8 Steps to Overcoming Fear of Flying

If you have a fear of flying you are not along. Almost one of every three adult Americans are afraid to fly (including airline personnel). Here are some easy steps to begin to fly more comfortably that come from our experience as psychologists working with this form of anxiety.


Martin N. Seif, Ph.D.
Ron Doctor, Ph.D.

STEP 1 – Latch on to triggers that set you off.

Fear of flying is not a single phobia. People who are afraid are often afraid of different things. Some are claustrophobic, some fear turbulence. Others fear terrorism, mechanical failure, or crashing. Some distrust the pilots. Figure out what frightens you (it doesn’t have to be just one) and examine how your anxiety reaction is triggered. Triggers initiate fear, which quickly become intense because of a rapid interplay between scary images in your mind and the presence of the trigger. You may not be aware of this because you do not become conscious of the process until you are terrified….it is that rapid. Your first goal is to identify your particular triggers, so you can eventually manage your fear when your anxiety levels are low. Learning what sets you off makes it easier to turn it off.

STEP 2 – Step into the airplane with knowledge.

When you are dealing with anxiety, ignorance is not bliss. In fact, the opposite is true- anxiety thrives on ignorance. To combat this, learn about the airline industry, how pilots are trained, turbulence, and anything else that frightens you. Our anxieties are fed by “what if?” catastrophic thoughts. When you don’t know about a subject, you make up scenarios based on your imagination, and your catastrophic thoughts are limited only by your creativity. Once you become knowledgeable, your “what if?” thoughts will be limited by the facts. Become familiar with the facts. They will not eliminate your anxiety but will help to keep it more manageable.

STEP 3 – Anticipate your anticipatory anxiety.

Be prepared to be anxious. Anticipatory anxiety is the anxiety we experience in anticipation of something we fear. It is often the most intense anxiety you will experience during your flight. Anticipatory anxiety increases with your indecision (i.e., should I take the flight or not?) and starts to level off when you commit yourself to an action. Here are two facts you should keep in mind: first, anticipatory anxiety is not an accurate predictor of how you will feel on the flight. Ninety-five percent of the time, anticipatory anxiety is far greater than the anxiety you actually experience. Second, anticipatory anxiety can be calmed with rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing. But it is persistent and it is unrealistic to expect it not to be there.

STEP 4 – Separate fear from danger.

Your task is to break your connection between anxiety and danger. Anxiety has all the sensations of being in danger, but the trigger for anxiety is not an extreme threat. It is a series of threatening images in your mind. It is often difficult to separate anxiety from danger because your body reacts in exactly the same way to both. It is your anxiety that makes you fell like you are unsafe, even thought you are actually safe. You must label your fear as anxiety. Tell yourself that anxiety makes your frightening thoughts feel like they have a high probability of occurring. Remind yourself that feeling anxious doesn’t mean you are in danger. You are safe even when feeling intense anxiety

STEP 5 – Recognize that common sense makes no sense.

Part A: Anxiety tricks common sense – Common sense tells us that the best course is to use our gut feelings to guide our actions. But this is not always true, and it is never true when dealing with the fear of flying. Anxiety is an excellent trickster and bluffer, and it will tell you that you are in danger when you are perfectly safe. Anxiety is reinforced by avoidance. Your gut feelings from anxiety will always tell you to avoid, and- if you follow your gut feelings- you will always be reinforcing your anxiety.

 Part B: You can outsmart anxiety – You need to learn not to follow what anxiety tells you to do. As a rule, aim to do the opposite of what your anxious feelings are telling you to do. Be paradoxical. Do the opposite of what anxiety wants you to do. Fight what anxiety is telling you to do, but embrace the feelings (and that means discomfort) that anxiety engenders. If your anxiety is telling you to stay in your seat and grip the armrests, then open your hands, get up, and certainly move around. If you feel so anxious you need to walk around, try to stay in your seat. Outsmart anxiety by taking a paradoxical approach.

 STEP 6 – Smooth over things that go bump in the flight.

Airplanes do not always fly smoothly. Learn about “chop,” turbulence, noise abatement maneuvers, and the movements, sounds, and sensations they produce. Understand how the aircraft is designed to cope with turbulent stresses. Seek out your central fears about bumpy flights. These can include crashing, sensations in your body, vomiting, others observing you, or a fear of the fear itself. Focus on managing your anxiety rather than when the turbulence will end, or how severe it might get. Wiggling in your seat during turbulence can help override some of the sensations so you can feel more in control. Stay as close to the present as you can. Remind yourself that you are safe.

