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Anxiety, Rubber Bands and a Fear of Flying

I’m still working on the SOAR program I blogged about last week.

I hope I’ll be ready to fly without fear long before hypersonic flight becomes a reality on passenger planes!

Yesterday I spoke with Captain Tom Bunn, LCSW of SOAR, who told me a bit about the genesis of some of the effective exercises in his flying-phobia treatment protocol.

For one technique, his inspiration came from anxiety expert Jerilyn Ross.

Ross’s “rubber-band” technique has been used by countless anxiety patients in one form or another. The concept is pretty simple:  When you find yourself thinking about the fear, change your “what if” thinking. Focus on and carry out a simple and manageable task such as counting backward from from 100 by 3’s or snapping a rubber band on your wrist.

Tom Bunn built on that. Although he has various exercises that the SOAR course-participant engages in (and I found some of the visualizations especially helpful in reducing fear ratings) one stand-out for immediately coping with anxiety in the sky or anywhere else, involves counting and naming objects you see, hear and feel in a prescribed order.

By taking the focus off the fear and onto a mundane task which still requires concentration and engagement of the senses, the anxiety-cycle has a chance to slow down and stop.

Let’s say you experience a pretty good bump during turbulence. For some, understanding the nature of turbulence and how much a plane is built to take is helpful (for me, Tom’s video description which I recommend if you are a white-knuckle flyer, was a pretty good start). In fact, there are a few helpful ways to make sense of turbulence.

But let’s say turbulence is still pretty scary for you (after all, your reason can go out the window when you are afraid). As you experience a bump, stress hormones flood your brain. Before you can fully process your response and before the stress hormones have the chance to complete their cycle and dissipate, you experience another bump, and another and maybe even another. You stay stuck in the cycle.

By counting and naming sensory experiences, you shift the attention off the bumps and onto other powerful experiences, and you are better able to manage the fear.

This is only one technique among many that Mr. Bunn, a former air force and passenger jet pilot has developed. (He’s going to be publishing a book on the topic soon).

Do you want to try the exercise? If flying causes enough stress that you feel anxious just thinking about it (which is the case with many fearful flyers) try this:

Think about flying (or another fear-inducing subject, maybe spiders, snakes, bridges, etc.) Rate your fear (if I spend a minute or two imagining flying, mine is about a 4)

Now, name 5 objects that you can see. For example:

1) I see my old Tazo metal tea container filled with pens, highlighters, pencils, a scissors.

2) I see my computer screen.

3) I see my keyboard.

4) I see my wireless router reflecting blinking lights on my desk.

5) I see a scribbled-on business card reminding me of an appointment I have.

Then, name 5 objects you can hear. For example:

1) I hear the hum of the ceiling fan.

2) I hear the buzz of the aquarium filter.

3) I hear the faint sounds of traffic outside my window.

4) I hear my breathing.

5) I hear my self shifting in my desk chair.

To complete this set, name 5 objects you feel:

1) I feel the keyboard keys under my fingers.

2) I feel the carpal tunnel wrist brace on my right hand.

3) I feel the insoles of my shoes.

4) I feel the support of my desk chair.

5) I feel the smooth surface of my mouse.

Then, repeat, only naming/counting four, three, two and finally one item in each category. (They do not have to be the same items as you previously named, but may be if you choose.)

By the time you finish this exercise, your anxiety ratings will most likely be way down—mine is a one.

This is only one tool that I have so far found effective in the SOAR toolbox—there are many more. Here’a a  video about the technique.

Anxiety, Rubber Bands and a Fear of Flying

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2012). Anxiety, Rubber Bands and a Fear of Flying. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Aug 2012
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