Many Americans are afraid to fly. Anxiety disorder is over.
Tami Augen Rhodes had to fly to Washington. The invitation to the black tie event at the Supreme Court was an opportunity that the 49-year-old Tampa lawyer did not want to miss. But Rhodes hadn't flown since he was 35, unless increasing flying became a phobia.
Wanting to get to Washington without a long train ride, Rhodes called for a weekly group phone call from former air force and commercial aircraft pilot and licensed clinical social worker Tom Bunn, who runs the program for timid pilots.
Fear of flying or aviophobia is an anxiety disorder. Approximately 40 percent of the population has a fear of flying, and 2.5 percent have a phobia classified as a clinical phobia in which a person avoids flying or does so under severe stress.
As with other situation phobias, fear is disproportionate to the danger posed. Business travel in the United States is extremely safe. A person who made a 500-mile flight every day during the year would have a mortality risk of 85% to one in 85, according to an analysis by Ian Savage, an associate at the Northwestern University's economics department. It is worth noting that road transport accounts for 94.4 percent of domestic transport deaths.
The American Anxiety and Depression Association recommends eight steps to help identify and alleviate the triggers. Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist who wrote the steps, identifies a variety of conditions that can include phobic panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder.
Bunn has been working with timid flyers since 1980, after being interested in the psychological and physical components that caused anxiety and panic in situations where he knew as a pilot to be safe. He developed a set of spiritual exercises for timid pilots. One, called a reinforcement exercise, combines the specific stages of a flight with a joyful personal memory, a visualization technique designed to evoke serenity.
Rhodes had two months to prepare. He studied deeply written exercises, videos, telephone sessions. He was anxious on the day of the flight. But he was organized, logged, memorized mental exercises, and understood the expected noise and flight sensations.
There was never a panic, she described her flight. Since then, he has flown several more times, including on a trip to Seattle to surprise his best friend.
Fear of flying has been reported to be much less studied than other conditions that can damage relationships and careers, such as social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Little is known about what makes people afraid even after exposure to successful flights. And there are few experts in this field who are trained as both pilots and clinical social workers.
Stacey Chance, a pilot who has flown with American Airlines for 30 years, is running a free online course on the Fear of Flying help course, which is an hour-long overview of all aspects of the flight. It includes video clips from therapists and pilots and printable checklists to control anxiety. He was surprised to learn that many passengers were afraid of losing control and opening the door during the flight. According to him, the scenario is impossible.Tonya McDaniel, a licensed clinical social worker at the Philadelphia Growth Center, uses a virtual reality program for psychologists: ).
Exposure therapy aims to recalibrate a person's response, eventually teaching the body that the experience is not dangerous, and that's okay, he said.
Bunn received the fighter training he chose because growing up in a small North Carolina town after World War II had attracted the attention of former pilots, he said. He completed his class at the top flight school and was assigned to the supersonic fighter F-100 Super Saber.
Although she settled in Germany in the early 1960s over a nuclear alarm, she studied psychological books for her mother's mental illness. Later, as a commercial pilot for Pan Am, he helped the co-pilot complete a certificate of fearful pilots led by the airline.
People were sitting on the plane doing breathing exercises exactly as we told them, and they were still panicking, he said. It was terrible to be so helpless, he thought
By 1982, Bunn had taken his course and eventually earned a master's degree in social work from Fordham University. He shifted to the Veterans Department Hospital and in 1996 he gave up flying as a full-time licensed clinical social worker in Condan Bridgeport.
Lisa Hauptner, a former client, resigned from the corporate world. His own fear began, as many do, with a sense of work stress and impending change.
Hauptner said that good or bad stressors usually happen during this time. The average age of childhood is 27. Think about what happens when you are 27 years old. You may be married, moving, engaging, or having a child.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, often used with measurable results in the treatment of anxiety and panic, helped people on the ground, they found, but left them vulnerable to panic during the flight. When the panic begins, the cognitive ability is fried, Bunn said. Stress hormones and the fight or flight reaction take over.
Bunn said that people can calm down after the panic has deepened, relying on unconscious or procedural memory - cycling. It offers exercises that are simple but require exercise, conditioning the body to respond to triggers (such as turbulence) with less awakening.
He was influenced by the work of Stephen Porges, a respected university researcher at the University of Indiana and a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, whose polygal theory studies how our nervous system detects and responds to danger.
Porges described Bunn's exercises as using visualization to help people fly or deal with anxiety. The images send tips to the body that it is safe and not in a protective state.
At age 83, Bunn is busy. He responds to 30 to 40 emails a day from anxious pilots and conducts up to eight private phone sessions. His weekly e-mail goes to more than 17,000 subscribers. In April last year, he published a book, Panic-Free: A 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia, using a system developed for timid pilots. After the fall of the Boeing 737 Maxi, its activity has increased.
Not everyone responds to his system. Hauptner, who is also a mental health counselor, said pilots who are in the midst of another major event, such as a divorce or a smoking cessation, may not respond. Or they want perfection and there is no perfection, he said.
Someone's strategy may not work for everyone. Porges said some people find that breathing exercises - a common panic management strategy - are effective when done with slow exhalation.
According to Spatola, Bunn helped him break down his emotions, recognize his heartbeat, and use a technique to calm himself that conveys anxiety to the cartoon character.
I found Captain Tom on the Internet 18 years ago, when his program reached the post of audio cassettes. My fear of flying struck at the age of 26 when I started a new job at CBS News, the age and phase of a young adult when it usually manifests itself. I listened to the tapes. I read the printed material. I flew to the destination and worked as an assistant who prepared the task.
On the way back, I was pushed first to Tallahassee and then to Atlanta due to mechanical problems. Going through the night, my self-confidence waned and I didn't want to get on the plane. I decided to try the phone session that came with my course.
Bunn picked it up immediately. His voice reflected his North Carolina upbringing and calm demeanor, my idealized version of a pilot and a therapist rolling together. I flew home to New York and arrived late in the evening, September 10, 2001.
The next day there were no good places, the tragedy hit families across the country and spent days traveling. My own anxiety dissipated and grew, and it took another concerted effort years later to deal with flying again.