by Russel Brownlee
Fear of flying is a widespread problem that causes the sufferer incredible stress. The level of fear that arises at the mere thought of getting onto a plane is often off the scale and quite out of proportion to the actual dangers of flying. No amount of explaining about the safety of planes will make any dent in a true phobic’s reaction to an impending flight. In my practice I have had the chance to work with several people with this condition, so here are some observations about the causes and possible treatment approaches.
When did the problem begin?
Firstly, when a client comes in saying they have a fear of flying, one of the first things you want to do is figure out when the problem began. In most of the cases I’ve dealt with, the clients were completely OK with flying until a particular point. One can often isolate this point simply by talking with the client, but sometimes I will devote the first hypnosis session to reviewing past flights to find out exactly when the problem began. One way of doing this is to go to a flight that the client says was an easy and pleasurable flight. Then go forward to the next flight and review it. One of those flights is going to be the one.
Analyse what happened
When you have an idea of when the problem began, you need to analyse what happened. Was it something scary that happened on the plane, like turbulence or a rough landing, or was it some other difficulty that was happening in the person’s life that just got associated with a rough flight?
If it’s turbulence of something alarming, treatment can consist of reviewing the experience in hypnosis and encouraging the client to express the fears that they perhaps repressed while in the flight. The reason why the client still holds onto the fear is usually because something about the incident is still not processed. The full review of the incident should highlight this and enable you to process it. Always end by emphasising how the plane was actually OK and they made it through perfectly. Rehearse perfect flying several times, perhaps in follow-up sessions. I sometimes recommend that the client purchase a fear of flying self-hypnosis recording to listen to at home. This is a great way to disable the habitual fear response and reprogram the mind for fearless flying.
The issue might not be directly related to an alarming flight experience but might involve an already existing emotional state in combination with a mildly stressful flight. With my most recent client, we found that his fear began on a particular flight from Thailand. He got on the plane in an agitated state, and the plane happened to be very full and hot. His agitated and emotional state, due to a romantic breakup, created a condition of natural hypnosis or suggestibility (remember, any stressed state is hypnotic), and so when he got onto the crowded plane, dreading returning home after the romantic breakup, his mind associated the existential dread of loneliness and disappointment with the “dangers” of flying. Once he saw this in hypnosis he actually began laughing – his fear was instantly relieved as he realized the breakup and the flying were two different issues.
Another cause that frequently comes up is the issue of control. In several of my fear-of-flying cases, the issue couldn’t be blamed on any particularly scary flying experience. The client simply, over a period of time, began to dread flying. In these cases, I usually probe the exact feeling that comes up when the client thinks about flying – and in most instances they will talk about being out of control. I then ask the client to focus on this feeling of being out of control, and then I begin a regression to the original cause. With one of my clients, we went to an incident in which she was the victim of a violent crime. This opened up a whole line of therapy work on issues of safety and of letting go. Her fear of flying was just a symbol of a deeper fear about life and her apparent lack of control.
The causes of flying phobia can be a) a single traumatic flight-related incident, b) a stressful flight in combination with a pre-existing stressful emotional state, and c) fear of not being in control.
Of course, there are bound to be other reasons, but these are the main ones I encounter when helping people overcome fear of flying. Further tips and suggestions for overcoming fear of flying are welcome.
Russel Brownlee – Expert hypnotherapy and life coaching in Cape Town