When experiences have caused a person to be insecure, uncertainty is hard to accept. Uncertainties in day-to-day living provoke anxiety. And, then comes big anxiety, anxiety about an upcoming flight.
For some, anxiety leads to checking and rechecking the weather. Why? From what I hear, it has to do with turbulence. If the flight is smooth, a person with fear of flying has a better chance of staying distracted.
Usually, weather checking doesn’t work out very well. People don’t find the reassurance they are looking for. Continued checking only increases the anxiety. I ask clients why they check the weather. After all, isn’t their strategy to keep anxiety-producing awareness out of mind? They say, “I want to know what to expect.” Apparently, if the flight can’t be kept out of mind, the next step is to brace themselves.
I’ve heard this so many times that I think some comments are in order. First, expectation is taking things a little too far. What I mean is this: when coming up with a strategy to deal with an uncertain situation, it is indeed useful to consider the various ways things could work out. That helps us figure out how we will deal with the various possibilities. If that consideration leads to commitment, the problem is solved. Commitment, if it is solid – if it is a “done deal” – gets rid of the anxiety.
But anxious fliers don’t seem to do that. When they start trying to figure out what they need to brace themselves for, apparently they want to be prepared for the worst case. This leads to trouble. Why? Because, instead of trying to come up with the most likely scenario for their flight, they come up with the worst possible scenario.
If there is a chance of thunderstorms, when I talk with clients about it, they say, “There are going to be thunderstorms. And that means there is going to be turbulence.” If turbulence is merely a possibility to them, it becomes a highly significant possibility. Driven by anxiety, the possibility of turbulence becomes probability of turbulence. And as anxiety continues – and feelings are allowed to become reality – this erroneous probability becomes near certainty. The person “just knows.” that their flight is going to be awful, and they say, “I just don’t know if I can handle that.” “Just knowing” is the number one problem with flight anxiety. It happens when a person allows what is imagined to become, without examination or critique, their reality.
Usually, when I give them a critique of their thinking that they didn’t provide on their own, they feel better. I point out that the forecast says there is a 30% chance of thunderstorms at the time of their arrival, which means that at any point on the ground, there is only a 30% chance that the ground will get wet. And, when the chance of that is so low, it means the sky is filled with more empty space than it is thunderstorms, which means the pilots can easily find their way around them.
That seems to help. But it doesn’t explain why the anxious flier couldn’t figure that out in the first place. I think it is because, when there is a need to brace, the anxious flier needs to be ready for the worst. The problem is, contemplating an unrealistic possibility can keep a person from taking the flight. and, if they do take, it means huge anticipatory anxiety. Then of course, their anxiety on the flight is but a fraction of what they anticipated. Pan Am captain Truman “Slim” Cummings, one of the first pilots to offer a fear of flying course, said anxious fliers tend to awfulize or to catastrophize. I found awfulize in the dictionary, but I didn’t’ find catastrophize. I was surprised to find either one of them; I thought Slim made them both up himself.
But why? My guess is that the need to brace for the worst comes from too many early situations that don’t look like catastrophies but really were. I’m thinking of catastrophies such as not being taken seriously, not being responded to, feeling alone inside because no one really understood how we felt, or cared to. Notice that these are all about relationship. When a kid breaks a bone, it heals. It isn’t a catastrophe. But when the relationship a kid has with its parents is fractured, it is a catastrophe; it is the end of the world as the child wanted it.
Some psychologists say that when we marry, it is to get the relationship we wanted as a child. Since we never gave up on finding what we needed, we try to find it as an adult. The psychologist who first said that was Ronald Fairbairn. I’ve spent some time reading his work lately. He says that children, unable to accept that their parents are not very good at the job, use fantasy to make their parents good. That helps children limp through childhood. But it also causes a limp during adulthood; since we made our bad parents into good parents, we had to explain why such bad things happened. It was because of us; We blame oursevles for the bad things that happened. When parents did bad things to us, it wasn’t because they were bad; it was because we were bad. That belief, that we were bad, can cause us to limp through adulthood. Unless, perhaps, we are lucky enough to find another person who can give us what we missed out on as a child.
But that gets pretty tricky. Because, when we missed out on the emotional security we needed as a child, we have trouble producing emotional security for the person we need to make us feel like everything worked out. Something that has helped me is understanding more about how emotions are regulated. As you know, the amygdala triggers a release of stress hormones each time it notices anything non-routine or unexpected. In our day-to-day living, stress hormones are being released almost constantly; there is usually something going on to rev us up. But the Social Engagement System can calm us down. Even though stress hormones are being released, if the Social Engagement System (SES) is getting good signals from our mate’s face, body language, and tone of voice, it applies a braking influence on the heart. Though stress hormones are trying to increase the heart rate, the SES slows the heart rate down. So, we come to depend on our mates, or others with us, to help us remain calm.
If we had enough good experiences built in as a kid, even when our mate does something other than present himself or herself in a way that provides calming, a history of experiences recorded in the mind would carry us over. But when these are in short supply, nothing carries us over, and we blow up. We tend to think our mate did something. But most likely, it was just that, for whatever reason, they focused their attention elsewhere for a few moments. We tend to feel abandoned. What our mate has done resonates with the uncertainty we had to live through as kids. We hoped it would be over when we grew up. But here it is, still with us. So, I’ve tried to learn that when I feel upset, it is probably not something my wife has done, but something she unknowingly stopped doing for a few moments. For a few moments, my SES didn’t get calming signals.
So, uncertainty is everywhere. Can we get used to it? Can we tolerate it? Based on this history that actually caused the insecurity, that is like asking us to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Maybe we can use the strengthening exercise. After all, if we had had enough good experiences as a kid, we would have a general feeling of security in the world and in our relationships with others. So if we didn’t have enough for it to spread itself around, we can take what we do have and apply it carefully to the moments that are challenging. The trick is to find the moment in which we get triggered, and once we find a trigger, link it to a moment in which our mate was giving us the signals we need.