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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 2, 2001

Counselors seek to address heightened fear of flying

• Where to get help

Advertiser News Services

Photo illustration by Jon Orque • The Honolulu Advertiser
If you were a jumpy flier before Sept. 11, it's worse now. On a plane, you are immobilized with fear. Your breathing is shallow and fast. Your hands are clammy. And this is before the plane even takes off.

Some of us have handled Fear No. 1 — the plane may become a flying missile — by convincing ourselves that it won't happen again, not that way, at least.

But now there is the scary prospect of some pilots who have promised they will turn their airplanes into wild amusement park rides at the hint of trouble in the cabin or the cockpit.

Add to that the pronouncement that our own military will shoot down a commercial jetliner if a repeat of Sept. 11 seems imminent.

So, if you are the type of passenger who, pre-September, was startled when the engine groaned, the plane banked left and the wheels dropped, you're in for some added stress.

Professionals who run programs to address the fears of fliers said these new challenges will make some people even more unwilling to fly.

"I thought I'd have gotten a few more calls," said Bill Watts, who specializes in phobias and used to run a therapy group on fear of flying at O'ahu's Queen's Counseling and Clinical Services. "Now, people (who are afraid of flying) aren't interested in flying at all, so looking for treatment isn't in their plans at all."

The idea that a pilot may have to do something dramatic to foil a hijacker will be added to the list of reasons reluctant passengers believe flying is unsafe, said Curt Buermeyer, a psychology associate with Behavior Therapy Inc., which specializes in treating anxiety, depression and phobias.

Before Sept. 11, Watts said, treatment would have dealt with the internal, nebulous phobias. Since then, however, the focus has changed from internal fears to coping with those related to controlling the external.

What's a way of doing that in this case?

"Creative vigilantism," Watts replied.

"That's what people need to know: They're not totally helpless. Anxiety comes from people being painted into a corner, and (feeling they) can't do anything except get paint on their feet. Knowing what to do gives them more control."

Jerilyn Ross, a clinical social worker who runs the Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders in Washington, D.C., said the events of the past few weeks have allowed white-knuckle passengers to avoid flying. "People now feel it's socially acceptable not to fly," said Ross. "It's given people permission to be fearful."

Therapists said their caseloads have not increased dramatically in recent weeks because many people have not yet gotten over their shock and confronted their fear.

Carol Gross, director of Fly Without Fear, a support group that has been meeting weekly at New York's La Guardia Airport since 1969, said no one has called to join the group during what normally is a prime time of the year for adding new members.

But experts said they expect people eventually will seek help, especially if they want to fly to big family events, such as Thanksgiving.

There are several programs that address fear of flying (although calls to several major Hawai'i hospitals did not turn up any here), and many therapists who treat the problem as an anxiety disorder. They use a variety of approaches, such as having a patient repeatedly watch a video that simulates flying in an airplane or a combination of relaxation therapies and medication. All of the treatments strive to desensitize patients to their fear or phobia.

The Institute for Psychology of Air Travel in Boston has a home-study course to achieve a state of fearless flying. The director of the institute, psychologist Al Forgione, said one in 10 people will never get on a plane and 38 percent of those who are afraid to fly specifically fear a crash.

Saylor said it helps fearful fliers to have as much information as possible. If they understand why severe maneuvers might be necessary, they may be reassured.

The chances of perishing in a plane are incredibly slim. Reid Wilson, a psychologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, counsels his patients that if they were to fly every day of their lives, it would take 26,000 years before "their number came up." That is, the chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million. By comparison, the odds of dying from a bee sting are 1 in 5 million.

Other advice for fearful fliers:

  • Appraise the data — from media, friends, colleagues and government sources — and determine if the risk of harm is low enough that you're willing to accept it, says Wilson. "Then you really have to steel yourself in that decision because as you approach that flight ... you're going to be more apprehensive, and that's not bad. ... You have to make a conscious decision and expect the anxiety and distress."
  • Develop and maintain a pattern of relaxation. "If you want to worry about something, pick a time and worry about it," says Forgione. "Don't let worry corrupt your whole day. ... You can gain control over your worries by picking a specified time and giving it 100 percent of your efforts. And then get on with your life."

• • •

Where to get help

  • Anxiety Treatment Program of Columbia, (410) 997-1183
  • Behavior Therapy Inc., (301) 571-7300
  • Center for Travel Anxiety, (301) 469-8542, www.fearofflyingdc.com
  • Institute for Psychology of Air Travel home-study course, (617) 437-1811, www.fearlessflying.net
  • Northwest Airlines' "Wings" home video, (888) 577-4455, www.fearlessflying.com
  • Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders Inc., (202) 363-1010
  • Roundhouse Square Counseling Center, (703) 836-7130
  • Fear of Flying Help Course, www.fearofflyinghelp.com