By Paul Abercrombie
Special to The Washington Post
— I love to travel. But I hate to fly.
My overactive imagination doesn't help with my fear of flying. All I have to do is shut my eyes, and the Parade of Horror commences: wings snapping off like brittle twigs, engines exploding or dropping off, freak high-altitude tornadoes swirling — you name it, I've dreamed it up.
And I'm not alone. More than 26 million Americans suffer from some form of flight anxiety, says Lucas van Gerwen, aviation psychologist and director of the VALK Foundation, which studies how to treat flying fears.
I've tried getting sloshed to blunt my anxiety. But this has just left me dehydrated and more panicky than ever about my ability to operate the emergency door "in the unlikely event of a water landing."
I've tried pills. A Xanax I popped right before a trip to Los Angeles once led to a full-blown panic attack in mid-flight. I ended up watching a Jim Carrey flick with an oxygen mask strapped to my face, a nearby fellow passenger stage-whispering to a flight attendant, "Excuse me, ma'am, is that man going to die?"
Rare embarrassment aside, I typically plaster on a fake smile and endure. Yet a recent bumpier-than-usual flight left me sweat-soaked and wondering whether I should finally seek to cure — or at least curb — my fear of flying.
A survey of friends reveals various methods of coping. The most popular involve boozing. One, a kind of inoculation-by-flight.
Two decades ago, after a bad snowstorm forced the pilot of his flight to Salt Lake City to abort a landing at the last second, my high school friend Conte Cicala and "grim-faced" fellow passengers spent 45 very bumpy minutes on a circling plane until it was safe enough to land. On every flight over the next decade or so, "every bump stressed me out," he says.
Yet Cicala, an attorney in San Francisco who flies upwards of 50,000 miles per year, says that he slowly got used to turbulence. "I guess my brain eventually learned that these bumps may be unpleasant but don't mean that we'll crash," he says.
Considering the persistence of my flight fears — and my track record with self-treatment — I decide to search for outside help.
An Internet search reveals a cottage industry dedicated to combating everything from flight jitters to full-blown aviophobia. Books, videos, online courses, smartphone apps, even clinics that use virtual reality and flight simulators as treatment. Since travel to a clinic would probably involve, um, air travel, I decide to explore the other options.
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Like most of the online courses that I check out, SOAR involves a combination of practical education and behavioral therapy. Over a few hours — and a dozen or so video lessons — program founder Tom Bunn, a retired pilot and licensed therapist, demonstrates how and why planes do the things they do and helps equip me with a mental tool kit for challenging fearful thoughts and replacing them with happier ones.
No quick fix, this is a process in which you work to replace every specific fear of flying by conjuring memories of "emphatic connectedness" — basically, moments when you were most happy with another person or persons. After a few days of working at this, I'm unsure whether it's working. Bunn assures me later by phone that this is normal.
"Most people are so busy trying to consciously control their fears that they don't even know they've already started to set up unconscious controls" with SOAR, Bunn says. "Sometimes it takes them two or three fear-free flights to believe that it's working."
The trick to this whole approach of fighting flight anxieties, he says, is finding ways to shut down the amygdala, the part of the brain that stores fear memories and responses. The best way, he says, is to encourage your body to produce the hormone oxytocin, which banishes fearful thoughts. Women produce this chemical particularly well by thinking of nursing a child, men by contemplating sex. Not that I should act on such thoughts aboard a plane, he adds.
"This isn't about you telling someone, 'I'm having a panic attack. Let's sneak into the bathroom together,' " Bunn says with a laugh.
If this scenario seems likely to be more frustrating than it's worth, imagining your beloved pet dog gazing into your eyes works about as well. "Your dog looking at you like you're the only person in the world also produces oxytocin" in you, he says. "And, unlike with people, you can always depend on your dog to look at you like this."
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As I sample other courses, I also learn that no two people's flying phobias are alike. "Fear of flying is rarely just about being up in the air," says Stacey Chance, a veteran American Airlines pilot who created the free online program Fear of Flying Help Course. "It's typically some combination of claustrophobia, fear of strange noises, turbulence, the feeling of not being in control."
I take some comfort in not being too freaked out by takeoff, which he says often scares people more than landing. "Something about the plane tilting back makes people think it could just keep on going backwards and flip over," Chance says. "Even my wife thinks that."
Acknowledging that flipping backward is aeronautically impossible, and doing some deep-breathing exercises, goes far in helping assuage this worry, Chance says.
What's more, just knowing that you're not alone in your worries can be curiously helpful. "A lot of people around you on the plane are really nervous, too," he says. "They're just hiding it in their own ways."
Still, cracking open a laptop during a flight to review a video on coping with jitters might do more to unsettle those seated near you. Luckily, there's more discreet help in the form of the Flight App VALK, available for iPhone, iPad and Android users. For about the price of a venti-size latte at Starbucks, you get a kind of electronic Cliffs Notes to calming yourself down. Accessible in airplane mode, natch. With a flick of my finger, I can review what to expect before and during flight and hear tips on how to relax. "Turbulence," I'm counseled to repeat to myself when experiencing it, "is a matter of comfort and not a safety issue." A panic button summons a virtual shrink to help in moments of acute alarm, though the narrator's faintly British accent reminds me disquietingly of Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs."
"With this, you can have a therapist with you all the time," says VALK Foundation's van Gerwen. Already available in a handful of languages, Flight App will soon help chill out speakers of Chinese.
Next, I check out Julia Cameron's new book, "Safe Journey: Prayers and Comfort for Frightened Flyers and Other Anxious Souls," which offers a more old-school method of coping: prayer. And lots of it. Pleas for everything from help in packing to aid in navigating airport security.
While I admit that even as an agnostic, I've pleaded for calmer air, I'm fairly sure that witnessing a fellow traveler imploring a supernatural being to keep the plane aloft would do little to reassure me.
By phone, Cameron, the author of a number of books on creativity whose publisher encouraged her to write one after she confessed her fear of flying, acknowledges that prayers aren't always sufficient to allay fears. "Sometimes I buy the [National] Enquirer and the Globe [magazine]," she says. "Instead of worrying about flying, I worry about celebrity cellulite."
Most of these methods might help those with milder fears of flying, says Tampa psychologist Stacey Scheckner, herself occasionally a fearful flier. But those who are truly phobic would probably need more individualized treatment with a therapist. "If your fear keeps you stuck on the ground, you need to get real help," she says.
Still, I'd like to think that I've learned some useful coping skills from all these sources. I already feel calmer just anticipating an upcoming flight. Of course, if randy thoughts, gossip magazines and iPhone apps aren't enough, I can always pray. Cameron's book even suggests a prayer for what may be my one rational flight-related concern: "Please let my bag arrive safely."
Abercrombie is a writer based in Tampa.