Five people, some of whom had avoided flying for 18 years, got together
over a single weekend this May to face their fear of flying and learn how to manage anxiety. The group was made up of regular people who wanted to travel but who felt too anxious to do it. They had each developed ways of coping with their fears that left them feeling “in control,” but at a cost – they all talked about feeling limited in their lives. They didn’t have as many full-blown panic attacks, but they all felt like they had to stay “on guard,” watching out all the time for the next moment when anxiety would suddenly appear and scare them.
Many people spoke of using Gravol and prescription sedatives to numb themselves so they wouldn’t have to feel afraid. A number of people drank alcohol, listened to really loud music and hyper-focused on their electronic devices in attempts to distract themselves from their feelings. Although each person had their own, unique story about when and why their anxiety began, everyone in the group had the common experience of feeling weak because they all lived in fear that something bad – like a panic attack – might happen at any moment. They all worried that they wouldn’t be able to get away to safety if they had one while on an airplane.
Many of the women in the group talked about believing that their role in life was “to be strong” for other people, which meant they always had to maintain an outward appearance of being fully in control, no matter what they were feeling inside. This was easier to achieve in their daily lives because they said they could structure situations so they were never too far out of their comfort zone. However, they all said they worried that their true feelings of fear might show if they felt panicky on an airplane, and they feared they would feel weak and like they were letting important people down. Almost everyone in the group talked about fearing that feeling anxious was proof that they were somehow “not normal,” and that their discomfort about flying, something so many other people did with ease meant there was something wrong with them.
We began our two-day workshop learning about the psychology behind the fear of flying and helping the group to understand what was happening inside when they felt anxious or afraid. We showed them a wide variety of coping tools that help people manage anxiety and fear, and we gave them opportunities to practice using them. We also brought in a commercial pilot with decades of flying experience, who explained how airplanes work and helped the group to understand why flying is actually safer than driving your own car.
Early in the afternoon of the second day, we left the classroom and drove to a small airport for our practice flight. Some people were excited to have a private airplane all to themselves for a few hours, but others were really nervous. One person found their anxiety
spiked just by boarding and needed time to get comfortable. We worked, as a group, using the coping tools taught in the classroom and helped people find their comfort again. Within about an hour, everyone was ready to fly. Although most people felt tempted to use the same old avoidance strategies they were familiar with using, some coaching from Dr. Ian helped everyone use the newer, more effective coping tools they had learned in the group and everyone reported feeling very proud of their ability to do something they didn’t believe was possible: To fly without fear.
The next Toronto-area flying groups will happen in October 2016. We’ll work with Nervous Flyers (people who continue to fly even though they feel anxious and afraid) in the classroom and take another group of Non Flyers up for an actual flight. Check out our programs at http://afraidtofly.ca