STEP 7 – Educate fellow fliers how to help you.

Other fliers need to know what frightens you, along with what   helps you most to cope with anxiety during flight. If you ask, pilots can speak with you as you board. Flight attendants will give you additional attention if you let them know what you need. Family, friends, and other passengers can help you monitor your anxiety, keep you focused on the present, and help you steer clear of catastrophic mental imagery. Steer clear of “frenemies” who relate their own frightening flights. They may think they’re funny, but they will more likely trigger your own anxiety. Your task is to be clear about your triggers and specifically ask for what you find most helpful.

STEP 8 – Value each flight.

Exposure is the active ingredient in overcoming phobia. Every flight provides you with the opportunity to make the next one easier. Maximize the benefits of exposure in two ways. First, record your anxiety levels during the flight. You will be surprised at how short a time you are highly anxious during the flight. Next, search out and eliminate the many “mini-avoidances” you go through to make your discomfort seem more manageable. Do you insist on a certain seat? Avoid specific airports? Grip your seat in terror until the “fasten seat belt” light goes off? Focus on the flight attendants to reassure yourself that all is going well? Avoidances like these prolong your anxiety and work against the therapeutic effects of exposure. Remember that your goal is to retrain your brain to become less sensitized to triggers that set you off.

Trauma and Our Society

When the clouds clear there is hope.
When the clouds clear there is hope.

Trauma and our society 

As Bob Dylan once noted some years ago in his popular song, “The Times Are A-Changin’,” and it appears that in the twenty-first century, they are a-changin’ rapidly and drastically in relation to many core beliefs about mental health and illness. In fact, society seems to be moving from what has been termed “The Age of Anxiety” into what might now be called “The Age of Trauma.”

It is not that trauma itself is new, because it is not new at all—think of Noah and the great flood or Moses killing all of the worshippers of the Golden Calf. However, what is new is that the eyes of both science and humanity have begun to focus their attention on the specific topic of trauma and to employ observational tools that are more sophisticated than ever. The results of analysis to date so far have been astonishing and staggering.

Already the artificial distinction between the “mind” and the “body” has been thrown out as simple and artifacial and experts have come to view the mind and the body as one and the same phenomenon. For example, the role and function of the central nervous system, neurology and the endocrine system are being intimately and slowly unraveled to reveal their contributions to human development and behavior. Traumatic stress is now a source-term for most studies of emotional and behavioral development, deviation and pathology.

Traumatic experience has been made more real to many people by the fact that now most of the pathways within the brain, the nervous system and the endocrine system can be traced. Powerful conceptual models have been developed that explain memory, posttraumatic stress, emotional modulation, concentration, and interpersonal behavior. As a result, new therapies have been developed to access the frontal and lower brain centers and the right hemisphere functions, since these structures are intimately involved in traumatic reactions.

Somatically-based therapies (e.g., EMDR and Somatic Experiencing) are also merging, and these therapies help to release constrictions and the body memory of the stored traumatic events in a person’s life. Such therapies can relieve the pain that is directly or indirectly associated with past traumatic events, such as pain induced by past physical, sexual or emotional abuse that occurred in childhood or adulthood.

Electronic bio-measurements provide some measure of autonomic nervous system activity. For example, using heart rate variability measures, it is now possible to monitor the individual’s arousal (sympathetic) responses as well as their relaxation (parasympathetic) responses, and thereby capture the relationship between these two ends of the scale. Likewise, measurements of carbon dioxide utilization and cortisol levels can provide other measures of autonomic variability and set points.

Finally, understanding of the concepts of traumatic experience—which chronically affects 5 percent of men and 10 percent of women—can free the individual from the shameful shackles of being viewed as personally responsible for their condition or as defective as an individual. The reason for this is that traumatic stress—unlike any other psychiatric condition—is caused by events that occur outside the individual, even though its effects linger within the person.

The study of traumatic stress has also gained depth and breadth in that far more subtle forms of trauma (sometimes known as small t’s) are being extensively studied by researchers, in contrast to horrific single trauma events. Small t’s bring the study of trauma into the arena of abusive homes, and into the physical, sexual and neglectful environments and caretakers. Likewise, areas of concern toward those who are being bullied, criticized and rejected are viewed as linked to traumatic reactivation.

