For many of us, the arrival of summer means excitedly counting the days until we down tools and set up the out-of-office before we head off to warmer shores for a fortnight in the sun. For those with a flying phobia, however, that dream holiday can become a nightmare plagued with anxiety and fear.
Aerophobia consistently features in the top 10 phobias, with sufferers spending weeks dreading an upcoming flight, searching frantically for excuses not to board the plane, or forgoing a trip abroad altogether. And for those that are determined not to let their fear keep them stuck on the ground, many resort to medication or alcohol to get them through the ordeal. I've even worked with clients who have told me they will wear the clothes they'd like to be buried in on the day they travel, and who draft 'goodbye' text messages to their loved ones before boarding the plane. Catastrophic thinking is common among those with aerophobia, with people fretting over what their families will do once they're gone, or imagining their own funerals as they await departure in their 'flying coffins'.
In my experience as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist, people who are scared of flying all have quite different reasons for their fear: Being in an enclosed space, not being in control, crashing, terrorism, germs, and heights are the most common. Some fear take-offs, others fear landings, while some are fine until turbulence hits. Whatever the fear, for most people who suffer from aerophobia, the anxiety is present before even boarding the plane.
Interestingly, what's happening is that the nervous flyer is usually experiencing all the symptoms of fear while not immediately facing the thing that is causing it. They are having this reaction simply to the thought of flying - not to the actual experience of it. The racing heart, sweaty palms, feelings of nausea and needing the bathroom, the panic, are all being created by the brain in order to try to convince you NOT to do the thing that it thinks might be unsafe. It's making you feel that awful in order to tell you to get the hell away and go home where you'll be nice and safe. But what is really fascinating to me, is that unless you have actually died or been seriously injured in a plane crash, then you have no direct experience of flying as dangerous - so your brain must be making it all up!
This is actually good news for us, because if you're making it all up in your head and experiencing anxiety at the thought of flying, then you can just trick your brain and make up something different to help you remain calm.
You see, our emotional response comes from the pictures we see in our heads and the words we use to describe things. Consider this. Two people are sitting next to each other on the same plane. One is picturing the beach they're going to be lying on in a few hours' time, and telling themselves about all the things they're going to eat and drink when they get there. The other is looking around trying to spot who might be a terrorist and listening out for any bumps or bangs that might indicate that the wings have fallen off and death is imminent. That's two different people, in the same situation, having completely different experiences. And I think you can safely guess which one is having the better time!
So while those two people are in the same situation, one is letting their thoughts cause them suffering, the other is letting their thoughts bring them pleasure. Cognitive Hypnotherapy is a brilliant tool for changing your thought processes around flying and resolve your fear for good, but there are also things you can do yourself to help quell your fear and create a calmer trip.
Here's a simple breathing pattern that tricks your brain into feeling safe. This breathing pattern is how we naturally breathe when we are very relaxed and will bring your heart rate down, slow your thoughts, and return your body to a comfortable state.
Simply breathe in deeply through your nose to fill your tummy for a count of 7, then release the air more slowly to a count of 11. The pace of counting remains the same, but your exhale is extended to slightly longer than your inhale.
Counting in your head like this also helps to keep unwanted thoughts out. Just keep your focus on your breath.
Have you ever had that experience, where you've heard a piece of music or perhaps caught scent of something, and for a moment you are instantly transported in your head to a specific memory or reminded of someone? Our senses are very closely tied to our emotional memory storage and we can make use of that to access a feeling of calm and relaxation when we need it. Here's how:
1: Purchase an aromatherapy oil that has calming benefits, such as lavender or jasmine, and place a few drops on a cotton ball.
2: Spend ten to fifteen minutes a day doing nothing but relaxing - take a bath, play some gentle music, find a comfortable spot in the sunshine, practice the visualisation below. While you do, have your scented cotton ball nearby.
Your brain will begin to link the scent with the sensation of relaxing. Then, when it comes time to fly, carry your aromatherapy oil with you and dab it on your clothes or a handkerchief, and if you feel your anxiety rising, close your eyes and inhale the smell. Your brain will ask itself "What do we know about this smell" and it will find the answer: "Ah yes, we are safe and relaxed when we smell this" and will reduce your anxiety.
Visualise visualise visualise
As our feelings respond to the pictures and words in our head, if you hear good words and see good pictures then you'll feel more relaxed. Read the following instructions for a creative visualisation technique through a few times before practicing it daily.
Close your eyes. Think of a time when you have felt very relaxed. Put yourself back in that moment, see what you could see through your own eyes, hear what you could hear, feel what you could feel, really notice the details that let you know you're in that safe and relaxed place. Breathe deeply into your stomach and see what you can do to make that experience even more relaxing - would you make the colours brighter, the sounds softer, the temperature on your skin warmer?
With every deep breath in that you take, imagine that comfortable feeling spreading further through your body, as you say to yourself "I am safe, I am relaxed, I am comfortable". Rehearse this as many times as possible, and use it whenever necessary while you travel.
Victoria Ward is a Cognitive Hypnotherapist and Life Coach based in Colchester and Harley Street, London. She combines hypnotherapy with the cutting-edge technique of EMDR/EMI to rapidly resolve flying phobias.
*This article was first published in print in Life & Home in Essex magazine.