I am a 43-year-old expat living in Ho Chi Minh City. I am wondering if you can help me with a problem that I started to have about two years ago and which is now affecting my life in a big way. I have travelled a lot in my life and never had any problem with flying from place to place. But for some reason now I am becoming afraid to fly. I am leaving Vietnam and moving to another posting with my partner. I am disappointed to leave to start again in a place I don’t feel good about. I have begun to dread getting on that plane. All I can think about is that I need to get out of the plane and I won’t be able to… for 10 hours.
My anxiety goes up, even when I think those thoughts. I am afraid that I cannot fly, but I know it is a problem in my head because I have flown so many times before. Can you help me?
— Afraid to Fly
Dear Afraid to Fly,
I will answer the letter to share my thoughts with others who might also find flying or some other activity creating fear for them. I think that therapy can help you to understand how to regulate your feelings, confront your fear and to understand what might be going on for you that results in this intense fear that you have not had in the past.
The first thing is to understand the relationship between thoughts and feelings. When we feel emotions with low levels of intensity (almost everyone is a little anxious when they get on an airplane), our thoughts and feelings stay separate. We can use reason to regulate the fear by understanding that the risks are minimal. When the intensity of our anxiety increases we start to produce ‘anxious thoughts’. These are thoughts that are fueled by emotion and change the way we see things, and these thoughts and feelings feed off of one another which only intensify the feeling. Our perspective becomes narrower and narrower… like you’re saying “all I can think about is that I need to get out of the plane and won’t be able to for 10 hours.”
It becomes an obsessive thought that keeps producing the emotion, anxiety, which in turn leads to repeating the same thought at a higher pitch. Your fear is likely less to do with the plane and getting off — why would you need to? — and more likely feeling like you are afraid that you will have an anxiety attack, where this pattern repeats on the plane when you don’t know how to prevent or stop it.
Anxiety is considered a fear without a source. It is unlike phobias, which are fears of specific things… spiders, heights and so on. Anxiety creates an experience that becomes the fear of experiencing the fear. Anyone who has ever had an anxiety attack or panic attack knows it is a painful experience, not one that they would want to repeat. It is the fear of having that experience that produces more anxiety.
Beneath it is an important aspect of life that we all deal with but rarely understand — control, or the influence of will. Many people come to believe that they can influence life more than they really can. Often those people are high achievers who learn mastery of some kind. With effort, applying themselves in concentrated ways they feel in ‘control’ of themselves and the circumstances around them. They believe and rely on their ability to stay in control. When they feel ‘out of control’, the result is anxiety which increases the effort to regain the sense of control they lost. Inevitably, they will come to a point where circumstances are beyond the limits of their control and they will not be able to restore that control through the usual channels — effort, will, mastery. So anxiety increases, producing the cycle I wrote about above.
We all have the capacity to understand that we can gain control of our emotional intensity by letting go of our “need for control”. Letting go, or acceptance, is counter-intuitive for those who rely on the use of their will. It, too, produces a fear. What will happen if I am not in control? There is a time in life when we can no longer live with the myth that we can or need to be in control. When we face the fear that is produced and with the help of tools, support and an important ingredient, courage, we can overcome it and find a freer and less limited existence.
Talk to a psychotherapist who can help you work through this. I wish you relaxed flights for all your days. — Douglas