Saturday, January 7, 2012

Flying Lessons and Flying Anxiety

My faculty position has brought me to sunny south Florida so that I can teach some of my students about personality assessment. Of course, this meant that I had to suffer the indignities of commercial travel (even if I had my private certificate, there is no way my employer would reimburse my travel expenses if I flew myself). Oh, the joys... Let's see, my first pleasure was forgetting to remove the small pocket knife I always carry with me from my pocket before leaving home... or my car... you get the idea. I figured this out, talked to one TSA agent who told me I could mail it home to myself (for a MINT as it turns out). Another agent chewed me out for not telling them about it when I put it through the scanner. Come on! I did put it all by itself in a dish, and if your colleague had not been patting me down I would have been able to do just that. Then, I get to my destination only to find that the zipper was ripped off of my luggage. I wish I could travel for 8 days and get it all into a carry on.

But I also discovered something very interesting to me. I have always had a mild fear of flying. Nothing that kept me from actually doing it, but I would worry about it and really have to use some breathing exercises until we were airborne for a few minutes. It was bumpy up at FL370, and it turns out that Boeing 767s shake, too. Not nearly as bad as the little Diamond I zip around in, but enough to make passengers uncomfortable. Seemed like the pilots were looking for the smooth air based on what felt like altitude changes (I know, I couldn't see the instruments and I didn't really have a horizon). Interestingly, none of this disturbed me. Though I would have had an increased heart rate in the past, I was only annoyed that my computer did not want to stay in my lap. To what can I attribute this change?

Flight training. I kind of know what's going on and why it is happening now. In my business, we call this exposure. When one is exposed to an anxiety-provoking stimulus and is not able to escape from it, one learns to cope with it. It becomes less frightening for a host of reasons - like the bad thing that is feared does not happen. When one has a phobia (def: irrational fear of an otherwise neutral object or situation that produces severe anxiety and panic attacks) or even mild anxiety about something, exposure often reduces or eliminates that anxiety. This is a basic principle of psychotherapy, and just about any effective form includes some variety of exposure. Each may explain it or use it differently, however. The term "exposure therapy" is most commonly associated with cognitive behavioral therapy, and is direct exposure to the feared stimulus or situation while not permitting the person's usual ways of responding or escaping. If one is afraid of flying (when that is the only real phobia) then one moves closer and closer to actually flying and then does it. There is even a virtual reality application that I saw at an American Psychological Association convention a few years ago. A psychotherapist practicing from a psychoanalytic view point also uses exposure but very differently. Often, it is an emotion, perception of self or others, or an expected reaction from others that is feared, avoided, and defended against. The psychologist will help the individual identify and modulate these feelings. Often, this involves acceptance of the emotional experience.

Flying lessons. A great and fun way to overcome a fear of flying. But please, if you have a phobia of flying (panic attacks are a hallmark of this) or you become very disorganized and upset when you fly, perhaps this is not the first thing you should do. If you are not sure, talk to a psychologist who can work with you to figure it out.