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For flying phobia, there is help
Rational or not, it's quite common. A support program culminates in a short flight.
January 01, 2012|By Cara McDonough, For The Inquirer

Several years ago, before I was married and had children of my own, my parents, brother, and I were flying together.

I don't remember the location, but I clearly remember the shameful exclamations of fear regarding what I do recognize as a commonplace and - yes - safe form of travel.

There were three angsty cowards among us. But my mother, never one to be afraid for stupid reasons, and therefore the sole member of our family who has no qualms about taking to the skies, flipped calmly through a magazine and looked at the rest of us with semi-disdain.

"You don't fly," she said, "you don't go anywhere."

And that's why I fly. Because I want to go. I just wish I liked the getting there better.

Traveling by any means can be unpredictable, and airplanes aren't immune. Just this fall a JetBlue flight had passengers stranded on the tarmac for seven hours during an unusual October snowstorm.

But the FAA's website lists a mere handful of airline "incidents" in 2011. True, airplanes do crash, but the agency's reports also include the most minor events, in which no one is hurt.

Therein lies the question: Why would a rational person be afraid of something that's, statistically, so safe?

Let's get something straight, says psychologist Martin Seif. People aren't rational. "If we were rational people, we'd be most afraid of the most frightening things in life and least afraid of the least frightening things," he says.

There aren't hard numbers, but Seif says an estimated 20 percent of the population experiences some level of fear when flying. According to the Connecticut-based psychologist, who specializes in treating the phobia, it's not only a somewhat common phobia, but also one of the most socially accepted fears.

It's true. I proudly gab with like-minded individuals about my aircraft-related anxieties.

I can and do fly, and am lucky that the anxiety I experience is usually brief, and by no means debilitating.

For me, it's the takeoff that's scary. Once the attendant makes the friendly "it is now safe to use approved electronic devices" announcement, my fear begins to dissipate, and by the time the captain's voice explains, over the intercom, that we've reached our cruising altitude, I'm fine. I release my fingers from the armrest. I can read a book.

I have talked to friends and strangers alike who have their own personal fear levels and coping mechanisms.

One of my friends brings a mini shampoo bottle filled with vodka in her carry-on - if the plane starts rocking, she takes a shot. My father told me once that when he flies, he closes his eyes and pretends to sleep, but he's actually praying.

I once sat next to a woman on a flight to Raleigh, N.C. We commiserated as we bumped through stormy skies, and she later gave me a job at her law firm when I was unemployed.

My grandfather never set foot on a plane, citing perhaps the most logical reason of all: "I don't understand what keeps them up there," he'd say.

For those with similar concerns, there's a solution. Seif's work includes one-on-one therapy, but he also runs the extremely popular "Freedom to Fly" workshop in New York state.

Participants in the six-week program - who run the gamut from nervous business travelers to people who have never been on an airplane - examine all aspects of flying in an attempt to conquer their fear for good.

They talk to a pilot, learning the in-flight details most people know nothing about, and also explore a stationary plane.

And yes, they go up in the air.

The grand finale is a "graduation flight." The group takes a short jaunt from the Westchester County, N.Y., Airport to Washington or Boston.

Although occasionally someone drops out or chooses not to fly, the program is immensely successful, as evidenced by the success stories quoted on the program's website - www.phobia-anxiety.org/flying.htm.

But how does it happen? How does a person - whether simply nervous, like me, or downright terrified - get over their fear?

First of all, says Seif, you have to categorize the real problem.

There are a variety of issues that cause fear of flying. For instance, many individuals are claustrophobic. They could fly with no problem if they could just open up a window. Others are afraid of heights, and others are afraid of going too far away from home. Some people are afraid of crashing, and some are afraid of turbulence.

People often manage their fear through ritualistic behavior.

Like when I hold the armrests tightly during takeoff, not talking, certain that this behavior will keep the plane up?

Yes. Exactly like that.

But the actual flying is only part of the problem. Transportation by airplane is a hugely anticipatory event. You buy your ticket way in advance, get to the airport early, and go through long security lines.

There's a lot to be anxious about. But anxiety is simply "a bunch of 'what-ifs' that are catastrophic," says Seif, and part of his process is dissecting the feeling, making it more manageable.

"Anxiety is entirely paradoxical in that the things that you do to make yourself more comfortable in the short run actually empower the anxiety," Seif says. "Anxiety asks you to avoid, when what you want to do is turn a 180 and move in manageable steps toward the areas of discomfort."

Basically, you want exposure to what's scaring you. When I'm fervently waiting for the electronic-devices announcement, I'm barely acknowledging that we're taking off. Acknowledging that reality is how people start to get better.

Better for some means being able to honeymoon in a tropical location. For others, it means visiting a long-lost relative. The philosophy makes sense, and the kind of professional treatment Seif offers is invaluable for many.

But I imagine there are plenty of people who are like me: not so nervous that they want professional treatment, utilizing their own rituals and silent mantras to get through each flight.

Joey Reynolds, who has been a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines for 61/2 years, says he comes across nervous fliers almost every day, and they range from children to the elderly.

Some come right out and tell you, he says, while with others, there are the telltale signs: clenching the armrests, squeezing someone's hand, or refusing to sit next to the window.

The 29-year-old said humor is his favorite brand of therapy when faced with a fearful passenger. If the person states that it's his or her first time flying, he might joke that it's the pilot's first flight, too.

"But you have to assess people," he adds. "For people who are more serious, I often explain to them the whole process of flying. Breaking it down real simple can often help, as well."

Getting to know passengers - frightened or not - is one of Reynolds' favorite things about his job. "You get to have such a great interaction with people," he says. "You sit next to people for hours, you tell them your whole life story."

Not to mention that flying allows us to discover so many new places, something Reynolds enjoys. The media often give flying a bad reputation, he says. "They don't go on the news and say 7,000 airplanes arrived successfully today."

Talking with Reynolds reminds me that beyond the heart palpitations, flying is at times . . . fun.

So perhaps it's worth putting a few therapeutic mechanisms into play and getting more comfortable with it all. Maybe I'll take a peek out the window as we're ascending; allow myself a moment to appreciate the miracle of getting someplace so far away, so fast.

Or, as I did on a recent flight, I may simply admit that the anxiety I experience is so incredibly worth what flying allows me to do.

We were headed home after a trip to San Diego where I reunited with six of my oldest and best friends for a wedding. We celebrated and reminisced. We met new babies, and we relaxed in the Southern California sun.

On the way home, our airplane was full and my family wasn't seated together. My husband and 3-year-old daughter sat in one row, and I sat with our infant son one row ahead.

After the initial takeoff, when the electronic devices had been approved and I'd loosened my grip on the baby, I looked through the seats to check on my daughter. She was calmly staring out the window, tired from a weekend's worth of socializing with her unofficial "aunts," watching the clouds fly by. Too young to be anything but amazed, and excited to go home.

I admired her enthusiasm and tried to glean a little for myself.

I may never get over my own personal brand of anxiety when the plane throttles away from Earth.

But as my palms sweat and my muscles involuntarily tense, I'll remind myself that if you don't fly, you don't go anywhere. And that I am headed somewhere wonderful.