Afraid to Fly? Check Your Baggage Here

By: Rachel Pomerance
June 3, 2013

As a college junior, Samson Frankel was all set for a semester abroad. But the night before he was supposed to leave New York for Israel, Frankel backed out, his fear of flying too big to beat. He didn't consider jetting anywhere again until his job with a Manhattan law firm demanded it – ironically, for dealings in Israel.

For Jean Ratner, a clinical social worker based in Bethesda, Md., fear of flying came on slowly and then in one sudden blow. On a flight 30 years ago, a several-second drop in altitude felt to her like a death plunge. She'd never fly again, she told herself, but train travel for work was getting tiresome.

Martin Seif, a psychologist with offices in Manhattan and Greenwich, Conn, studied phobias to try to cure his fear of flying. But the irony was not lost on him when a train delay nearly kept him from addressing a conference on phobias. "I remember thinking to myself, you know, maybe I'd rather fly than die," he says.

Avoidance, as these fearful travelers can attest, only tends to work for so long. When circumventing the fear became as or more difficult than the fear itself, they sought help and eventually overcame the phobia.

About one in three people have a fear of flying, according to Captain Tom Bunn, a therapist and former U.S. Air Force and commercial airline pilot who treats fear of flying with a program called SOAR. Among those who fear flying, half don't fly at all. And since only half of Americans fly, that's one in six Americans who stay grounded, Bunn says.

The precise treatment for the phobia depends on the individual and his or her particular fear, which could involve claustrophobia, turbulence or fear of having a panic attack aboard. But sufferers and therapists (in some cases, the former become the latter) rely on a few basic remedies: knowledge about air travel; calming techniques, like visualization and deep breathing; and cognitive behavioral therapy, guided exposure to the fear itself to finally slay it.

Fear of flying results from ancient stress hormones going haywire in a modern world, experts say. More specifically, the airplane blocks someone from resorting to the coping mechanisms that would traditionally put the stress response to rest by verifying that everything's OK and, if not, either gain control of the situation or leave it, Bunn explains.

He likens the stress response to an alarm system that can be disabled. How? By triggering oxytocin, the hormone that produces a feeling of bliss and bonding. It's released during birth, nursing, sex and amid post-coital comfort. "It sounds crazy," Bunn says. But considering the following scene can quell flying anxiety: "Think of lying there, with someone looking at you the way you hoped someone would always look at you after making love," he says. Before a nervous traveler flies, Bunn says that connecting each step involved in flying with an image of your lover's face or your nursing baby can stop the stress from ever starting.

Robert Reiner, a psychologist and executive director of Behavioral Associates in Manhattan, uses biofeedback and virtual reality to arm patients with a "competing response" to the act of flying. By measuring a patient's breathing and heart rate, Reiner pinpoints the patient's "belly breathing" – deep, abdominal breathing that he says "has the effect of making anxiety impossible to experience. It disables the fight-or-flight response." Reiner then creates a recording – by blowing notes on a harmonica that match the patient's relaxed breathing. The patient practices breathing along with the recording and simulated flights. His cure rate is 92 percent, Reiner says. "I think [fear of flying is] just a matter of bad wiring and bad luck, and that's why it's so easy to correct."

According to Seif, who now runs workshops called Freedom to Fly Now, "The active ingredient for overcoming anxiety is exposure." Seif takes patients inside a flight trainer, used to train private pilots, at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y. In general, he advises fearful flyers to learn about their personal triggers and about flying itself. As he says, "Anxiety loves ignorance."

Before Frankel flies, he'll prepare himself by watching YouTube videos of takeoffs and landings. Plus, he'll speak with "Captain Tom," who will provide a sense of what to expect on his route and other helpful hints – a down bump, for example, is always leveled by an upward one, Frankel says.

For Ratner, too, understanding air travel provided peace of mind. "I had to learn the science and to go over and over it until I believed it," says Ratner, who also learned that she was holding her breath when she was tense.

These days, as founder and director of the Center for Travel Anxiety, Ratner encourages patients to relax by inhaling and exhaling for three counts. She also employs cognitive behavioral therapy – she'll take a claustrophobic flier in an elevator, and travel one floor at a time. And she uses detailed visualization. If someone finds a beach scene relaxing, for example, she'll work with the patient to create every detail of that image – the precise time of year, how the breeze feels and what the water looks like.

The key, Seif says, is trying to stay in the moment – and your senses can help you do that. "Stay more connected to sensory experiences rather than these what-if thoughts because when you're anxious you're always in the future."