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How Imagination Causes Fear of Flying

Though flying is safe, it may not feel safe. What causes the mismatch?

Although flying is remarkably safe, it may not feel safe. For many people, feelings don't match up with how safe flying is. What causes the mismatch?

Fearful fliers have a tendency to believe what is going on in their mind is exactly what is going on around them. What we think is happening and what is actually happening can be two different things.

In your car, when you hear the engine speeding up, you naturally think the car is speeding up. That is true when the gearshift is in "drive." But what if the gearshift is in neutral or park? In neutral or park, the engine is disconnected from the wheels. Even if the engine speeds up, the car can be sitting still. That can be true of the mind. When we are engaged in imagination, the mind is disconnected. It can go speeding off, imagining things that are in no way going on in the real world.

The mind - like nature - abhors a vacuum. An empty mind makes things up. When we are calm, the mind entertains itself with interesting thoughts. When we are anxious, the mind focuses on uncertainties. When we are fearful, we imagine frightening things. Frightening thoughts trigger the release of stress hormones.

When revved up by frightening thoughts, the mind is disconnected from what is really going on. Though the flight is proceeding safely, the person can imagine the plane is in trouble. The important question is this: does the person recognize that their mind is not connected with perception? Or, does the person believe what is in their mind - though it is imagination - is what is really going on?

I'm sure I've been on flights in the cockpit where, while I'm totally bored, someone in the passenger cabin believes the plane is about to crash. Stress hormones make imaginary danger seem real. How can we keep terrifying imagination from happening? We can do so by inhibiting the release of the stress hormones that cause the mind to race off into terror, or by overriding the effects of stress hormones so they do not cause the mind to race. This helps the person's mind stay in gear and connected with what is going on, rather than free-wheeling off into imagination,

A few days ago, a client sent an email about her flight. There were several situations on her flight that could have sent her off into imaginary terror. Instead, her mind stayed in gear, connected to reality, and free of fear.

Dear Capt. Bunn,

I wanted to reply to your recent newsletter about landing in strong winds and thank you and the SOAR program for preparing me for a recent flight that involved high winds, rain, lots of turbulence, and three aborted landings. Although it was only an hour-long flight, the turbulence alone would have been enough to trigger a panic attack prior to taking your program. I actually almost fell asleep at one point! I was feeling proud of myself for experiencing almost no distress during the ongoing turbulence and happy to hear the wheels come down as we approached the airport, which wasn’t visible through the clouds and rain at night.

When the plane accelerated and took a sharp upturn, I remembered everything you’ve taught us about how aborted landings are not dangerous and are fairly routine, a sign the pilot is doing their job well. He came over the intercom about five minutes later and told us that he had to abandon the approach due to unexpected weather (even that unwelcome detail did not faze me) and that we’d be turning around and on the ground in ten minutes. The lights were off in the plane and the passengers were all dead silent as we continued to rock through the clouds. When I heard the wheels come down a second time I was confident that we would have an uneventful landing.
By the time the third landing attempt was abandoned, which involved a steep, fast approach under the clouds before the plane took another sharp incline (we were on a small, three-seats-across plane), I will admit that my old thoughts started to intrude and I began to imagine our flight being profiled on one of those shows that re-enact plane crashes. Then I stopped myself and focused intently on strengthening exercises while I reminded myself that there is always a backup plan and prepared for an announcement that we would be diverting to another airport. I was not relaxed, to be sure, but I wasn’t anywhere close to serious worry as I felt the strengthening exercise overcome my anxiety.

Fourth time was a charm and the landing was surprisingly smooth. At that point the passengers all started smiling and talking about how scary the flight had been and people thanked the pilot as we got off the plane and went down the stairs in the rain and wind. There was an airport employee on the plane and as we walked into the empty terminal of the small, regional airport (most incoming flights had been canceled), a bunch of other employees greeted him and joked about what a rough flight we’d had. My son was picking me up and he said that folks waiting in the terminal were worried because they’d been told the flight was canceled even though he knew it had taken off by checking a flight tracker.

So this is all to say that the flight and landing were fairly high-drama by many peoples’ standards—and would have been a flying deal-breaker for me just a few short years ago. But thanks to your program, I managed with only a few moments of anxiety that my SOAR training quickly overcame

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