Mountains out of Molehills
I’ve often had a tendency, from childhood onwards, to be overly dramatic and magnify things. It’s part of the empathic temperament. Mum used to say: “You catastrophise everything”.
It’s also one of the symptoms of suffering from anxiety. And I now know that this goes hand-in-hand with the Black Dog (depression). I suffered from both of these problems for a long time. Psychologists in this country use cognitive behaviour techniques (CBT) on people like me. This involves teaching you how to change thoughts, to over-ride fearful feelings and alter behaviour. It’s a re-education process. Therapists also encourage strategies, such as meditation, in tandem with gentle exposure to the fearful situation. Examples of things that trigger fear in people are making a speech in public, meeting new people, thinking about dying, or coming in close contact with frogs, snakes or spiders.
Fear of Flying in Planes
What led me to this particular psychologist was an extreme fear of flying. My new boyfriend at the time was an international traveller. It was part of his work, as a “sommelier”, and he wanted me to visit all these amazing places with him.
My therapist said: “Why are you afraid of going in a plane? What is it that scares you about it?”
“The plane might crash,” I said. He told me the statistics, and how it was much safer than walking the streets or driving in a car. “These jets don’t just fall out of the sky, you know.”
I gave him my Don’t be ridiculous look and said: “But what if it did?” My teeth began to chatter at the thought of the plane tumbling down through the ether.
“Well, you’d die quickly, I suppose,” he said, and gave a shrug. “But it’s as rare as winning the lottery or hitting the jackpot on the pokies.”
“But, I can’t stand the thought of the terrible fear, just as the plane begins its descent, and I know …”. I couldn’t finish the sentence; I was hyperventilating.
“I have spoken to crash survivors,” he said, and paused for great effect, “who say that a deep calm came over them, when they thought that they were going to die.”
“Well, I don’t like the idea of knowing I’m about to die,” I said. “It’s my greatest fear.”
“Would you like to get over your fear?” he asked. “If I could help you?”
“Yes, yes,” I cried, my eyes shining. “My boyfriend wants me to travel with him around the world. It’s the chance of a lifetime.”
What’s the worst thing…?
Therapists down under love this little CBT game. It involves them asking fear victims about worst case scenarios:
“What’s the worst thing that could happen if you took a short trip in an aeroplane?” he asked. “Apart from crashing, that is?”
“I might hyperventilate, vomit,” I stammered, “or have a panic attack, shake all over with fear and … feel like I’m dying.”
“What’s the worst thing that could happen if you did all of those things, one after the other or all together?” he asked.
“I might feel sick.”
“Is that a big problem?”
“People might laugh at me.”
“And what would be the consequence of that?”
“I’d feel bad,” I said.
“Is that all?”
To Leap or not to Leap
After many sessions like this, my therapist invited me to accompany him on a short plane trip. It was part of the package deal that I was paying for.
By the fifth trip with this kindly mentor, I’d learnt how to go up into the skies in a plane without hyperventilating, without vomiting or having a panic attack. I was proud of myself. Overjoyed. I’d be globe-trotting soon, for sure.
My boyfriend asked me, one fine weekend, to go skydiving with him. I couldn’t believe he’d want me to do this. Had I teamed up with a sadist? Was this his idea of a bad joke?
As we zoomed up into the ether in the small plane, I imagined I’d soon be toppling off the edge of the world and into the void. Matt was calm. He held me close from behind, as we edged towards the open door of the aircraft. My teeth were chattering, and it wasn’t from the cold. I closed my eyes. That helped. The last thing I wanted to see was the void below the open hatch, like a giant mouth sneering up at me.
Matt was standing behind me, hugging me into his body. “Our parachute will open up,” he said calmly into my ear. “I will keep you safe.” I was still closing my eyes tightly to block out the view of the gaping emptiness about to swallow me up. It’s do or die, I thought. Either way was bad.
“Just peer over the edge before taking the leap” he said, “and if it’s all clear, jump, and we’ll go together.”
I did what he said. I opened my eyes wide. My heart went up into my mouth and I couldn’t even scream. But I did it, and we soared together: he the carapace of a large flying tortoise, I the soft underbelly.
And my fear suddenly left me, as we sailed down through the sky, my boyfriend on top of me and the parachute opened above both us like a smiling promise.
I jumped because, after all, not leaping seemed to be a much bigger risk, at least to my love life.
Editor’s Note: This is a fictional piece of writing, partly tongue-in-cheek. If you have a real problem with Flight Phobia you might need to try a different approach than the one suggested above.
Captain Bunn founded SOAR to develop effective methods for dealing with flight anxiety.
Therapists who have found this phobia difficult to treat will find here everything they need to give their clients success.
Anxious flyers who have “tried everything” to no avail can look forward to joining the nearly 10,000 graduates of the SOAR program who now have the whole world open to them as they fly anxiety free wherever they want. See his book on Amazon: