It was going to be the trip of a lifetime. I had been invited to attend the Emmy Awards with my writers’ group. Blinded by thoughts of a star-studded red carpet, I quickly responded with an excitedly confident “yes.”
Of course, I didn’t think of my secret fear of flying.
That is, until the “day of doom” grew near.
The day before departure, thoughts of anything and everything irrational took over like wildfire. It was as if my mind started doing cartwheels down a hill with no end.
“I’m going to be on the one that goes down,” I thought. Vivid images of turbulence, being trapped, and crashing in a field somewhere in the middle of nowhere became an endless slideshow of torment.
I changed flight…after flight…after flight in an attempt to avoid the inevitable.
Finally, I came to a conclusion.
“I can’t do this.”
Too scared to reach out for help, I did what so many fearful fliers do. I gave up and canceled my dream trip.
Months became two years. I missed out on cruises, trips to Europe, and even cherished weddings of dear friends. It soon became apparent that this fear was ruining my life.
Not sure where to start, I turned to the Internet. I talked to person after person “claiming to have the answer.” I memorized self-help phrases, watched videos of routine flights, and even talked to a really strange woman who had me imagine the colors associated with safety.
That is, until I saw an ad for SOAR.
It immediately caught my attention. This program seemed different. An airline pilot who had helped thousands of people headed it. And it looked like he had a proven system different from the rest.
Desperate for answers, I booked a last minute phone session in hopes that I could find the courage to go to Colorado to ski with my dad.
If you never listen to anything else about the fear of flying, listen to this.
THAT ONE HOUR CHANGED EVERYTHING.
Not only did I make it to Colorado, the wonders of the world became a reality. Since that time, I have flown to Iceland, the Amazon Jungle, the Galapagos Islands, and many other bucket list destinations. Best of all, I’ve accomplished many of these feats solo.
So just who is this miracle worker who changed my life?
His name is Captain Tom Bunn. A commercial pilot and licensed therapist, Tom has helped thousands of people just like me.
I reached out to Tom for an interview in hopes of helping someone else to overcome this debilitating problem that once kept me from seeing the world.
Following is what he had to say.
How to Take On the Fear of Flying: An Interview with Captain Tom Bunn
Hi Tom. Thank you so much for being with us today. First and foremost, what is the biggest thing that holds people back from beating the fear of flying?
Fearful fliers typically believe that they are so different from other fearful flyers that NOTHING will help. But this simply isn’t true. This belief holds them back. The first step in moving past the fear of flying is the discovery that many people feel the same way. The next step is learning that these people (who felt the same way) found effective help. (In other words, you, too, can beat your fear of flying.)
Simply telling people that flying is safe isn’t enough to conquer a fear of flying. Why is this?
Good question. Many pilots offer courses that say “knowledge is power.” They naively believe that if a person understands how safe flying is, they will have no fear when flying. But the fear of flying is rooted in emotion. And a fearful flier’s emotions do not follow that logic. Regardless of how safe flying may be, a person may not feel safe knowing the plane is high up, someone else is in control, and there is no way of escape. So no matter how safe you tell them flying is, this will not help in the long run.
The internet is full of people offering to help cure the fear of flying. Ninety-nine percent of these people, though some of them mean well, are clueless as to what is required to cure the fear of flying.
That brings me to therapeutic approaches to the fear of flying. The therapy most often offered, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is a “top-down” approach which claims that what is in the mind causes what is felt in the body. In other words, what a person thinks, or imagines, is responsible for what they feel. Since flying is remarkably safe, it is irrational, some therapists say, to feel fear. All a person needs to do is to think rationally; that will cause fear to disappear.
Though this makes sense logically, it make no sense emotionally. A cognitive therapist may ask the client to recognize that – in the U.S. – there is only one crash in 40,000,000 flights. Does the client picture 40,000,000 flights? No. It’s too hard to conceive of 40,000,000 anything. Instead, the client pictures the one that crashes. Imagination of the crash (and being in the crash) triggers stress hormones. Hormones cause arousal, which the anxious flier experiences as fear. So in the end, what the therapist thinks should quell fear actually causes fear.
