If you’re already afraid of flying, Saturday’s SFO plane crash would do nothing to ease your fears. But I wondered, what causes this phobia and can people actually get over it?
Tom Bunn was a pilot for Pan Am and United for 30 years before retiring with tens of thousands of flights under his belt. In 1982 he started SOAR, and made it his mission to help people conquer their fear of flying.
“Generally, to have trouble with flying, you have to be intelligent enough to think of a lot of things that can go wrong and imaginative enough that you can put them vividly in your mind as problems.”
He says conquering a fear of flying must be approached intellectually and then emotionally. So he starts off by teaching patients the basic mechanics of how safe a plane flies.
“Statistics don’t help. We have to actually tell them, ‘Okay, if this problem develops, this is what the pilots do. If that doesn’t work, then that’s what the pilots do.’ And we go through all the different systems that the plane has. What about running into the ground? There’s a device that tells you if you’re headed for the ground and you’re not lined up for the runway landing. There are so many devices on the planes that these days, when it comes to the point that there’s a crash, pilots kind of look at each other like, what the heck could have happened? Because we have everything covered. That’s how controlled this all is.”
But the truly fascinating part of what Tom does is psychological. Years ago, he realized he wasn’t helping everyone, so he went back to grad school, got licensed as a therapist and eventually discovered something called the social engagement system. He says most people who are severely afraid of flying are afraid they’ll have a panic attack in the air, that they can’t escape if they are overwhelmed. So he uses a technique that naturally shuts down the body’s stress hormones.
“We are genetically wired up to have the fear shut down for reproductive purposes. For example, a mother nursing her child, her fear system shuts down so she doesn’t get anxious and think she’s gotta jump up and do something. It mellows her out. It’s a hormone called oxytocin. We also get oxytocin, not only with nursing a baby, but what we do to get a baby. In mating, in order to become fearless about getting that physically close to another person, our fear system shuts down.”
So basically people connect the look of pure love on their partner’s face while making love, or the look on a baby’s face while nursing, with flying in an airplane. I wondered if virgins were untreatable. Tom laughed.
“When you have a dog, and you look into your dog’s eyes, your dog looks at you like you’d like a lover to look at you; with absolute devotion. Like you’re the only person in the world. Research says that look, of absolute devotion, produces this hormone.”
And that hormone lowers the heart rate and naturally calms people down.
It worked for Brian, a fire fighter in Gig Harbor who developed a fear of flying in 2010 after a bad motorcycle accident.
“I’ve worked for the fire department for 16 years,” Brian told me. “I’ve been involved in the 911 business for 21, I’ve been in the military, I’ve been overseas, worked with law enforcement, rode motorcycles. So it wasn’t a risk issue for me. It was a control issue.”
He tried Tom’s program before a trip to Maui with his family. He said he used all the tips and tools he was given.
“One of the most reassuring things was simply setting a glass of water on your tray table when you think there’s turbulence, and watching that water. And what you think was turbulence is really nothing. Whereas if you took that same glass of water and put it in your car, you wouldn’t make it a block without that water spilling. It just kind of jiggles a little bit. That was probably one of the techniques that helped me the most.”
He said he flew to Hawaii with zero anxiety. A month later he was the victim of a head on car crash, and then he really realized how safe air travel is.
Tom and others who study this phobia say anxiety medication can make it worse in the long run because you’re not addressing the fear and eventually the pills won’t work. But he says he can help you conquer your fear of flying in just a couple of days.