“Most people are so busy trying to consciously control their fears that they don’t even know they’ve already started to set up unconscious controls” with SOAR, Bunn says. “Sometimes it takes them two or three fear-free flights to believe that it’s working.”
The trick to this whole approach of fighting flight anxieties, he says, is finding ways to shut down the amygdala, the part of the brain that stores fear memories and responses. The best way, he says, is to encourage your body to produce the hormone oxytocin, which banishes fearful thoughts. Women produce this chemical particularly well by thinking of nursing a child, men by contemplating sex. Not that I should act on such thoughts aboard a plane, he adds.
“This isn’t about you telling someone, ‘I’m having a panic attack. Let’s sneak into the bathroom together,’ ” Bunn says with a laugh.
If this scenario seems likely to be more frustrating than it’s worth, imagining your beloved pet dog gazing into your eyes works about as well. “Your dog looking at you like you’re the only person in the world also produces oxytocin” in you, he says. “And, unlike with people, you can always depend on your dog to look at you like this.”
As I sample other courses, I also learn that no two people’s flying phobias are alike. “Fear of flying is rarely just about being up in the air,” says Stacey Chance, a veteran American Airlines pilot who created the free online program Fear of Flying Help Course. “It’s typically some combination of claustrophobia, fear of strange noises, turbulence, the feeling of not being in control.”
I take some comfort in not being too freaked out by takeoff, which he says often scares people more than landing. “Something about the plane tilting back makes people think it could just keep on going backwards and flip over,” Chance says. “Even my wife thinks that.”
Acknowledging that flipping backward is aeronautically impossible, and doing some deep-breathing exercises, goes far in helping assuage this worry, Chance says.
What’s more, just knowing that you’re not alone in your worries can be curiously helpful. “A lot of people around you on the plane are really nervous, too,” he says. “They’re just hiding it in their own ways.”
Still, cracking open a laptop during a flight to review a video on coping with jitters might do more to unsettle those seated near you. Luckily, there’s more discreet help in the form of the Flight App VALK, available for iPhone, iPad and Android users. For about the price of a venti-size latte at Starbucks, you get a kind of electronic Cliffs Notes to calming yourself down. Accessible in airplane mode, natch. With a flick of my finger, I can review what to expect before and during flight and hear tips on how to relax. “Turbulence,” I’m counseled to repeat to myself when experiencing it, “is a matter of comfort and not a safety issue.” A panic button summons a virtual shrink to help in moments of acute alarm, though the narrator’s faintly British accent reminds me disquietingly of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.