on something. The stress hormones force us to notice what the amygdala has come up with.

Please understand that this is not something that happens infrequently. The amygdala alerts us dozens of times a day. Since most are false alarms, we dismiss them so quickly we don't remember having done so. To appreciate how frequently these alerts happen, think of how often, when working on a project, a noise or something a person says or does distracts you. 

Most of the time, an unconscious system automatically moderates our arousal level as we look around to see what the amygdala has come up with. If you are basically a calm person (or a nervous person but are where you are comfortable) you simply feel curious. You notice what the amygdala is reacting to. If you recognize it as irrelevant, you drop it. And that's that.

I'll give you an example. In 8th grade, as I was paying attention to the teacher, something distracted me. Psychologically, the distraction was due to the release of stress hormones. My amygdala had reacted to a "click." Looking in the direction of the click, I saw a pencil rolling on the hardwood floor. Another student had dropped it. It was obviously not a threat. It would have been a different story if I had seen a hand grenade rolling on the floor. But, in this case, the pencil was easily recognized as no problem. I returned my focus to what the teacher was saying.

By the way, children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) might not refocus on the teacher. They don't quickly process the pencil and the "click" as irrelevant. Instead, something unexpected like a "click" brings an association to mind, which in turn, brings another association to mind, etc. Entering the mind unexpectedly, each is responded to by the amygdala's release of stress hormones. The result is an arousal that, feeling exciting, is more magnetic to the mind than what the teacher is talking about.

The ADHD situation is not so different than the situation of a person who panics. When an anxious flier feels unsafe, be it in an airport or on an airliner, when they hear a noise, it triggers a cascade of thoughts of danger: the photograph of a crashed airliner, imagination of what it might have felt like to be in a doomed airliner plunging toward the earth, and what terror it might cause to be trapped, knowing you are going to die in just seconds.

Do you see the overload possibility? As you board the plane, terrible thoughts, or semi-thoughts, that had been shoved aside come rushing toward awareness. They come too fast for you to focus on even one well enough to dismiss it. The cascade causes the release of more stress hormones.

One shot of stress hormones prepares a person to run or to fight. If your smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night, stress hormones make your body ready to go. But, many shots of stress hormones cause a pounding heart and a feeling that you can't get enough air. Instead of a bit of perspiration that evaporates and pre-cools the body in preparation for action, you get sweaty. When that evaporates, you feel cold and clammy. Instead of feeling alert, you feel disconnected. You may feel "out of body," seeing yourself from outside.

Your sense of self may disappear. This, since it mimics death, can be terrifying. Oddly, when one's sense of self disappears in a different context, we like it. The French have a word for it: "le petit mort," or "the little death," their term for sexual orgasm. Having one's sense of self overwhelmed by pleasure is satisfying. But, being overwhelmed by danger means terror. One we fear we can't avoid.

So, what can a person do? First, as mentioned at the beginning, deal with concerns as they arise. Second, intentionally process what is presented when you arrive at the airport. Sit down. Look around. What do you see? Check everything out. Is this boring? If it is, good. Isn't boring better than panic? What do you hear? Some things can be identified, and some can't. Is this a problem? Is it OK that some sounds can't be identified?

By consciously focusing on each aspect of the environment, you avoid unconscious build up that could lead to panic. Here's another tool: the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. A video at http://www.fearofflying.com/free-video/5-4-3-2-1-exercise.shtml teaches you how to do it.

Using the 5-4-3-2-1 prior to, and during the flight, can prevent panic. But, if panic is to be prevented, the 5-4-3-2-1 has to be employed before stress hormones build up. Thus, be mindful for the first first indication of stress. Do the 5-4-3-2-1 then and there. If you wait, it's too late. If you want to train your mind to do the job automatically, my book can help.

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