The Lost Airliner and Our Fear of Flying

Not knowing what happened only fuels anxiety.

Posted Mar 12, 2014

As the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was being discussed on the SOAR message board and Facebook page, I didn't initially realize why it was causing so much distress. Then, when someone on the message board asked why some sort of data link could not give us information about the plane, I realized that the distress was about the absoluteness of the disconnection between us and the flight. I responded to a thread on our Facebook page:

Susan: I keep reminding myself of your advice to not get swept up in the media, especially at this point where there is no factual information. I don't watch the news reports until they report the facts. Now it's just speculation, which serves no one well.

Andrea: I understand that. But then all we can say about the passengers is that they were unlucky to board that particular plane? It is the unknown, the possibilities. Yes, this is the case with anything in life; this is just so tragic and jarring because of the scale of the disaster and the fact that they are lost...they cannot even be found.

Me: It is about the total and absolute disconnect. Avoid a void that allows nothing. I didn't get it until someone asked about a data link that—if it is done by satellite—provides connection no matter where the plane is. Suddenly I realized that what is bothering so many people is that there is nothing, no explanation, no clues, no radio transmission, no sign of the plane's crash site, nothing. There is just a complete void of connection. Even an explanation would be a sort of connection with the people who are lost. Since there is no scenario of how they met their end, it is as if they stopped existing in a more non-existent way than if we knew how it happened. This total and absolute disconnect is troubling, and I believe it is troubling because it resonates with the disconnect we felt as little kids.

Strictly speaking, fear is about something specific, and anxiety is about the unknown. The unknown is so hard to tolerate that we try to transform it into something "known." If we have a definable target we can do something about it. Doing something is one of the ways we relieve anxiety. We can avoid it, fight it, or escape from it. Otherwise, there is nothing we can do; we can't avoid, fight, or escape the unknown.

In most crashes, the news tells us what happened and in a day or so, unless the crash involved someone we knew, the event becomes old news. This case is different: A plane disappeared. We think, This can't happen. A plane can't just disappear. We can't accept the complete disconnect caused by the information void. Why is it so disturbing? It resonates with times as a child when something went terribly wrong and there was a complete disconnect between us and the people we needed and depended upon.

For a child, a complete disconnect is too awful to endure, so he or she shuts down. James Masterson, called this abandonment depression. We are born to connect. At birth, there is an urge to connect with the breast, and to feel the connection of being held. This expands to an urge to connect psychologically, to be recognized as a real person, and to be responded to by others.

Since self-to-self interaction is so basic to our feelings of security, we build within the mind replicas of those who are vital to us. Then, when they are not present physically, they can still be present inside us psychologically. These internal replicas allow us to maintain a sense of connection—and thus security—even when they are away. But when a child tries to rely upon people who are unpredictable, it is impossible to build internal replicas adequate to prevent distress when the person is away. The child cannot feel secure when alone.

Fast forward to the present: Here we are, as adults, still needing to avoid feelings of disconnection. But without adequate internal replicas, distress is triggered by the disconnection of this disappearance. This creates a demand for so-called experts who we call upon to spin theories in thin air. What is the harm? Speculation about how Air France Flight 447 from Rio to Paris was lost in 2009 led to the formation of a myth about what happened to the plane that was every fearful flier's worst nightmare: A plane far out over the ocean, away from any land, hit terrible unexpected turbulence, and "fell out of the sky" at night, into the ocean.

That's not what happened, we've since learned, but I still get emails and calls from people who tell me that the loss of the Air France flight is the cause of their fear of flying. We can thank the media for that. The speculation offered some sense of connection, but if it fit a person's worst fears, then the cure the media offered to deal with the unknown was worse than the disease.

The Boeing 777 has flown 18 years with no fatalities, other than a 2013 crash landing in San Francisco which was determined to be caused by crew (and management) incompetence, not an issue with the plane. One crash in 18 years of flying is a great safety record. Rationally, such a record should be reassuring. But it isn't. Cognitively, we require absolute safety to get rid of our anxiety. Since absolute safety does not exist, cognition cannot solve the problem. Fortunately, relationship can. We need to establish suitable internal replicas.

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