I love to travel. But I hate to fly.
My overactive imagination doesn’t help with my fear of flying. All I have to do is shut my eyes, and the Parade of Horror commences: wings snapping off like brittle twigs, engines exploding or dropping off, freak high-altitude tornadoes swirling — you name it, I’ve dreamed it up.
And I’m not alone. More than 26 million Americans suffer from some form of flight anxiety, says Lucas van Gerwen, aviation psychologist and director of the VALK Foundation, which studies how to treat flying fears.
I’ve tried getting sloshed to blunt my anxiety. But this has just left me dehydrated and more panicky than ever about my ability to operate the emergency door “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”
I’ve tried pills. A Xanax I popped right before a trip to Los Angeles once led to a full-blown panic attack in mid-flight. I ended up watching a Jim Carrey flick with an oxygen mask strapped to my face, a nearby fellow passenger stage-whispering to a flight attendant, “Excuse me, ma’am, is that man going to die?”
Rare embarrassment aside, I typically plaster on a fake smile and endure. Yet a recent bumpier-than-usual flight left me sweat-soaked and wondering whether I should finally seek to cure — or at least curb — my fear of flying.
A survey of friends reveals various methods of coping. The most popular involve boozing. One, a kind of inoculation-by-flight.
Two decades ago, after a bad snowstorm forced the pilot of his flight to Salt Lake City to abort a landing at the last second, my high school friend Conte Cicala and “grim-faced” fellow passengers spent 45 very bumpy minutes on a circling plane until it was safe enough to land. On every flight over the next decade or so, “every bump stressed me out,” he says.
Yet Cicala, an attorney in San Francisco who flies upwards of 50,000 miles per year, says that he slowly got used to turbulence. “I guess my brain eventually learned that these bumps may be unpleasant but don’t mean that we’ll crash,” he says.
Considering the persistence of my flight fears — and my track record with self-treatment — I decide to search for outside help.
An Internet search reveals a cottage industry dedicated to combating everything from flight jitters to full-blown aviophobia. Books, videos, online courses, smartphone apps, even clinics that use virtual reality and flight simulators as treatment. Since travel to a clinic would probably involve, um, air travel, I decide to explore the other options.
Like most of the online courses that I check out, SOAR involves a combination of practical education and behavioral therapy. Over a few hours — and a dozen or so video lessons — program founder Tom Bunn, a retired pilot and licensed therapist, demonstrates how and why planes do the things they do and helps equip me with a mental tool kit for challenging fearful thoughts and replacing them with happier ones.
No quick fix, this is a process in which you work to replace every specific fear of flying by conjuring memories of “emphatic connectedness” — basically, moments when you were most happy with another person or persons. After a few days of working at this, I’m unsure whether it’s working. Bunn assures me later by phone that this is normal.