Early maternal experience is also being studied by experts as it relates to traumatic reactions, poor interpersonal and intra self-evaluations and the development of chronic diseases. Small t, or “complex trauma” as it is coming to be known, tends to tune up the physiology, leading to significant difficulties in the individual’s concentration, affect modulation, self-regulation, bonding and self-esteem.

Many addictive problems undoubtedly stem from developmental or complex trauma, and the individual’s efforts to control affect (mood) and to find pleasure and function in the world. Recent evidence suggests that many psychiatric conditions are associated with complex trauma. Dissociative disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, personality disorders and border personality disorder have all been linked to a past traumatic experience.

The presence and prevalence of trauma is pervasive in our society. The National Comorbidity Survey (NCS) consisted of individual interviews with a representative group of Americans between the ages of 15 to 54 years. Five percent of the men and 10.4 percent of the women had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. In addition, 60.7 percent of the men and 51.2 percent of the women had experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. In many cases, these trauma sufferers are common citizens. However, this type of trauma statistic is much greater among individuals who are combat veterans, police and fire personnel, emergency paramedics and others who are frequently exposed to violence and suffering.

Little data is available on trauma that is linked to children and adolescents, but some research indicates high levels (in the 30-40 percent range) of exposure to traumatic events, and as many as 21 percent of children and adolescents who have been traumatized developed diagnosable PTSD symptoms. At-risk samples of children (for example, those who were present where there were school shootings, gang violence, sexual abuse, and so on) bring the rate of PTSD in children up further, to above 50 percent, and some estimates are as high as 100 percent of children in these samples!


The Heart as Soul

DSC_0013-1024x682Call someone intelligent and we typically refer to one’s intellectual ability or ‘brain’ power and not the heart. But research shows that the heart is in fact intelligent, too. The brain in the head is dutifully obeying messages that are being sent from another brain, the one in the heart.  The heart isn’t just a throbbing mass of muscle; it’s actually quite a sensitive instrument that is processing critical information, constantly communicating with the brain 4 different ways.

NEUROLOGICALLY. With every beat of the heart, a burst of neural activity is relayed to the brain. The brain in the heart senses hormonal, rate and pressure information, and translates this information into neurological impulses, processes it and sends information back to the brain in the head via the vagus nerve and nerves in the spinal column.

BIOCHEMICALLY. The heart produces the ‘balance hormone’ – ANF. It regulates blood pressure, body-fluid retention and electrolyte homeostasis and exerts its effects widely on the blood vessels, kidneys, adrenal glands and other regulatory regions of the brain. ANF also inhibits release of stress hormones and plays a positive role in reproductive and immune system activity.

BIOPHYSICALLY. With every beat the heart generates a powerful blood pressure wave that travels rapidly throughout the arteries, much faster than the actual flow of blood. These waves of pressure create what we feel as our pulse.

ENERGETICALLY. The heart produces an electromagnetic field that is approximately five thousand times greater in strength than the field produced by the brain. Its power influences every part of our bodies and even broadcasts itself outside the body.

The net of all this is to remind you that your heart affects the way you think. You don’t have a choice. And your emotions—your feelings–affect your heart. In this you do have a choice. By intentionally shifting to a positive emotional state you can modify input from your heart to your brain in ways that are good for you. It’s healthy, it’s smart and it’s FAST.

See Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson as an example

Complex/Relational Trauma Syndrome


 Areas of Functioning Affected by Prolonged Periods of Traumatic Experience

 Complex or Relational Trauma can arise from prolonged periods of aversive stress usually involving entrapment (psychological or physical), repeated violations of boundaries, betrayal, rejection and confusion marked by a lack of control and helplessness.  Common situations include being bullied, harassment, physical, sexual and emotional/verbal abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse, stalking, threats, separation and loss, unresolved grief and neglect.

