It was spring 2005 and I was flying from Atlanta to New York. During the day there had been the most unbelievable thunder storms and I had pondered that having TV channels dedicated to the weather wasn’t such a pointless idea after all. “They’ll get you out” a Canadian colleague had told me as the rain lashed down and the wind howled through the trees. “I hope not” I thought.
Stuck in the last row of the plane we’re being buffeted and rolled in a seemingly endless evening of torment. I’m sitting next to a nun and, on several occasions, I glance to see her twisting rosary beads through her ageing fingers. She has her eyes closed and I’m unclear whether she is sleeping or just too scared to look.
Fear of flying is a misery for countless people, but one which we often making worse by our own actions.
On a flight into Zurich some years ago a sudden pocket of air made the plane dip violently and, losing my composure through nothing more than instinct, I let out an audible shriek. I’m sure I saw the woman next to me smirk.
There are different types of fear related to flying.
Some are afraid of the confinement, the loss of control. These same people are often uncomfortable in lifts, in trains, getting stuck in traffic, going through tunnels, over bridges and, sometimes, queuing in shops.
The desire to get out when you can’t is what causes the anxiety. Given the opportunity to do so, the desperation immediately subsides.
For others the terror is at its worst ahead of the flight, maybe even weeks before departure. Asked to pinpoint exactly when it is that their anxiety reaches its peak, they will often concede it’s before they’ve even left the ground.
When people fear flying they are regularly afraid of their thoughts about flying and not the flying at all.
Once, flying with someone for whom take off was the very worst part, I counted from the moment the wheels left the runway to the point at which the cabin crew started unbuckling themselves to prepare for the trolley dash of over priced drinks and snacks. I reached 140 which was probably less than two minutes.
Take off is like a fairground ride, and I never liked those either. Riding on “The Waltzer” with my dad as a young boy I was terrified enough to thrust a full stick of candy floss into his groin to create what looked like a clowns pubic thatch. I expect it was funny, if you weren’t me or my dad.
So, for my frightened companion and all others who hate take off their fear is a concentration of emotional energy focused into a two minute experience.
When you play the thing you hate most over and over in your mind you create the worst possible version of it. You can imagine falling straight out of the sky, the plane exploding and all manner of other wholly unlikely scenarios. The more you manage to confine your fear to the moment itself, the less you will suffer.
Flying into Madrid some years ago with a colleague (who also happens to be a pilot) he points out nonchalantly, as the plane swings from side to side in the strong cross wind, that landing is nothing more than “a controlled crash”. “Brilliant” I said as I gripped my book ever tighter and read the same paragraph for the fourteenth time without understanding any of the words.
In all of these situations our fear of flying is made worse by our desperate attempts to stop ourselves from feeling frightened. But fear of flying is actually helped by accepting the fear, acknowledging the discomfort. That’s right, accept it’s scary for you.
When you tell yourself not to be afraid or keep repeating the safety statistics you do nothing more than confirm to your rational brain what it already knows and alienate your frightened emotional brain even more.
Hypnotherapy sometimes has a remarkably positive impact because it communicates directly with the bit of you which is scared. If that’s not a route you choose to follow then you have to be understanding with the part that feels the fear, because self criticism and frustration will make things worse.
Accepting a bit of discomfort and then treating yourself with as much kindness as possible is by far the best way to combat a fear of flying.
I’m writing this stuck on the runway waiting to fly to Verona. The captain says we’re delayed because of thunder storms across Europe and that we should expect some turbulence when we finally get airborne. When he invites me into the cockpit and takes a picture of me with my hand on the joystick I feel strangely calmed. Everyone else can hardly look.
If you have any tips about dealing with a fear of flying put them in the comments section below.