Going home for Christmas is a dream come true for most holiday travelers.
But for some people, it can feel more like a nightmare.
For the first time in three years, I will be joining my family for the holiday and but that’s not what has my tummy rolling.
It’s how I’m getting there.
I’m flying, at 6 a.m. next Wednesday out of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Bentonville. It’s a quick flight on a medium-size jet and a straight shot, less than two hours total.
I have no real reason to be scared, except for the fact that human beings were not meant to move at 400 miles per hour at a height of 35,000 feet in a tube made of aluminum. Small detail, really.
No, I’m more afraid of being afraid. It’s called a panic disorder, and it’s making this trip very problematic. I have a negative association with flying that comes from a fear of being out of control. It’s a phobia I’ve had for years, and it has kept me from traveling in the past.
So given this debilitating fear, why should I go home at all? Why not just stay safe on the ground in Arkansas?
Because she’s already 3 months old and growing fast.
I’m a new auntie, and I’ll be meeting that precious 13-pound bundle of love on Christmas Eve. And the only way to get her in my arms is to get on a plane that morning.
Anxiety or no, I am going home. Margot, I’ll see you soon.
Fear of Flying
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 30 percent of all adults are classified as fearful fliers, and one in every six are scared enough to suffer panic attacks before or during flight.
About 6.5 percent, or 20 million people in the United States, suffer from acute aviophobia, preventing them from flying at all, according to the institute.
“I’d say about 99.9 percent of all fliers feel a little nervous initially when up there,” said Tori Ballweg, pilot and flight instructor with Summit Aviation in Bentonville. “Flying isn’t natural, and your body is experiencing something it hasn’t necessarily felt before, so you feel scared.”
It’s a fear that can lead to terrifying symptoms.
According to commercial airline pilot Tom Bunn, the fear of flying can manifest in physical reactions such as sweating, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing and nausea. The sensations can become overwhelming, turning into a panic attack.
A fear of flying is generally a manifestation of other fears, Bunn said, including fear of closed-in spaces, fear of heights and fear of being out of control. Although a traumatic flight experience could be a precipitating factor in developing this fear, the fear of flying tends to be more of a symptom than a phobia itself, he said.
According to Bunn, simply the thought of air travel can cause unnecessary stress weeks before a flight for some.
“With something that is completely new, you’re going to feel nervous,” Ballweg said. “But some people really don’t handle that fear well.”
Developing A Fear
Fayetteville clinical psychologist Margaret Rutherford has been treating patients in Northwest Arkansas for 21 years and said she has seen the impact that anxieties and fears associated with flying can have on travelers.
“Some people are just genetically predisposed to anxiety, and it takes the form of a phobia,” she said. “Or they’ve had an experience that triggers it, or they hear about a plane crash. The development of the fear can be multifaceted and keep people from flying.”
It’s a fear that Rutherford understands well.
Suffering from a long-standing fear of heights, the psychologist sympathizes with her patients and understands there is a stigma that can go along with what many see as an irrational fear.
“There’s the basic stigma associated with a fear of flying and of mental issues anyway,” she said. “Some people may not talk about it because they have a sense that this anxiety is somehow silly. They may not seek help because they are embarrassed.”
Research suggests that the fear is pretty common.
A 1999 Newsweek Magazine poll found that around 50 percent of the adults surveyed were frightened sometimes when flying commercial airlines and up to 30 percent have an alcoholic beverage or take an anti-anxiety medication to relieve anxiety symptoms.
Celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Travis Barker and John Madden refuse to fly, and Kim Jong-il was reportedly terrified as well. Ronald Reagan was famously white-knuckled through each flight of his presidency, and both Doris Day and Stanley Kubrick preferred to take a bus.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more people have anxieties associated with flying than are reported,” Rutherford said.
Ballweg goes over the plane with a close eye and skilled hand before every flight. She spoke as she examined the plane, a Cessna 172 she calls “Charlie.”
“I check the plane every time,” she said. “You never know if there is something going on that someone before you hasn’t checked or noticed or maybe didn’t want to admit.”
A recent graduate of the University of Dubuque in Iowa, the 25-year-old took a discovery flight in high school and has been interested in aviation ever since. She holds a bachelor of science degree in flight operations and environmental science and is classified as a certified flight instructor, certified flight instructor with instruments and multi-engine flight instructor.
In short, she’s not new to flying. Ballweg is more comfortable in the air than anywhere else, she said, but she’s seen many who don’t feel as safe.
“I’ve had people come up here and just freak out,” she said. “They want to go down immediately and never get over it. But if someone just breathes and looks out at the world, they’ll see how cool it really is.”
Hopping on a plane in order to experience and relive the anxieties associated with flight is called exposure therapy, a therapy which exposes a patient to a feared object or experience in order to overcome the anxiety, said Rutherford.
“Exposure therapy is tried and true,” she said. “You can experience exposure therapy by going to the airport, getting to know a TSA officer, talking to other fliers about their experiences. The more you can learn, the more rational information you can have at hand to defend against the irrationality of the fear is what you want to do — replace the fear.”
Exposure therapy can be used in conjunction with other therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis and relaxation techniques, she said.
“I tell people who are new to flying to just keep breathing,” Ballweg said. “And most people get up here and really start to love it.”
Preparing for Takeoff
Just as a fear of flying is common, so are resources aimed at alleviating this anxiety.
A simple Internet search will return numerous self-help sites and forums set up for nervous fliers. Online programs, such as Bunn’s SOAR fear of flying course, provide webinars, research, blogs and phone apps and can cost up to $500.
Some airlines offer multi-week courses that culminate with a “graduation” flight. According to its website, British Airways boasts a 98 percent success rate with its Flying with Confidence course, which offers support from a clinical psychologist and pilots for a fee between $300 and $3,000.
Local airports, like XNA in Bentonville, offer airport tours, aimed at demystifying security, boarding and flying and can be a great resource for those new to this form of travel.
Summit Aviation in Bentonville and Springdale offers discovery flights and flying lessons, which put nervous fliers in control of a plane and hopefully their fear. A 30-minute flight with Summit Aviation runs around $100.
The severe fear of flying can be an expensive phobia to overcome, but it’s almost always doable.
“A fear of flying can be hard to overcome because there is limited access to it,” Rutherford said. “But through a combination of some kind of exposure practice, relaxation — deep breathing, meditation, hypnosis — and some exploration of the trigger, the irrational fear can be overcome.”
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