A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

July 2008

Afraid to Fly

          Flying freaks me out!!!!!  I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown when we were landing after the first circuit.  I don't know what's wrong with me.  I'm going to try hard to fly somewhere other than the airport but I think it's going to take some time and probably a lot of valium before we fly to your place!  Just the thought of getting into the plane turns my stomach sick and I start tearing up ... go figure ... maybe I need a hypnotist??

          This is how the wife of a good friend and fellow pilot describes her feelings about flying.  I would think just about everyone reading this article is either a pilot, or would like to be.  People who would rather fly than eat.  Thus it's probably difficult to understand this woman.  However, AVIOPHOBIA is a very real problem for up to 30% of our population. Symptoms can vary from trembling, chest discomfort, sweating, faintness, to extreme panic attacks where the victim is convinced he's unable to breath and that death is imminent.

          The fear of flying may come from other phobias such as claustrophobia, the feeling of loss of control, a fear of heights, the fear of terrorism, flying over water and so on.  In some cases, it can be somewhat controlled with the use of prescription benzodiazepines.  Countless entrepreneurs sell their various methods, videos and mechanical devices they say will cure the problem.  Some may be effective, some not.  A few airlines hold seminars and workshops to assist people in overcoming aviophobia. And of course there are those who will choose a few quick drinks before and during the flight to get through it.

          The already proven treatment for phobias, called "exposure therapy" requires sufferers to face their fears head on.  However, it's probably not a good idea to force someone who is terrified of flying into an airliner and take off.  The panic attack triggered by such a move would undoubtedly result in an aircraft diversion to the nearest medical facility.  It's a very scary thing to watch.

          Recently, there has been new scientific research aimed at controlling phobias.  Some in the neuroscience community feel that it's possible to eliminate deep-seated fears by removing the memory that created it.  Here are some of the ideas put forward.

          Fear is controlled by a small area of the brain that directly activates your response to that fear.   The conscious mind is bypassed, actually short-circuited for a period of time, thus not allowing the victim to rationalize the fear.  In other words, when someone is afraid of spiders suddenly sees one, he reacts immediately by jumping back or killing the insect.  But when he's reading a book about spiders, and there's not one present, he's able to rationalize that spiders can't hurt him.

          The fear itself comes from the memory that created it.  Sometime in the past, an event initially traumatized the victim, and each time it happens again the fear is triggered.  But, when you recall something, you don't recall what originally happened.  You actually recall WHAT YOU RECALLED the last time you recalled it.  This is proof that a memory can be updated and modified.  In other words, your memory of an event is only as good as your last memory of it.  Each time it's susceptible to change.  The last memory becomes your reality, and that is why alien abductees can pass lie-detector tests.  It also explains why fishermen catch bigger fish each time they tell the story.

          So these are the discoveries neuroscientists are working on.  What are they doing with this knowledge you ask.  The theory is that by eliminating the original cause of a fear, it can be eliminated.  Because the part of the brain that reacts to the fear has been identified, it now becomes a matter of using drugs to stimulate or short-circuit that tiny section of neurons.  They're doing exactly that in tests with rats.  The rats are given a small electric shock after an audible tone is generated in their cage.  After a few cycles of tone-shock, tone-shock, the classic Pavlovian response occurred.  The rats heard the tone, the rats froze (expecting the shock).  But when given a particular drug at the moment they expected the shock, they soon forgot that the tone meant shock.

          What it means for people with aviophobia is that there's a possibility someday in the not-too-distant future, you'll be able to take a pill just before your flight, and the fear you have will be eliminated.  Once you have no recollection of the fear, or the last time you felt that fear, you'll be good to go and can get on with enjoying what the rest of us have loved doing for years.

          While still quite early in the research, it's important enough to aggressively continue.  Phobias can be a minor discomfort for some people, and for others a major life-altering dilemma.  Business leaders, sports figures, politicians, celebrities, the ranks of them all include aviophobics.  It's unfortunate that flying for my friend is among his greatest pleasures, while for his wife it's her greatest fear.

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