Hello, everyone! I’m here in beautiful, sunny Florida, and I’d like to talk about my recent change of scenery. In particular, there was a certain anxiety I had to overcome in order to make it here. Until last week, I had never been on an airplane that was actually in the air. The prospect of flying was not panic-inducing, but it was still so intimidating to me that I considered it practically unthinkable. So, with my girlfriend’s help, we worked out what I needed to do and developed some strategies to make this completely thinkable.
The first step was examining and understanding the exact nature of the fear. In my case, this was not limited to the potential hazards of the flight itself, and also extended to other aspects of travel. Before now, I hadn’t usually traveled a great distance from home on my own, and I had some concerns about potentially being stranded in a far-away place. Obviously it makes no sense to be afraid of missing the plane as well as getting on the plane, but this was an irrational fear, after all. I was also worried about any possible difficulties with the TSA after hearing all of the complaints about their conduct.
Most of these factors were completely out of my control and dependent upon the weather, the plane being on time, and the whims of the TSA, so the best I could do was prepare myself for any contingencies. I made sure to get to the airport early, follow all the directions, and ask questions if I wasn’t sure about anything. That’s pretty much the most that can be done about this. Instead of mentally regarding the process as a single, imposing, monolithic event, I focused on breaking it down and taking it one step at a time until it was done. I just reminded myself that millions of people manage to navigate this system successfully every day, so it can’t be that hard. And it wasn’t – everything went smoothly. All you have to do is pay attention and listen to everything they say.
As for the more central fear of something happening to the aircraft with potentially fatal consequences, I simply had to reason my way through this and do some cognitive restructuring. One of the things that helped me the most was just making the decision that I was going to do this, and accepting it as a foregone conclusion. One way or another, I was getting on that plane, and whatever happened in the meantime was up to me. I could either make this into a struggle, or I could make it easy on myself.
I made myself understand that the integrity of the plane was not dependent upon my personal anxieties. Whether I was tense or indifferent would have no effect on the ultimate outcome, so worrying about it was actually unnecessary and pointless. Given the choice between getting there while being stressed throughout the flight, and getting there without being stressed, the answer was obvious. This anxiety was only causing me trouble, and so the best choice was to stop worrying.
I also asked myself why I should worry about my particular plane being involved in an accident any more than all the other planes in the air that day. On the one hand, this was obviously the only plane with me on it, but on the other hand, I was forced to realize that I am not special. We all tend to perceive ourselves as the center of the universe – from our perspective, that’s where our self-awareness and subjective experience is always located. Our own direct perception of the world is the only firsthand viewpoint available to us. This makes it easy to think that you’re somehow exceptional, and therefore more prone to exceptional events. Clearly, this is not the case.
If there’s no reason to think any other planes are in danger, then all else being equal, there’s no reason to think that this one is. If anything, it takes a tremendous ego to believe that you’re special enough to be so unlucky. I am not unique, and nothing is going to make the universe conspire against me specifically. Whatever happens to the plane is going to happen whether I’m on it or someone else is. Truly understanding that I was not at any greater risk was a very reassuring thought.
As for what I could expect during the flight, I talked to various people who had flown before, and had sometimes experienced bird strikes or severe turbulence, even to the point that the oxygen masks were deployed. I made a point of recognizing that all of them survived. Once I got on the plane, I paid attention to the people around me, and noticed that none of them seemed to be worried about what was going on. If they were alarmed, I would have considered that cause for concern, but they weren’t, and so I wasn’t either. It is a little bumpy, but no more so than driving on an uneven road. I also acknowledged that their own expectations that the plane would land safely were statistically far more valid than any expectation of disaster. They were much more likely to be right, and so that was the more accurate belief for me to hold.
It also helped for me to try and conceptualize the aircraft as just being another area of space, even if it is a great distance above the earth. For most of the flight, you can barely tell where you are, so it’s easy to imagine that you could be almost anywhere. Even now that I’m in Florida, it doesn’t feel any different from home. Florida and home are just areas of space, none of them being intrinsically special.
Finally, I did my best to forget all my preconceptions and pretend that I was a person for whom flying was completely normal and routine. I just acted like I knew what I was doing, and tried to approach the experience from a standpoint of detached curiosity. This actually worked for me, and I hardly felt a moment of apprehension throughout the entire process. I expected that I would be somewhat on-edge throughout the flight, but within minutes after takeoff, it became intensely boring. And by the time we landed, I was someone for whom this is normal and routine.
I realize that for some people, their fear of flying may be much more severe than mine was, and these techniques might not work for everyone. But I do hope that this can help people examine their fears in a new light, and deconstruct some of the underlying causes. All it takes is a little self-awareness, a lot of self-control, and the conscious application of rationality. This is not insurmountable – and once you’re in the air, it’s actually really cool. Happy travels!