Many Nervous Fliers Are Afraid of Being Afraid

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I’m not really scared of flying — I do so fairly frequently, and it never presents any sort of major psychological problem. Like a lot of people, though, I do find turbulence to be an un-fun experience, and so when I have a flight coming up I find myself thinking about that a bit too much. Having absorbed a fair amount of information about how flying works — mostly from Patrick Smith of the website Ask the Pilot, who is great at explaining the physics and mechanics in clear, mystery-dissipating language — my anxiety these days is less about the prospect of something terrible happening to the plane and more about my own response to choppy air. I’m anxious that I’ll be anxious, in other words, and I know that it will feel unpleasant.

This sort of thought-loop undergirds a lot of fear responses — for many people, at a certain point the fear becomes less about any particular dire outcome and more about their own response to it. Agoraphobia, for example, can arise not because people are afraid any specific bad external thing will befall them if they leave their home, but rather because they are afraid that if they do, they’ll have a panic attack. And sometimes the fear of a panic attack brings with it the shame and fear that other people will see them have a panic attack and think they’re crazy, and so on.

All of this is why I really enjoyed NPR reporter Danny Hajek’s NPR dispatch from a class called FearlessFlight at Air Hollywood — an interesting spin on exposure therapy, a therapeutic technique in which clinicians reduce people’s fears by exposing them to those fears in a careful way.

Now, FearlessFlight isn’t exactly the same as exposure therapy with a trained therapist — I don’t get the sense it’s been tested in the same rigorous way certain therapeutic techniques have — but it’s an interesting example of certain exposure-principles in action. The class was a two-day affair, Hajek explains: On the first day, the nervous participants sat in what was once the charter plane for the Los Angeles Lakers, as their instructor, the retired pilot Ron Nielsen (a.k.a. “Captain Ron”), who has been running these sorts of programs for 29 years, talked them through various technical aspects of flying, including turbulence. (During the turbulence segment, naturally, the plane started to shake, an effect generated not “from fancy hydraulics — Rob Shalhoub of Air Hollywood, was standing next to the plane, jumping up and down.”)

Day Two was the real deal: The participants hopped a short Burbank-to-Oakland flight on Southwest Airlines. Beforehand, “Capt. Ron told his class to just accept whatever they were feeling. ‘I do have a big thing about crying,’ he told them. ‘Inevitably, I have somebody who says, ‘I don’t want to cry.’ I say, ‘Let [‘er] rip, man!’ Honest to God, I cry all the time. It’s a release. So do not bottle that up.’” (I love Captain Ron.)

He did lose a couple of his students, who simply couldn’t handle the prospect of a real flight, shortly before takeoff. Most of them did fine, however, and Hajek paints a scene of serious catharsis: “As they stepped off the jetway, members of the class hugged and shared stories from the flight — finally able to release years of pent-up anxiety. ‘I haven’t been able to do this and I’ve missed opportunities,’ [one FearlessFlight student] said. ‘And now I can finally just get on a plane and not be like, constantly stressed and worried about it.’”

While I’m lucky to be a mildly nervous flier rather than a seriously phobic one, I definitely saw a bit of myself in Captain Ron’s students: In many of these sorts of cases, again, the thinking about the thing can be way worse, and more unpleasant, than exposure to the thing itself. I always go through the same cycle where I’m a bit nervous before the flight, and then once we’re at cruising altitude I ask myself what I was nervous about in the first place — flying is usually pretty smooth (I do grip the armrest tightly when things get shuddery, though).

It’s the not flying that gets me, in other words: When it’s been a while since I’ve been exposed to the reality of flying, which is usually pretty uneventful, my mind fills up with a version of it that is more turbulent and nerve-wracking than the (usual) reality. It’s easy to see how, if I were a bit more nervous about this stuff, it could cascade into a preoccupation that kept me on the ground.

Though I suppose if that ever happened, I’d just seek out Captain Ron and maybe we’d have a good cry about it.