  A.   Alterations in Relations with Others

    1. A general feeling of distrust and use of isolation as a defense against hurt, rejection and disapproval
    2. Problems keeping personal boundaries and recognizing the boundaries of others; difficulty attuning to emotional states and perspectives of others
    3. Difficulty asking for help and often a relentless search for a rescuer or savior from the outside
    4. Re-victimization and/or victimizing others
    5. Preoccupations with revenge
    6. Attachment problems- ambivalent, avoidant or disorganized relationships

B.  Biological and Bodily Effects

    1. Hypersensitive and aversion to physical contact, analgesia or under-responsive and need to seek sensations
    2. ANS “set-point” is chronically too high or too low leading to over- coupling [excessive sudden arousal] or under-coupling [excessive inhibition and dissociation] of traumatic experience
    3. Sensorimotor and coordination problems…developmental lags
    4. Somatization and systemic medical problems such as chronic fatigue, digestive problems, spastic colon/irritable bowels, allergies, endocrine problems and other auto-immune disorders
    5. Predisposition to develop PTSD to subsequent traumatic stressors
    6. Poor response to Prolonged Exposure therapy

C.  Alterations in Affect Regulation

    1. Persistent moods of sadness, suicidal thoughts and feelings, explosiveness or greatly inhibited anger, unmodulated sexual behavior, excessive risk taking
    2. Difficulty self-regulating emotions
    3. Difficulty describing feelings, sensations and internal experience
    4. Difficulties communicating wishes and desires

D.  Alterations in Attention and Consciousness

    1. Exaggerated amnesia for or reliving traumatic events
    2. Episodes of dissociation involving derealization and/or depersonalization-or  “under-coupling” of traumatic experience
    3. Impaired memory for state-based events

E.  Difficulties with Behavioral Control

    1. Cutting, self-mutilation and self-destructive behaviors
    2. Excessive self-soothing- binge eating, substance abuse, interpersonal dependencies
    3. Poor impulse modulation with anger and aggression
    4. Extremes of compliance or oppositional behavior
    5. Difficulty understanding and complying with rules
    6. Arousal problems manifest in sleep disturbance, eating disorders and learning problems
    7. Inability to inhibit behavior when aroused

F.  Cognition

    1. Difficulties with sustained attention, attention regulation and executive functioning
    2. Problems focusing, planning, anticipating and completing tasks
    3. Difficulties seeing own role in events that happen to them
    4. Learning, language and orientation in time and space problems
    5. Object constancy problems and visual-spatial pattern difficulties
    6. High levels of competence and interpersonal sensitivity can co-exist with self-hate, lack of self-care and interpersonal cruelty
    7. Poor response to Cognitive Restructuring Behavioral Therapy

G.  Alterations in Self-Perception and Self-Concept

    1. Sense of helplessness, shame, guilt and self-blame
    2. Feeling stigmatized and perceived as difficult from others
    3. Low self-esteem and poor sense of individuation from others
    4. Conviction of being un-loveable and permanently damaged

H.  Alterations in Systems of Meaning

    1. Despair and hopelessness
    2. Loss of previously sustained beliefs
    3. Belief in a foreshortened future

Resource materials: 

Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents, a White Paper from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Complex TraumaTtask Force.  Available on-line at www.NCTSNet.org

and  van der Kolk, Bessel.  The Assessment and Treatment of Complex PTSD.  In Traumatic Stress. Rachel Yehuda, ed.  American Psychiatric Press, 2001.


Developed by Ron Doctor, Ph.D.









How to Get Started with Meditation

The practice of being quiet.
The practice of being quiet.

Meditation is not a mystery or exotic eastern practice.  All of us fail to realize that we actually live in a meditative way.  It’s just that our meditations are dominated by automatic thoughts and reactions.  Conscious meditation is a process of clearing the mind so we can come into contact with our senses and our deeper impressions.

  1. Find a quiet and comfortable place.  Its best to sit in a chair with your head, neck and back straight but not stiff.
  2. Try to put aside all thoughts of the past and future and stay in the ongoing present.  Notice things in the room, sense the chair and become aware of your body…this is your contact with the outside world.  Let your senses expand.
  3. Bring your attention to your breathing,  Notice how the breath seems warmer as you exhale.  Exhale slowly through your mouth.  Pay attention to the way each breath changes and is different.
  4. Watch your thoughts come and go, some are pleasant and some are not so pleasant.  When thoughts come into your mind, don’t ignore or try to suppress them but simply note what they are, remain calm and use your breathing as a focal point to return to….
  5. If you find yourself getting carried away in your thoughts, observe where your mind went and then simply return to your breathing.  This is how automatic and intrusive thoughts can be so don’t be hard on yourself if this happens.  It will occur less frequently with practice.
  6. Keep this clearing state for only 10 or 15 minutes, not longer.
  7. As you come to a close, sit for a minute or two, becoming aware of where you are and get up gradually.
Ron Doctor, Ph.D.