Like you did, some fearful fliers try one inadequate form of help after another. They have, of course, no way of knowing that the help is inadequate. After all, wouldn’t you expect a reputable airline like British Airways or KLM to provide an effective course? Some give up and quit trying. Others, like you, find help that works. Successful help changes how a person feels when flying. And that has to go a lot deeper than intellectual facts and figures.
So what is the fear of flying really about?
The fear of flying itself can be about a lot of things-not being in control, heights, a fear of the unknown, and many other factors. But what’s most important is to understand what happens during fearful moments.
The fearful flier consistently imagines that something awful is happening or is about to happen. (A perfect example of this is your canceled trip to the Emmy Awards.) This, of course, releases stress hormones. Then, during flight (if the fearful flier even gets on the plane), more stress hormones are released. This is especially common when the plane drops during turbulence. It’s normal for the plane to drop. However, it’s also normal for stress hormones to be released when the amygdala senses that you’re falling. This is to make you take notice that you are falling – off a ladder, for example.
This is where it gets tricky. When stress hormones build up (when a plane drops, for instance), the ability to think clearly goes down. These stress hormones can cause a person to temporarily lose the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary, and to believe that the danger being imagined in their mind is actual danger.
That releases even more stress hormones, which cause rapid heart rate, tension in the body, and difficulty breathing. These are the physical sensations felt when in danger. So with this imagination of danger in the mind and feelings of danger in the body, it is easy to believe it when you imagine that the plane is falling out of the sky or that a plane is going to crash.
This is what the fear of flying is really about.
Some of our readers are probably wondering what they can do to begin to approach this fear. What are three tips that you can give us about how to beat the fear of flying?
Well, first of all, when you are flying, try distinguish between imagination and reality.
Anxious fliers need to pay far more attention to the processes inside the mind that help you recognize imagination and not mistake it for perception.
Think of this concept like this…
If your smoke alarm at home goes off, it produces noise to get your attention. However, you don’t automatically assume that your house is on fire. You investigate.
Fear during flight needs to be approached the same way. If your amygdala goes off, it produces stress hormones to get your attention. Don’t assume that your plane is about to crash just because you feel intense fear. Investigate, just like you would with your smoke detector.
You will see that your plane is flying along just fine. That is, you will see that if you use perception as opposed to imagination. If you use imagination, you will think that your plane is falling out of the sky. Don’t let your imagination get the best of you.
Secondly, keep your wits about you.
Make it a point to stay in reality. If your ability to distinguish between imagination and reality is weak, it takes only a slight amount of stress hormones to make you believe that what you imagine is happening – or that what you fear is about to happen. To keep your wits about you, you must get a handle of the release of stress hormones. In the SOAR courses – and in my book – we teach anxious fliers how to train the mind to produce a hormone that limits the release of stress hormones. That’s the key.
The third thing is to practice the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise.
Everyone finds the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise to be helpful when dealing with the fear of flying and the anxiety surrounding it. In short, this exercise focuses your attention on things that don’t cause anxiety. It can be used prior to flight, or during the process of flying itself. It’s easy and effective. You can learn this exercise today through a free video on the SOAR site. Just click this link.
Thank you so much for doing this, Tom. I really hope that this advice gives fearful fliers out there hope. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes. There is a very serious problem, a trap that anxious fliers easily get into. Xanax and other anti-anxiety medications are often prescribed for the fear of flying. Initially, these medications may “take the edge off.” The problem is this. If a person continues using them, they become more and more sensitive to the motions and noises of flight. As a result, two things can happen. One, the person becomes so sensitive that the medication is no longer helpful. And two, these medications reduce the person’s ability to separate imagination from perception (reality). As a result, they can cause a perfectly safe flight to be experienced as life-threatening. Once traumatized by this, flying may become impossible. So really, it has the ability to make the fear much, much worse. At the end of the day, the choice of whether or not to take medications is yours. But I want you to be aware of this. If you would like to read more about this concept, I’ve posted an article at this link.
Well that’s a wrap. Thank you again, Tom. I’m sure you’ve really helped our readers.
About Tom: Captain Tom Bunn is an airline captain, licensed therapist, and President and founder of SOAR, Inc. He has helped over 5,000 people conquer the fear of flying. If you or someone you know needs help to overcome the fear of flying, you can connect with SOAR here. In addition, you can read about Tom’s Book, Soar: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying here.