"Terror In The Skies," a new Smithsonian Channel series, begins its mid-airtime crash into the minds of anxious fliers Sunday night. Will the Smithsonian play it straight, or pull punches? And even if they tell it like it is, can anxious viewers take in the information and absorb it in a fair and balanced manner?
When I do therapy with fearful fliers, I use something I call "Going Into Your Own Movie." It lays out the different realities of two passengers on the same flight. In moment one, nothing is happening. In moment two, there is a noise. Both the typical and the fearful passenger hear that. In moment three, both wonder, "What's that?" So far both have the same take on reality. But in moment four, their individual realities diverge. The typical passenger thinks, "I don't know," and drops it.
The fearful passenger cannot accept not knowing: he or she makes something up. Or more accurately, the fearful passenger believes the noise signals the beginning of the disaster that has been expected. The fearful passenger pictures the plane falling out of the sky.
And, in moment five, stress hormones - triggered first by the noise, than again by imagination - disable the anxious flier's ability to distinguish what is real from what is imaginary. It becomes impossible to tell the difference between what is in their mind's eye - what is feared and - and what is happening.
In moment six, the plane is in a spiral to disaster. The plunging plane exists only in the fearful flier's mind. As the fearful flier's plane falls from the sky, the plane in the typical passenger's mind is flying along quite well.
In moment seven, a flight attendant asks, "Would you like some orange juice?" The typical passenger says, "Yes," and accepts the juice; the fearful passenger, locked in his or her own movie - the plane plunging toward disaster - doesn't even hear what is being said.
When stress hormones reach a certain level, reality disappears and the movie in ones head takes over. I don't want to insult anyone here, but this is very close to schizophrenia. In schizophrenia, the inability to distinguish imagination from reality goes on all the time. In flight phobia, the inability to distinguish imagination from reality is temporary, the result of the mind being clouded by stress hormones.
Because of this difficulty, I sometimes advise fearful fliers to avoid watching television shows of this kind. But like the moth to the flame, many just have to tune in. OK. If you do, you do. But stay tuned here as well, and I'll try to de-program you after the show is over.
You can read a New York Times article about the show at this link. But trailers from the show - clips from the program's mixture of fact and fiction - is at http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/sc/web/series/1003202/terror-in-the-skies
If you think you need to protect yourself in advance, run down to the book store and get SOAR, The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying. It just arrived in the stores and is everything you need to protect yourself from being traumatized when flying or when watching television shows about flying.