Fear of Flying – Part 1 of 3 (Dread)

Fear of Flying – Part 1 of 3 (Dread)  – Version 4 – March 2017

(iStockPhoto)

(iStockPhoto)

About 25% of the travelling public have a fear of flying.   One quarter of this group are so afraid of flying that they completely avoid air travel, and their condition qualifies as a phobia.  (National Institute of Mental Health) The fear of flying may originate from (amongst many other reasons) :

  • fear of in-flight turbulence
  • fear of the aircraft falling into “air pockets” (that do not exist)
  • fear of not being able to see out the front or to be “in control”
  • experience of friends who were injured in aircraft crashes, incidents
  • dread originating from exposure to images, videos and stories of crashes, hijacks and terrorist activities

Our fear of flying is not rational.   It’s not justified by facts and/or statistics.  Our perception of our safety in the air does not match reality (click here for more statistics).  On average:

  • You need to fly every day for 123,000 years before you can expect to to be in a fatal crash.
  • You have a 1 percent chance of dying in a car accident, but only a 0.01 percent chance of dying in aircraft accident.

If our fear is irrational and imaginary then why do so many travellers have a Fear of Flying when the statistics show flying to be safe?   The answer involves irrational fear and our mind’s calibration of Dread.

A happy passenger in Nancy-Bird Walton's cockpit in Dubai after a great flight (May 2015)

A happy passenger in Nancy-Bird Walton’s cockpit in Dubai after a great flight (May 2015)

Our  “Fear of Flying” is an instinctive response to “Dread”.  Dread prevents our rational (slow) mind governing our primitive (fast) mind. Dread enables the fast, intuitive and reactionary processes that protect us from the sum of our fears, hopes, lessons, prejudices and distortions.   Dread:

  •  works in our fast and reactionary mind  to startle us into solution that might involve fight, flight or play dead
  • inhibits our slow mind from rationally assessing and responding to risk.

Dread is an  inherited and developed trait.  Evolving over many generations, Dread assisted the fittest beings to instantly prioritise, decide, plan and survive  unexpected events.   Those who did not react fast enough dropped down a rung on the food chain.  This explains why we fear terrorists, sharks and snakes more than cars even though we know that cars are the biggest killers. A mind that retains a Dread for flight, will engender an immediate panic response to flight.   This response is delivered well before the slow mind can intervene to counter and comfort us with rationality (flight safety statistics) or respond to the presence of a friendly face or a calm voice. So Dread, properly tuned can and does save lives.  But in our new high technical world where the charging lion is replaced by a quiet electric car, Dread for the lion is not just illogical, it’s also out of sync with reality and so it’s now also potentially dangerous.

QF32 is also a gift for fearful flyers, as I was for decades despite doing a fear of flying course. I recommend the book to others with fear of flying.  Many thanks Captain de Crespigny!  (Liz McInnes)

To allay a  Fear of Flying, it is never good enough to just talk calmly about numbers and statistics, for these thoughts reside in the slow mind.

To allay Fear of Flight, we have to re-jig our basic fears, hopes, lessons, prejudices and biases – and thus re-program our (fast) mind’s equation for Dread. The next articles provides a happy solutions for those who have a fear of flight.

See also:

2 comments

  1. Valeriya M. · · Reply

    For a few years, I have been thinking from time to time about how fear of flying appears and disappears. I wrote down my own story, which took 4 pages, and concluded that the slight fear that I used to experience is the natural reaction, at least for me.

    I could find only one explanation to the disappearance of this fear. When my life was turned upside down, when my dreams and hopes were ruined one after another, all of a sudden I had no more fear of flying, none at all (it wasn’t the only fear or the only feeling that disappeared).

    Now I have zero fear of flying, but I also enjoy it much less than I did when I had some of that fear.

    It was all the TV’s fault. Hard to believe now that the very first time (I was 5 then) my parents had to carry me into the plane while I was trying to break free and run away. Months earlier my mother was switching channels on TV to see if there was anything worth watching on any channel. It just so happened that when she turned on one of the channels, there was a movie. My mother had no intention of watching that movie, she was just switching channels. But at the very moment when she was on that channel, in the movie there was a plane crash. Although she went on to the next channel, my mind read the message that flying is dangerous. Fortunately, minutes into that first flight I realised that I like it and it’s not that scary. Only slight fear was left for the next decade, and then it disappeared altogether.

    Thus, I think, the media only aggravates fear of flying. Some people are more afraid of flights over the ocean than those over land. Is it another reaction caused by dread? I thought maybe it’s combined fear of flying and fear of water, but I used to have both of these fears without such effect.
    Does it make sense to say that there is no difference?

    1. Hi Valeriya,

      Dread

      Statistically, people’s dread of flying or water is illogical (based upon accident rates) and is thus counter-productive.

      Dread properly tapped, saves lives. Dread motivates us to make quick decisions (such as escaping from sharks) that might otherwise lead to dangerous situations if the decision is delayed.

      Dread can also be irrational and debilitating in hopeless situations where there is no self control or prospect for survival.

