Sunday, October 6, 2013
Fear Of Flying - The Plane Facts
Statistically speaking, every row of three seats on a commercial airplane contains at least one passenger who’d really rather not be there. Their clammy palms grip the armrests on take-off, their eyes search frantically for a reassuring smile from the nearest stewardess, and their heart beats out of their chest with every little bump of turbulence.
The reality is - it’s a lack of control. You see, most folks don’t know how planes work. So entrusting your existence to a tube of metal with flaps is a leap of faith, and a half-hearted one. However, most folks don’t know exactly how cars work either, but at least they know how to drive one. Therefore, should something go wrong while they're cruising down the road, they at least have a 50/50 chance of survival. If something goes wrong in a plane, not only are their prospects nil, but they also have a minute-long fall of 30,000 feet or so in which to mull over their imminent demise.
To make matters worse, the media doesn’t help. Most car accidents need to cause multiple fatalities just to make the local bulletins, but plane crashes fill the news for days - even if everyone makes it out alive.
For those of you have have a fear of flying, professor Robert Bor is here to help. One of the authors of a new book, Overcome Your Fear of Flying, Bor is not only a renowned clinical psychologist, but he’s also a qualified pilot. In this day and age - these fears, he says, are irrational. In the 1920s it was a rational fear, because air accident rates were high, mortality rates were high, and even the chances of witnessing an air crash were high.
“In life there’s always some kind of risk,” he says, “but nowadays you have a greater chance of being kicked to death by a donkey than anything happening to you in an air crash. Yet people still project incidents and apply them to themselves. There have been two serious crashes recently, and people immediately assume there will be more and more and they’ll be affected. They overestimate the risk; that fear is now irrational.”
Of course, statistics do little to calm irrational anxiety, which is why Bor’s book, and his cognitive behavioural therapy-based treatments doesn't simply focus on facts like the drive to the airport is more dangerous than the flight itself.
Bor, whose academic research is complemented by clinical work with sufferers, has some simple hints for anyone dreading their flights this holiday season – during which he regularly sees a spike in fear of flying.
Don’t avoid flying
"We try to make ourselves feel safer by avoiding things,” says Bor, “but it doesn’t help to deal with your problem. Avoiding flying can inhibit your career if your work involves travel. It can affect relationships (most people want to go on holiday) - many of them abroad, and some family events require us to travel.
You shouldn’t avoid it because it’s such a treatable problem. Fears and phobias have one of the highest success rates for treatment of any psychological problems. If you’re willing to give it a bit of time, you ought to be able to fly comfortably. You may still be gripping the armrests, but at least you’ll get to Majorca.
Think about the destination, not the journey
“Focus on the positive reasons for taking your flight,” says Bor. “Perhaps you’re going on holiday, visiting family or friends or just doing your job well. These all give you a purpose for taking your flight and added motivation to overcome your fear and move forward with your life.”
Challenge your negative thoughts
Not a huge fan of turbulence? “That’s where a little bit of education can help. Turbulence arises because of air currents, that’s all. People might be alarmed by the sensation and worry about the structural integrity of the aircraft, but technically speaking it’s a non-issue.
“However, turbulence is a ‘trigger event’; it switches on people’s anxiety. It’s uncomfortable, but fearful passengers translate that into danger – and there’s a big difference between discomfort and danger. You might spill your hot coffee, but the plane isn’t going to fall apart … It’s important to identify such negative thoughts while flying and question them.”
Learn relaxation and distraction techniques
“When you start having negative feelings during a flight, redirect this energy,” advises Bor. “Focus on the external environment: for example, strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger or watch the crew as they go about their duties. Do something which will distract you from the negative thoughts, such as listening to your iPod, reading a book or watching a film.
“If you start to feel unsettled, sit back, fix your line of sight on the seat back ahead or something in the distance and breathe deeply in through your nose for five seconds and slowly out of your mouth for five seconds. Your heart rate will decrease almost immediately and within a minute or two, you will start to relax.”
Talk to the cabin crew
The simplest way to make sure that loud whirring sound is perfectly normal is to check that the cabin crew are still serving teas. “Cabin crew are trained to support fearful flyers and very willing to help,” says Bor. “When you board the plane, tell one of the crew you are anxious about flying. Outing yourself is very positive, because otherwise you become ashamed of it – suffering in silence makes it worse. Tell them how they can help: by dropping by to reassure you the flight is proceeding normally, by explaining unfamiliar noises, or by reminding you to use relaxation or distraction techniques. If you’re travelling with someone who knows you are anxious flyer, tell them how you plan to manage your fear and ask them to help.”
Unfortunately, Bor advises against my method of getting drunk to induce sleep or emotional levity. “People use alcohol, medication, recreational drugs, but although they may allay some symptoms of fear briefly, they actually tend to intensify the problem. Alcohol has a different effect at altitude and with low humidity. One glass of wine on the plane is equivalent to nearly two on the ground. You get drunk more quickly, but even if you doze off for 20 minutes, your anxiety levels may increase afterwards. So you start to drink more and more to overcome the problem.
“Before and during the flight, it’s important to keep blood sugar levels up. Stick to water and juices to keep hydrated and remember to eat little and often to maintain your energy, which can help control anxiety levels. Rest if you can, though sleep is not essential.”
Set yourself achievable goals, says Bor, such as starting with short-haul flights before taking that ambitious trip to the South Pacific. And you should also practice relaxation on the ground.
“If you wait until you’re in a stressful situation to learn relaxation, it’s not as effective. Learn which techniques work for you before flying. You’ll then be able to invoke them much more easily when you need them. Remember, you can’t just click your fingers and magically never have to worry again. But if you give it time, the chances of overcoming your fears are incredibly high.”
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