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Don’t Carry On Emotional Baggage:
Being in Control of Being in Control

By Captain Ron Nielsen

When fearful flyer Marilyn admits to “carrying a lot of baggage,” she’s not referring to the usual luggage fearful flyers bring on board an aircraft. Her life experiences have left Marilyn feeling powerless. Despite personal experiences substantiating that control is an illusion, she still attempts to cope by grabbing all the control she can. Unfortunately, as witnessed so often, her fears are displaced onto flying, and she avoids it as much as possible. Not flying produces a feeling of being in control. But if she has to fly, she is unable to trust the stranger flying the plane. She hates the flip-flop feeling in her stomach at takeoff. She dreads the uncertain bumps and jolts that turbulence brings. She is not in control.

Handing over an airplane’s operation to a stranger, even a highly qualified pilot, is hard for a fearful flyer like Marilyn. It doesn’t matter that the pilot has countless hours of experience. An untrusting fearful flyer doesn’t care that the pilot flies twice yearly checks in the simulator to be artificially subjected to anything and everything that might happen during a flight.

How Does Fear of Flying Feel? Fear is the body's response to your mind's interpretation of a threat of death. Fear of flying is a residual of this ancient response. Other non-life-threatening events cause the same physical responses. We can experience adrenaline rushes when we confront a boss.

A phobia, like fear of flying, results from the body’s normal response to an irrational or excessive fear. According to the American Psychiatric Association, a phobia is an abnormally fearful response to a danger that is imagined or irrationally exaggerated.

Fearful flyers react to flying as if it were a real danger—triggering automatic parasympathetic responses such as sweaty palms, racing heart, rapid breathing, and the adrenaline rush of the flight or fight response. Those reactions are serious enough to ground fearful flyers, but the anticipatory anxiety they experience when even thinking about flying can be overwhelming.

Overcoming Fear of Flying: Fear of flying is one of the easiest phobias to overcome. According to USA Today, therapists who work with fearful flyers report a 90% success rate. But the first step is to decide to do something about that fear, just as Marilyn did. Then the next step is to admit the fear to someone else. The typical fearful flyer has a need to be in control, so involving others is hard to do. Others may react negatively or derisively—two reactions that the fearful flyer has no control over.

Like it or not, many business people have to fly. What can a fearful flyer do besides passing up promotions, handing off assignments, or changing a career direction altogether? Is it possible to be in control of being in control on an airplane?

Control Factor #1:   Recognize that you can’t control every situation, but you can be in control of your thoughts in response to the situation.   What we believe, we perceive; what we perceive affects our behavior, and how we behave has consequences. If we believe that flying is inherently dangerous then we will develop a negative bias about flying. Be careful what you put into your mind!

Control Factor #2:  In situations over which you have no control, you can control your stress level by managing your breathing. Have someone time your breathing before you fly. This will be your baseline—usually somewhere around 10 breaths per minute. Then during the flight as your anxiety goes up and your ability to control your situation goes down, count your breaths per minute again. If the rate is significantly higher than your baseline, slow your breathing down. Breathing through a drinking straw is a way to artificially achieve a slower rate because the straw restricts the flow of air.

Control Factor #3:  Understand that you cannot control how others perceive you. You can offer them a tiny understanding of what you’re going through by asking them what they’re afraid of. Many people suffer from common phobias—fear of snakes, dogs, needles, spiders, or mice. Ask them to imagine sitting next to a big box overflowing with their feared object, for instance spiders. Once they’re able to visualize this, have them imagine sitting by the box for two hours. If they can conjure up this mental picture, they may begin to grasp what you go through on an airplane.

Control Factor #4:  Control what you put into your body before and during the flight. Nicotine and caffeine may increase your anxiety. Alcohol and non-prescription drugs only temporarily mask anxiety. In addition, the effects of alcohol double in the air as in the saying, “One on the ground is like two in the air.”  It’s no fun arriving hung over. Prescription medications can help some people to better manage their anxiety and consequently, give them a better chance to use other non-medication coping strategies. Consult your doctor for guidance.

Control Factor #5:  If you are spiritually inclined, try the old “let go and let God” way of thinking. At least for the duration of the flight, surrender your control to your Higher Power. Remember that to worry is to be constantly looking around, but faith looks up. Fear of death underlies all phobias.

Control Factor #6:  Realize that if you’ve tried to get over a fear of flying phobia without success, it is possible that you have an anxiety disorder rather than a simple phobia. You may be carrying around more baggage than you can handle by yourself. If this is the case, seek professional help from a mental health expert.   

Staying in Control: Wisdom is controlling what you can and letting go of what you can’t. If you have a fear of flying, don’t suffer in silence. It could mean sacrificing your job if you fail to admit your fear.   Just like those who suffer from an addiction, you cannot get over a fear that you cannot acknowledge. Besides, if you continue to keep quiet about your fear of flying, you may lose your job anyway.

Finally, seek help, either from a local therapist or on one of the many fear of flying websites where you can work on your fear in the privacy of your home. Then, before you know it, you’ll be back in control of your future in friendlier skies.

Read other articles and learn more about Captain Ron Nielsen.

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