Fighting the Fear of Flying

Summer has finally arrived, and many of us are looking forward to sunshiny days at the beach, hiking in the mountains, or sightseeing in a foreign country. For some of us, however, a looming summer vacation is not a happy prospect. It means an airplane flight, and these people inwardly quake at the very thought of getting on an airplane. They may fear losing control and panicking during the flight, or suffocating, or dying when the plane unexpectedly takes a nose dive.

Fear or anxiety comes in many forms. Some people have social anxiety, which is a fear of speaking in front of groups or of going into new social situations. Some people experience panic attacks during stressful situations such as taking an exam. A fear of one specific place or thing such as heights, spiders, or plane flights, is called a phobia , a word that comes from the Greek word phobos , or fear. A phobia arises when a person has a bad experience involving the frightened thing or place. With the fear of flying, sometimes the person was on an airplane flight where there was an equipment failure and the plane had to turn back. This scared all the passengers. Perhaps the person lost a loved one in an airplane accident. Or despite they were on a plane when another passenger had a heart attack. This one scary experience becomes generalized in their mind and feelings, with the result that for them any plane trip is associated with fear.

For me, as a family therapist, summer brings clients who want help overcoming their fear of flying. Of all the strategies in my therapy toolbox, I have found one particular strategy most helpful to combat the fear of flying. This strategy is paradoxical, because I prescribe to the client the very symptom for which she is seeking help. I ask the client to devote fifteen minutes a day to conquering her fear. She has to be alone, in a comfortable place such as her bedroom. She then sets her cell phone or other timer for fifteen minutes. She then conjures up the most fearful airplane journey she can imagine and starts having the worst fears possible. After fifteen minutes, she can stop having the fear and go about her usual activities.

Most clients come back after a single session and tell me that they feel more in control of their fear. One young client, a seventeen-year-old boy named Mitchell, came up with his own unique variation on the strategy. He did the fifteen minute exercise while he was mountain biking. When he reached the summit of a hill, he set his cell phone timer and thought on his worst fears for fifteen minutes. At the next session two weeks later, Mitchell told me that now he could control his fear by using the power of his own mind. That is exactly the point of the exercise. The mind conjures up the fear and then stops the fear. Like other paradoxical strategies of prescribing the symptom, prescribing fear to combat fear is a powerful intervention.

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