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Useless and Useful Advice for Fear of Flying

The first fear of flying programs were started in the mid-1970s. One was at Pan Am, by Captain Truman "Slim" Cummings. Another was offered at US Air by Captain Frank Peete. These courses offered reassurances and relaxation. Reassurance consisted of information about how safe flying is. Relaxation exercises were supposed to control feelings.

A fear flier taking a course in Phoenix covers her face.
ABC News

Neither reassurance nor relaxation was very effective. Though about nine out of ten people who signed up for these course took a group flight at the end of the course through group support and active reassurance by a pilot that all was routine. Six months later, most were no better off. They needed their group and their pilot. Solo, they weren't able to fly.

As a volunteer, I helped out by going on these end of course flights at Pan Am. Though some participants were relieved that flight wasn't as bad as they had thought, others were in a state of panic. Reassurance could not touch their terror. Hoping to help those in panic, I asked Captain Cummings to add Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques to the course. His response was that they just didn't know how to "let go."

When nothing was done to improve the course, I set up SOAR, and added CBT techniques. Some people were, indeed, helped by CBT. But others - those whose arousal spiked quickly - were not helped. When stress hormones quickly peak, the ability to think, and thus to use emotional control tools that rely on thought, is lost.

It became clear that something more was needed. Relaxation exercise, though they reduced feelings due to anxiety-producing thoughts, did nothing at all to prevent feelings triggered when the plane dropped or made an unexpected noise. This was because a part of the brain is genetically programmed to release stress hormones when we fall. Though psychologist said, "You can't be afraid when you are relaxed," relaxation did nothing to keep stress hormone from being triggered in turbulence.

Finally, after years of trying to get CBT to work more effectively, I stumbled on a way to train the brain to not release stress hormones in turbulence, during takeoff, or at any other time during flight. This was a remarkable advance, and how this is done is now laid out in detail in my book, "SOAR, The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying."

The book has gotten rave reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Though information to effectively treat fear of flying is openly available, well-meaning professionals are still recommending the same techniques that were used back in the 1970s. They were not adequate then. They are still not adequate today.

For example, an article titled "Airports take on fear of flying" in USA Today advises: 1. Practice muscle-relaxation techniques; 2. Learn to control breathing; 3. Consider exposure therapy, which can include a simulated flight.

Relaxation exercises and breathing exercises cannot stop the release of stress hormones that cause high anxiety and panic during turbulence. According to research at the University of Connecticut, simulated flight is ineffective.

What does work? Just as our genetics cause us to release stress hormones when the plane feels like it is falling, genetics also cause us to shut the fear system down completely in certain situation. Brain scan research has helped us identify those situations. We now can control fear of flying by behaviorally causing each thing that happens during flight to be associated with a situation that shuts the fear system down.

This allows anxious fliers, once they have gone through the exercise that establishes these links can get on a plane and fly like a people do who have no fear of flying.

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