When Disastrous Thoughts Start Playing Games With Us

What if we can't stop thinking "what if?"

Posted Mar 30, 2017

A new post on the SOAR Fear of Flying Message Board states, “My disastrous thinking is already playing games with me. My mind wanders to the scariest thoughts possible about what could happen on the flight, even though the chances are so little they aren’t even worth mentioning.”

Most anxious fliers encounter this when a flight is approaching. Flying is remarkably safe. Major U.S. airlines have been fatality-free for fifteen years now. No record—no matter how remarkable—keeps the mind from coming up with "but what if" thoughts, such as plunging from the sky, or having a psychological melt down. It is as if Stephen King sits in a corner of the mind and, just when we dare to think we might be alright, he grabs our attention with a tale of terror. Whether provided by the "Bard of Bangor” or by our own imagination, awful thoughts invade the mind.

It's like the menu at a diner. Lots of items there. When considering what to eat, we narrow it down to one or two things. We have no trouble with that because nothing on the menu scares us. But when we open up the menu of the mind, there are a lot of items on the menu. Item we don't control are frightening.

So, there we are, reading the menu of possibilities. Oddly, the menu is upside-down. If based on reality, crashing would show up on the menu just once and arriving safely would appear 50,000,000 times. But this menu is not reality-based. It is imagination-based. Thus, what is listed is the other way around. There are many disaster listings and only one desirable listing. With an imagination-based menu, we just can't open it without seeing disaster all over the place. If we go ahead with our plans and accept what is found on this menu, there is a strong—almost inevitable—belief that we won’t survive. 

We would like to find that item of the menu that says “great flight: safe departure, no turbulence, safe arrival." But, where is it? There are so many disaster items, that one good item can't be found. Other people fly safely all the time. If a family member plans a flight, we don't worry so much. But if we get on the plane we "just know" it will crash.

I propose the idea that we don't need to keep things out of mind. What we need to do is understand that since we can imagine almost anything, the fact that we are imagining something is meaningless. But we don't get seem to understand that. Something showing up in the mind seems significant. The thought, we think, could be an omen.

What happens is this: when a terrible thought comes to mind, it triggers the release of stress hormones. Those stress hormones highlight the thought. Not only that, stress hormones can make it impossible for us to recognize that what is in the mind is just imagination. Feelings caused by stress hormones make what is in the mind seem real.

When we are cool, calm, and collected, we can separate the inner world of imagination from the outer world of reality. Not so when stressed. It is like a problematic basement that floods. A box of imagination sits over there. A box of reality sits over here. But when the basement floods, they rise off the floor, and like little boats, circle each other until they collide. When stress hormones build up, we lose our ability to keep our inner world of imagination and the outer world of reality separate from each other.

The bottom line is this: the problem is stress hormones. If we can limit the buildup of stress hormones, we can continue separating imagination from reality. We can do that. How we can do it is outlined in other blogs, and detailed in SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying. Since Amazon editors chose it as their favorite 2014 book, you may want to sample it at this link.

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