Solving Tom’s Fear of Flying

Source: Kalvis
Source: Kalvis

The fear of flying is the easiest phobia to overcome.

I can usually banish this fear in just one or two sessions. I know that this sounds too good to be true, especially if you have had a fear of flying for many years. I’m used to this reaction because whenever I tell people that come to see me, they don’t believe me either. But then, they are pleasantly surprised.

Tom came to see me because of his fear of flying. He had been avoiding traveling by air for about 10 years. His wife was tired of driving long distances or having to ride buses and trains. There were several countries that they wanted to visit for holidays but his fear of flying didn’t let them enjoy traveling to far away places.

Tom was using the typical strategies that all phobic people use to handle their fear. First of all, he was completely avoiding flying. He didn’t even like being in an airport or near it, for the simple reason that it reminded him of his fear. Even the sound or the sight of an airplane, even when far away, usually triggered his fear reaction.

When, accidentally or otherwise, he was exposed to the sound or sight of an airplane, he immediately sought the help and support of his wife. If she was nearby, Tom would hold his wife’s hand to calm himself down. His wife would offer him loving support and remind him to breathe deeply and to relax.

The third most common strategy of all phobic people is to try to control the fear reaction. If Tom was on his own and felt the fear symptoms, he would try to breathe, relax his muscles and distract his mind away from the terrifying thoughts of flying.

All these three strategies are very logical. Common sense dictates, for example, that when you are afraid, you must run away from danger. This is very valuable when we are faced with a dangerous situation or an object that could injure or kill us. For example, when you realize that your house is on fire, you must run away. This is a logical and appropriate reaction to danger.

However, a phobia is not a life-saving fear. A phobia is a trigger. You know that there is no danger to yourself, but you react nonetheless. When the phobia switch goes on, relaxation or deep breathing do very little to shut it off.

I pointed this out to Tom. That even though his strategies seemed logical, they actually worsened his fear. Avoidance and control of body reactions ultimately leads to a loss of control. Avoiding, in particular, is like giving nutritious and fattening food to the beast of fear. The more you avoid, the stronger your phobia gets.

First, I asked Tom to imagine right then and there in the comfort of office that he was flying. After few seconds he said that he was feeling very nervous. I pointed out to him that he was sitting in a comfortable chair on solid ground and he had his loving wife beside him. He said that he couldn’t help it. Just the thought of flying triggered his fear.

I gave Tom a task to perform for seven days. He came back with his wife for the next session. I asked him to imagine once again that he was flying. He tried very hard but couldn’t get any of the symptoms of fear.

“Tell me, how come you cannot feel the fear?” I asked.

“Well, because I’m just sitting here. If I’m in a real airplane or near it, then I will get scared.”

This is a typical answer of phobic people because the analytical part of their brain cannot accept that a simple exercise can serve to banish a severe and long-lasting fear. Even though the emotional fear reaction has changed, the logical component of the mind is skeptical about the result.

I told Tom to book a flight for next week. I also taught him a technique to use just in case he got scared. I did this because he was very skeptic and was not yet fully confident of being able to fly comfortably. I asked him to send me a text message as soon as he got off the airplane.

The following week I smiled as I received this text message on my cell phone:

Hi Arthur, I didn’t have any problem getting to the airport.
I didn’t need to do the technique you gave me because the flight was fine.
Thank you