FEAR OF FLYING

By Max Lloyd

 

Fear of flying - no, not the sexually explicit book by Erica de Jong that made the rounds of staffrooms and workplace tearooms during the '70s, to much "tit tutting' or open admiration, but that gut wrenching, paralysing fear that for some people is sufficient to keep them from international travel. Perhaps this contributes to your inability to take that amazing overseas adventure holiday? You have no problem with facing dangers of another sort in the wilderness or in an unknown culture. And those small, out of the way destinations that appeal most to you are serviced by planes scarcely larger than an adult mountain eagle while the airports use radar systems that are ex-WWII. No wonder you can't let yourself go - flying in a 747 the size of a small NZ town is scary enough.

There are numerous approaches to dealing with this fear, which on the face of it you would have to admit is somewhat irrational. Statistically, you have more chance of experiencing shark bite or a lightening strike.

The approaches to deal with fear of flying range from classical hypnosis, where a suggestion that you will no longer experience this fear is made to your subconscious mind while you are in a deeply relaxed state, through to cognitive behavioural strategies to break the fear down in small steps. This approach may even use a flight simulator or "in situ" exposures to the fearful circumstance coupled with relaxation. Air New Zealand has run their own in-house version of this for nervous travellers.

Of course one way to deal with the situation is through consumption of copious quantities of alcohol. It used to work for me as a student when faced with inter- island ferry travel in bad weather. By the time we cleared the Sounds, I was comfortably asleep and revived only in time to stumble off the ferry at Wellington. However, alcohol and air travel do not mix well. This has something to do with the physiological effects of alcohol under altitude and pressure. You probably don't want to make a fool of yourself in front of a couple of hundred people, like the couple caught having sex under a blanket in business class recently.

New developments in the field of cognitive/behavioural therapy in the USA suggest that for some who suffer from fear of flying, there exists an underlying condition that has them believe they are exposed to immanent catastrophe. For these people, fear of flying is about the belief that this plane, with them aboard, will crash.

In the work of Dr Jeffrey Young, of New York, this constitutes an example of a lifetrap, or more technically, maladaptive schema. This is a broad, pervasive theme in a person's life that is made up of a combination of memories, emotions, thoughts and feelings present within the individual for sometime which has prevented them from carrying out important or desired activities. Fear of flying, for these people, is a focus for and an expression of a sense of vulnerability to harm. This harm is seen as being immanent and is unavoidable except by not flying.

Similar lifetraps or schemas have to do with themes of abandonment, mistrust and abuse, emotional deprivation, social exclusion, dependence, defectiveness, failure, subjugation, unrelenting standards and entitlement. The fascinating thing about Young's lifetrap or schema theory is his way of accounting for differences in manifestation of the lifetrap. Imagine that several children grow up in a family environment where physical abuse is present. According to the lifetrap idea, they should all develop the same patterns of behaviour as adults. We know this does not happen. Or, you may share a similar background of emotional abandonment to many other people you know, but have a completely different history of relationships to them. There are two reasons for this. One clearly is that we differ in terms of temperament, which is thought to contain major aspects of heredity. As a result, we also react to the childhood situations that cause lifetrap patterns to develop in different ways: we either surrender to the situation, try to escape or counterattack.

This mode of our response makes a great difference to the outcome. Consider three individuals who all have a Defectiveness lifetrap: they each grew up with the sense that they were somehow flawed. Perhaps they were constantly criticised, unable to do anything right or meet the unrelenting standards of their parents, or maybe they experienced childhood abuse. As a result of temperament, one person surrenders to the defectiveness lifetrap and becomes "defective". He does not make eye contact when you meet him, has difficulty expressing opinions, thinks of himself as being "one down" in relation to others and has extreme difficulty mixing socially.

The next of the trio seeks to escape the defectiveness lifetrap by settling for superficial relationships. He has never been close to anybody special and spends most of his time with mates in the pub or out fishing. He is married but there is no real intimacy - he chose a woman who is out of touch with her feelings. Thus he is not exposed to criticism or is able to shrug it off in a superficial way. At age 40 he is now a dependent drinker, which again reduces his ability to hear or respond to criticism.

Our third candidate, a woman, counterattacks to deal with her feelings of defectiveness. She appears self-confident and assertive, holds down a good job with high responsibility. In fact, she is a snob and looks down on others. She has very strong views about most things and does not hesitate to let you know what they are and how she is right. She is married to a man who is quiet and sacrificing and she chooses friends who tend to reinforce her position. From an external position, you would think there was little in common with these three people, yet they are all manifesting a version of the Defectiveness lifetrap.


Young's work is available in print: Reinventing Your Life is a self-help version while Schema Therapy - A Practitioner's Guide, is aimed at professionals. His approach is becoming increasingly popular as an effective way to make major personal change. Perhaps flying into Kathmandu may be possible after all.


Max Lloyd is a counsellor and psychotherapist practicing in Ponsonby, Auckland. He has a developing interest in schema work and can be contacted on Max.Lloyd@xtra.co.nz