Many of us may not think about it, but fear of flying ranks up there as a very common phobia. Today I am pleased to bring to you an interview with Captain Tom Bunn. Tom was an airline captain and licensed therapist and is President and founder of SOAR, Inc. He has helped over 7,000 people overcome difficulty with flying.
Tom was part of the first fear of flying program, which was started at Pan Am in 1975. He founded SOAR in 1982; and to offer the most effective help possible, he completed graduate school to become a therapist. He spent five additional years in training at psychological institutes, finally developing a therapy that has made it possible for everyone to fly.
Today Tom talks to us about what the fear of flying is all about, how mindfulness can help, and advice for getting through your fear.
Elisha: What are the most common symptoms you see when it comes to fear of flying?
Tom: It starts with anticipatory anxiety, mostly about giving up control, and whether the flight will be turbulent. During the flight itself, there is high anxiety or panic.
Elisha: What causes someone to have a fear of flying?
Tom: When a person’s ability to regulate anxiety when facing uncertainty does not develop properly in the first eighteen months of life, the person has to compensate. They, like Linus, have security blankets such as control, avoidance, physical escape or psychological escape through dissociation. They try to control anxiety by controlling everything in their life. When they can’t assure a perfect outcome through control, they control anxiety by having a way out. Flying allows neither control nor a physical way out. So they try a psychological way out: they isolate their awareness from the experience of flight by focused awareness, dissociation, or over-medication.
Elisha: Walk us through how you use mindfulness to work with some of those symptoms?
Tom: Their strategy for emotional control is really the polar opposite of mindfulness. The first challenge is to help them understand that mental isolation is not going to work. Turbulence, a routine part of flight, presents a problem. It, like takeoff, is dynamic, and intrudes into their isolation. Takeoff only lasts a few minutes and is over. But turbulence can go on and on. With isolation their only remaining means of emotional control, when turbulence penetrates their isolation, it causes them to experience high anxiety, panic, or terror.
It is through a form of mindfulness that is now being called “reflective function” that we are able to distinguish images produced by imagination in the mind’s eye from images produced in the eye by reality. When stress hormones increase, reflective function decreases. If stress becomes too high, reflective function fails. When it does, the person goes into a state of psychic equivalence: the contents of the mind and the contents of reality are experienced as one and the same. What the person fears is happening is experienced as really happening. They are afraid the plane will fall. When stress builds up during turbulence, they experience the plane as falling, perhaps thousands of feet. This means terror.
Medication makes the problem worse. It helps reduce day-to-day anxiety by reducing reflective function so the person is less aware of things inside that cause distress. But when medication reduces reflective function in flight, the result is psychic equivalence, and terror. When the medicated person gets off the plane, they may never realize the plunge they experienced was imagination. Instead, they believed they narrowly escaped death and they were only able to live through it because of the meds. So they continue taking meds when flying until they are so traumatized by psychic equivalence that they are no longer able to fly. There is research that shows medication increases in-flight panic.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who had to get on a plane in one week and had a deep fear of flying, what advice would you give them?
Tom: Like mindfulness, the capacity for reflective function varies. Some people have little reflective function. In the long term, reflective function can be increased by therapy. But there is a problem with reflective function; it brings awareness of things inside ones self that one does not want to be aware of.
Part of therapy is coming to know and to accept more of what is inside. Until a person’s reflective function is robust, the amount a person needs to be protected collapse under the assault of stress hormones so they can recognize imagination and see it is not reality. Fortunately, I’ve found a way to train the amygdala to not release stress hormones when flying by linking each challenging moment of flight to a moment the amygdala regards as emotionally safe, such as what is expressed on the face of another person during a moment of empathic attunement. In such moments the amygdala lets its guard down, and stops producing the hormones that cause feelings of danger.
The amygdala is very interested in the human face. I would help them find a moment of profound connection with another person and remember the person’s face. When the moment is vividly recalled, it produces a bit of an anti-stress hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is produced when there is genuine attunement and empathy, such as nursing an infant, romantic foreplay, engagement, or wedding vows.
As they relive the moment, I would ask them to imagine a photograph of a plane about to land being held touching their cheek so their face and the flight scene are seen at the same time. I repeat this with each of the different flight scenes that could bring anxiety during the flight. They need to repeat the linking process until the links are established. This can be done on their own, with me on the phone, or with their therapist talking them through the steps.
Since giving up control is such an issue, meeting the person who has control makes a huge difference. I tell them to go to the boarding area early and ask the agent there to allow them on the plane at the beginning of the boarding process so, once on the plane, they can ask a flight attendant to ask the captain if they can come to the cockpit and meet the captain.
Since I can’t sit across the table with most of my clients, I use video. They first view video that explains how flying works, and then video that shows how to link a moment of empathic attunement to the challenging moments of flight. Then, I do a phone session with them to fine tune what they are doing to establish these links. And, if they get stressed at the airport, they call me on my cell phone. Therapists who have fear of flying clients can use the videos to learn how to use this method with their clients.
Thank you so much Tom for your wisdom.
To the readers: Please share your thoughts or experiences about this interview or fear of flying. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.