      We can starve the negative aspects of dread from our psyche when we understand the conditions and emotions that feed it. For instance, the more we learn about the things that scare us, the less scared we feel. Also, dread vanishes when we take control our mood and create a sense of calm.

      Valeriya, I list below a few thoughts although I’d like to stress that I have no skills in psychology. These are my thoughts generated through years of flying and tempered by watching others such as Michael Von Reth work his magic in the A380’s cabin.

      Take control of your CALM

      In extreme cases we panic when exposed to unnecessary fear and paranoia. So our resilience to stress is first determined by how we take control of our mood and enforce a sense of calm.

      The Senseless Brain

      Some of our illogical feelings originate because we have no sensors in our brain. We can’t feel the brain functioning and so don’t fully appreciate that the human mind is a prediction machine that as part of our consciousness, is constantly matching what we sense to stored patterns in our cortex and predicting the next move.

      Our Brain – The Prediction Machine

      Newly created thoughts and predictions can serve to reduce risk and aid our survival. Senses and predictions that are matched in the mind (cortex) are normally processed subconsciously. For example, our brains can predict the next actions required in activities such as driving a car or reading and auto-correcting a misspelled word without our conscious awareness.

      An interestingly side bar: The brain can also prioritise its response to certain senses. For example, the mind can strengthen its response to what you are seeing, at the expense of (or weakening) its reaction to everything else. This suppression might be obvious (closing your eyes when calculating difficult arithmetic) or insidious (texting whilst driving a car). Humans have varied ability to focus/suppress reactions, skills that might be suited to different professions. So I think it unfortunate that those who exhibit heightened focussing skills are (unfairly) classed as being hyperactive or attention-deficit.

      The brain also makes aberrant and pessimistic predictions that scare and alarm us. When walking through the local park, seeing a pair eyes a few metres distant amongst the long grass becomes alarming if we imagine them to be a lion’s eyes. The cave man that erred on the safe side and ran away from the grass lived to hunt again, regardless of whether the lion existed or not. But this responses is not helpful today where the risks have changed and when we are using complex equipment (piloting aircraft).

      Our Brain’s Body Model

      The mind also feeds our predictions back to be merged with or to extend our sensor inputs – creating a distorted model of our perceived world. Just as thinking about your friend might trigger sensors for their scent or touch, so a fear of flying might trigger the sense of feeling turbulence in flight trigger a perception of loud sounds, increased heat or the sight of the wing flexing to breaking point.

      Left unchecked, some of your thoughts will conjure up alarming conclusions and responses to problems that in many cases don’t exist. Children for example have frequent nightmares because their brains have developed with insufficient learning experiences to help them govern the extreme predictions that steers their dream narrative.

      Inhibiting Predictions

      The healthy and trained mind inhibits and filters aberrant and distractionary predictions. In this environment, the predictions that are not inhibited help us to survival and succeed.

      Patterns that cannot be matched in our mind are elevated to the highest layers of the mind. In the worst cases, the Fear Response at this level directs “fight”, “flight” or “play dead” for the unexpected events such as the lion watching us behind the grass, or the thought of an aircraft breaking up when flying in turbulent air.

      Healthy mammals (that have a neo-cortex) can be trained to remain calm under stress and to temper their Fear Response.

      Healthy Mind

      The healthy mind is nourished and not stressed. The healthy brain has a healthy hippocampus where newborn neurons help with processing memory and to regulate the fear response. Physical exercise promotes neuron production in the brain.

      The stressed and depressed mind is less able to differentiate between safe and dangerous predictions and to inhibit the dangerous “fear response”. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder combines both these problems but also reduces the brain’s (hippocampus’) ability to file experiences away as “learned” past events. Stressful events (even a fear of flight) thus remain in an active state, floating in the present, triggering fear responses and remain difficult to talk about coherently.

      Keep Calm and Carry On

      A calm mind enables a logical mind, that reinforces a calm mind that …. The path to fearlessness (of things such as a fear of flying) is to keep CALM:
      – identify that you have control over your physiology, mood and thoughts;
      – exercise to maximise your brain’s health (and your mind’s reasoning);
      – identify the problem (if indeed there is one);
      – identify the root cause of the problem;
      – don’t worry about the things that you cannot control;
      – accept that many of your predictions (thoughts) will be be wrong and unhelpful; and
      – only a calm mind can recover from trauma and distinguish rational/irrational thought.

      I use this check list in-flight on my A380s as part of other procedures to help passengers who tell me that they have a Fear Of Flight. The procedures take about one hour to complete but have been 100% successful.

      Additional Reading

      I recommend the book “Calm” by Mark Jamieson for those wanting to improve their self-contol and confidence. Mark suggests that it’s not your thinking that’s the key to success, it’s your mood. His CALM Approach checklist:
      – Find the root cause of the issue
      – Become aware of how your thinking works
      – Let go of the thinking that is the issue
      – Let your mood be your guide

      To be continued?

      Let me know if you want me to write more about dread,the Fear of Flying and/or my techniques to fix.

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