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No Plane, No Gain?

An anxiety-ridden aerophobe seeks help in hypnosis


Published February 9, 2011 at 7:35 a.m.


I’ve heard the statistics: More people die in car accidents every six months in the U.S. than have died on commercial planes over the past 20 years worldwide. It’s only logical, given that only about 21,000 people have plunged to their deaths in two decades, that I should want to hop on a plane — or maybe three — to visit sights unseen. Plus, there aren’t too many other ways to get there.

But, like roughly 20 percent of Americans, I’m an aerophobe — seized by an irrational fear of flying. I’m the passenger seated next to the window, listening for irregular engine sounds, while the rest of you are nodding off, mouths agape. That’s me, obsessively checking the route map, altitude and outside temperature when everyone else is happily watching the movie.

Nothing sufficiently horrible has ever happened to me on an aircraft to justify the terror I feel boarding one. I spent two years in Africa, where I caught planes so small I had to ride in the copilot seat. There was a dicey flight from Istanbul to Rome that landed — unexpectedly — in Albania. I’ve been on three planes that touched down and immediately took off again: two because of severe weather; one because of another plane on the runway. But no near misses or traumas resulting from deployed slides, life vests or oxygen masks. Ditto for the other six people with whom I underwent group hypnotherapy in a recent “Fear of Flying” class.

That’s because fact and fantasy are indistinguishable to the nervous flier, and to the subconscious mind, according to Samuel Lurie, the anxiety specialist who led the three-hour session at Burlington International Airport.

It turned out we weren’t all scared of the same thing. For Tom, a young man with a nose ring and a wannabe sense of adventure, it was “being enclosed in the plane.” For Laurie, a young mom with a 5-year-old son, it was the security lines — “making sure I have everything,” including her little boy.

Four middle-aged women provided more details: “I’m afraid of being up there in the plane, in the air, and I’ve lost control. I can’t stop it, and we’re going to drop,” said Donna, who resorts to prayer when she flies. “I have a fear of heights that adds to that fear of falling.”

Deborah, who hasn’t flown in decades, worries about a potential panic attack “when the doors close” and the embarrassment that would ensue.

Jeannette has a problem with sticking to a flight itinerary. Mid-trip, she freaks out and can’t bring herself to get on the connecting flight.

Anne worries about surviving a crash, like the one on the Hudson River.

Me? I’ve heard all the safety arguments, studied the laws of physics and sampled most of the drugs. But I can’t shake the notion that my anxiety — and its trusty seatmate, white-knuckled vigilance — is somehow responsible for holding up the plane.

Bottom line: All of us, flyers and nonflyers, share a disabling anxiety that leads to a feeling of “loss,” as Donna put it, resulting from diminished travel opportunities. And we wanted it to be otherwise. So each of us paid $75, plus airport parking, to spend a Saturday morning facing our fears in a conference room with a view of the restaurant and the runway.

Lurie explained right off that hypnotherapy is not what you see at the Champlain Valley Fair. It’s not some “stage show where you might bark like a dog or sing like Michael Jackson — and not remember any of it. I don’t do that kind of stuff.”

What he does is replace negative associations and habits forged in the subconscious — “I always get nervous when I fly”; “I can’t write unless I’m smoking”; “Food is my friend” — with positive ones. Rewiring the brain, in short, by the power of suggestion.

For this, Dr. Freud might have prescribed a lifetime of analysis. Lurie promised a quicker fix. He talked us through a guided visualization where each of us imagined a “wonderful, comfortable place” in our mind’s eye. I don’t usually go for that kind of stuff, but Lurie’s deep voice was soothing enough to tempt a skeptic.

Then he offered us a physical prop: smooth, flat stones from Shelburne Bay, some of which had been tagged with encouraging words such as “loved,” “safe” and “adventurous.” I picked one with the word “bold.” During the next visualization, Lurie instructed us to squeeze the rock while imagining the “wonderful, comfortable place” we’d conjured earlier for ourselves.

The session was a combination of sharing anxieties, intro-to-hypno exercises, practical tips — e.g., avoid caffeine while flying — and info about how planes work. Although he has no expertise in aviation per se, Lurie shared some findings from web research and a conversation with a pilot friend.

“Planes are designed to withstand a hundred times what they go through,” he reassured us. “A plane doesn’t drop because it’s meant to fly. It’s awkward for a plane to be on the ground. That’s not where it belongs.”

The theory is that these simple, child-like explanations address the same part of the brain that generates the irrational fear. Actual science can leave the worried wanting. On one of the best flights of my life — from D.C. to Burlington — I sat beside a pilot who spent the duration of the trip explaining every sound and bump. But that lesson in aerodynamics — sketched on a cocktail napkin — didn’t calm me on a recent turbulent fight to Europe.

Lurie crafted the script for the last guided visualization, which he had prerecorded on a disc for each of us, culling information from surveys we’d filled out before the workshop. The narrative covered the thoughts and movements of a traveler from home to the airport, and up, up and away. In it, Lurie addressed many of our specific anxieties with assurances such as “Waiting in line you feel patient; this is part of your journey” and “It’s a wonderful relief to be in the air, where the plane is happiest.” The stone was in the story, too — squeezing it on the trip was meant to provoke our previous positive visualization.

Sound crazy? No crazier than Proust’s accidental triggering of childhood memories with a tea-dipped cookie.

Lurie discovered he had a gift for coaching aerophobes on a small plane flying from Burlington to Boston in 2005. A fellow passenger was panicking, and there were no flight attendants on board. Lurie changed seats with another passenger so he could help the woman get through the flight: breathing, talking, visualizing. “After we landed,” Lurie said, “some of the other passengers came up to me and said, ‘You were really good at that.’”

The experience worked for him, too. “This remarkable calm came over me,” Lurie said, acknowledging his own struggles with anxiety. “We often can give to someone else what we can’t accept for ourselves.” Formal study in hypnotherapy was the logical next step. Lurie specializes in helping people ease that feeling of panic, whether it originates in work, a relationship, bad habits, illness or preparations for surgery.

Like meditation, though, calming oneself takes practice, and this group session was just a taste of what Lurie does one on one in his Burlington-based practice, Transform & Grow Hypnosis. Nonetheless, by the end of the morning long “crash course,” everyone reported feeling less worried about flying. Deborah and Jeannette made appointments to do individual work with Lurie.

Donna spoke for all of us when she observed, “I’m really surprised the tentacles this has in the rest of my life.”

I took Lurie’s compact disc home and listened to it, twice, in the course of writing this story. But whatever DIY calm I got from the sermon disappeared when two planes within two days had to make emergency landings at BTV. One landing involved a wing-flap problem. The other had to do with an open door and steering. For whatever reason, headlines such as “Flight Makes Emergency Landing” make a bigger impression on my subconscious than do visions of myself bathed in sunlight.

Another thing came up, too: an opportunity to spend five days in a warmer clime, with almost all expenses paid. I came up with lots of good reasons why I shouldn’t go — too much work, good snow here, five days is not enough — but the real reason for my hesitation was the air travel required. I didn’t want to have to fly all day, on three planes, to get there.

Lurie’s workshop helped me realize that determination will only take me so far.

I did book the trip eventually, and paid top dollar because I waited so long. Will I be listening to Lurie’s soothing track in preparation? Indeed, and on the plane, if they let me. I don’t know if I can live up to the word inscribed on my rock, though, without faking it a little. It helps that the comfortable place I’ll be imagining in my mind’s eye looks a lot like where I’m going.

Speaking of Mental Health, aviation



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