Deciding Whether to Fly or Stay Home

It's about thinking, "what if?"

Posted Nov 29, 2017

When an anxious flier thinks about an upcoming flight, they begin having, "what if " thoughts. One thought after another causes one release of stress hormones after another. The stress hormones build up. If the stress hormones build up high enough, the person forgets they are just thinking "what if." They begin to believe what is in their mind is not just "what if." It becomes their reality. It becomes "what is."

In the SOAR program, from the beginning, we have said we need to experience flight just as it is. We need to stick to "what is" rather than "what if." Why? Because if we start thinking "what if," when enough stress hormones have been released, we no longer can tell the difference between "what if" and "what is." Our imagination takes over, and the awful thing we have in mind seems to be happening or is sure to happen.

So, here is a tip to help avoid this problem. Let's look for a moment at how the amygdala works. It has a couple of things it is genetically programmed to react to: S-shaped things on the ground that might be a snake and falling. Other than that, the amygdala reacts to change. Think of it as a change sensor. It notices what is going on now and compares it with what has been going on. If what is going on now is the same as what has been going on, the amygdala does nothing. Though the amygdala doesn't think, if it did, it would say, "What is going on now is the same as what has been going on. What has been going on hasn't harmed me before so it probably isn't going to harm me now.  But if what is going on changes, the change could mean danger. The amygdala fires off stress hormones. The hormones cause the urge to run, and run the creature does. 

Though the amygdala is hundreds of millions of years old, it operates the same today in humans as it did eons ago in the creatures whose brain consisted of an amygdala and not much else. When it senses change, it fires off stress hormones.

So when a fearful flier thinks "what if," he or she imagines change. That imagination triggers the amygdala. In other words, every "what if" triggers the amygdala because it involves change.

Meanwhile, you are sitting at home or at the office where what is going on now is what has been going on. The amygdala doesn't react to that.

So, from the point of view of the amygdala (once again if it could think), it says, "What is going on here at home is the same as what has been going on. Since it hasn't harmed you in the past, it probably isn't going to hurt you how. So, as you sit here thinking about your flight, from my point of view as your amygdala, you are totally safe. But about that imagination; that's different. That is a total change and from my point of view as you amygdala, that is something you should run from.

Here's the point. As you ponder your flight and come up with change that triggers the amygdala, you also (sort of) ponder what is going on where you are. There is no change. Where you are doesn't trigger the amygdala.

The amygdala prejudices your decision-making. You have a choice to stay home or go fly. Staying home, because it lacks change, doesn't trigger any stress hormone release. Going on a flight, because it includes change, triggers stress hormones.

As you make your choice whether to stay home or go fly, you can listen to the primitive amygdala which has zero ability to think, or you can use your highly evolved cortex and think.

You can be primitive, like a reptile that runs every time the amygdala fires off, or you can be highly evolved, like a human, that determines what to do based on intelligence.

Part of being intelligent is recognizing that, as you sit at home and think "what if" the situation you are in prejudices your thinking that the "no what if" is safe and "what if" is unsafe. In other words, staying home is safe and going on a flight is life-threatening.

Stats tell us you are safer when flying. If you stay home, you are going to drive your car. Every time you cover three miles, you have faced the same risk of fatality as being on a flight. The average person drives about 30 miles a day. Three into 30 is 10. If you stay home and do routine driving the risk is 10 times greater than taking the flight.

Next time you think "what if" about doing something that involves change, be mindful that - though the amygdala does not react to it, doing something that involves no change also involves risk. And if it is a question of flying versus staying you, the risk staying local and doing your routine driving is 10 times greater than taking the flight.

When you think "what if" about your flight and imagine a fatal plane crashing you also should think "what if" about staying home and imagine a fatal car crash. Then, to have it fair and balanced, multiply the car crash risk you have in mind times 10.

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