When we’re young, we have less of an understanding and appreciation for risk. As we grow up, however, the world becomes more complex than we thought it was. When we go off on our own in our 20s, we really begin to realize that we’re not invincible. It’s at this point that a fear of flying usually sets in.
We interviewed Captain Tom Bunn in order to get advice on how to understand and manage this fear. Captain Bunn, in addition to being a licensed therapist, a former pilot in the U.S. Air Force, a former pilot for Pan Am, and a former Airline Captain for United Airlines, is also the founder of SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment For Fear of Flying.
SOAR develops step-by-step methods for dealing with flight anxiety. By explaining how the fear can be caused, pinpointing what it is exactly in the flight process that causes the fear as well as examining the science behind it all (in laymen’s terms, don’t worry), participants are able to control their feelings of stress, fear, anxiety and/or panic. Captain Bunn’s SOAR program and book have helped thousands of people overcome their fear of flying and have given them the ability to fly free of their phobia.
When setting foot onto an airplane, you are out of control. You can’t escape. You are putting all of your trust into people you have never met before. Logically speaking, this doesn’t exactly seem like the right thing to do to preserve yourself and therefore causes a great deal of anxiety for a generous portion of the population. Here are some things Captain Bunn explained to help you breathe easy on your next flight.
If someone calls you, the phone rings loudly and is intrusive so you answer it. Finally, you can breathe again because that annoying ringing has stopped. Taking control of your aviophobia works the same way. All you need to do is stop your fear from ringing in order to stop the intrusion from taking over your life.
Fear of flying can affect people in different ways. It can raise your heart rate, it can affect your breathing, it can cause perspiration, your body may tense up, and there can be a whole array of psychological changes. Regardless of the effect, it all boils down to one cause: the amygdala.
The amygdala is like your inner CEO. In general, it takes something as simple as a phone ringing and gives you the executive function, or cognitive control, to have the urge to run. In order for executive function to help you instead of restrict you, you have to do some high level thinking. However, you can’t do such a thing while “the phone is ringing”. Something needs to automatically reduce this arousal alarm. To do so, you must stimulate what is known as the Vagus Nerve in order to override stress hormones, slow your blood rate, and give yourself a chance to look around, calm yourself and focus on the real problem: the fact that your stress hormones are garnering all the attention.
“The amygdala isn’t very smart. It doesn’t know what is safe and what is unsafe. It only knows what’s not familiar, what’s unexpected, what’s non-routine. Now that you know this, here’s what to do”:
Often people try breathing exercises to calm themselves. The problem with this is that these exercises actually prevent anxiety-producing thoughts only until there is turbulence. It is when the turbulence hits that stress hormones are released immediately because the amygdala has been triggered by an unexpected occurrence. Think of it like you’re on a ladder painting and you fall. Immediately your focus turns to the fall and not the painting. In both situations, the amygdala is doing the same thing. That is why before turbulence hits you must think of something that produces oxytocin in order to stop the stress.
Oxytocin prevents the release of stress hormones and is often referred to as the “love hormone” because of its role in intimacy and social bonding. When oxytocin is produced, the amygdala goes off duty, putting a halt to the production of stress hormones. The fear goes away but the desire remains. The release of oxytocin causes bonding and makes you feel protective. This can happen when you’re nursing a child or even when you look into the eyes of a dog. Why? Because “the way a dog looks at you is how a lover should look at you. Dogs are also a woman’s best friend because they are dependable… unlike most guys”.
You can override stress hormones by thinking of any oxytocin-releasing event. The goal is to keep yourself calm so that you can eliminate stress hormones from being released in the first place. When there is turbulence, enough stress hormones are being released to make you think that something is wrong. The more stressed you are, the less you look inward and the less you can determine if you are imagining or perceiving. As a result, you end up taking it all as perception.
Another point to remember is that physical and emotional contact helps you feel your guard being out down, and in turn, makes the Vagus Nerve less stimulated.
Since we can’t always get the physical and emotional contact we need when on a flight, here’s what to do to trick your mind into thinking that you can: Think about a person who helps you keep your guard down. Keep that person inside of you and imagine a time with them. Remember what their face looks like.
Sounds simple, but it really is that easy.
1. “Link everything that makes you nervous to the face of that person. Train your mind to do this whenever the stress is triggered. Instead of trying not to be aware, turn it around 180 degrees. Make yourself aware of the trigger at the very lowest level that you can pick it up. The second you feel your heart rate rising at that low level trigger that you’ve sought out, think of your friend. Think of their face, their voice, a conversation with them- an imaginary one or a real one that you previously had. If you feel your breathing rate increase, you begin to perspire, your body feels tense; bring your friend to mind. Think to yourself, ‘I’m feeling tense, I wanna bring you to mind. Now I feel better,'” Captain Bunn says.
2. As the plane taxis out, look at the flat surface next to the window or at the tray table on the seat in front of you. You can “project” a movie onto it. Think of an oxytocin-producing moment and project it onto the flat surface you’ve chosen for yourself. Examples of scenarios recommended to think about are tender moments with your dog, nursing your child or a previous sexual experience. Hold it there for 20-30 seconds until it’s permanently part of the flat surface you’ve found.
Later on in the flight, no matter what you’re doing, you’ll look up at that surface and will remember what you projected onto it. You will immediately produce oxytocin before you even need it and will consequently make yourself stress-free.
For those of you who are wondering, turbulence is felt more in the back of the plane. Why? Because the back is more apt to move up and down than any other part of the plane.
Captain Bunn ended with these comforting, parting words: “Regardless of where you’re sitting or how frightened you may be, just know that there’s no particular point in your flight when you should say you’re in danger. From the pilot’s point of view, there’s always a way out”.