I used to be freaked out on planes. My aerophobia wasn’t bad enough to take trains everywhere, but it was bad. I had to force myself to board flights, and the days leading up to any trip were spent worrying about the next airline lawsuit instead of planning vacation activities.
My pre-flight ritual was to have a few stiff drinks to “chill me out,” try to convince myself that air travel is statistically very safe, and practice positive self-talk like “you can’t be a fucking weakling, can you ?”
Once the plane took off, I spent the entire flight grabbing the hand rests, looking straight ahead, and making sure the plane didn’t fall out of the sky. “Fear of flying” isn’t exactly the right description of what I had. It was “the fear of crashing”.
I knew intellectually and logically how airplanes worked, but a primal force caught up with me as soon as the wheels left the runway. A vehicle made of thousands of pounds of steel simply shouldn’t be able to fly. It’s not natural.
I had resigned myself to a lifetime of aerial terror, but then, on a whim, I downloaded Microsoft flight simulator. It wasn’t a conscious decision to face my fear; it just seemed like a cool game.
During my first virtual takeoff, I felt a startling echo of my real phobia – that familiar drop in my stomach when the plane took off. But it didn’t last too long. Soon I was flying planes around the world, taking off into storms, making sketchy landings on tiny runways and buzzing near national monuments.
I didn’t realize it, but what I was doing felt like some kind of homemade exposure therapy, and it also helped ease my fear of actually flying.
How Exposure Therapy Cures Phobias
If you have a phobia — an uncontrollable, irrational, and long-lasting fear of a certain object, situation, or activity — you’re actually lucky. Almost all phobias are treatable and can be cured, and the gold standard treatment is exposure therapy.
Simply put, the idea is to expose yourself to the thing you fear until it no longer bothers you. If you can stay calm in the presence of spiders, flying planes, and high places long enough, you relax about them.
This is usually done in a series of steps. First you research the thing you’re afraid of – if it’s spiders, you read books about spiders. When you’re okay with that, you can move on to looking at pictures or videos of spiders. From there, you could watch a tarantula in a cage. Finally, when you feel up to it, you put the spider in your hand, and you are now in control of your fear.
The trick, however, is not to panic during the previous steps. Our instinct is to run away from something we are afraid of, but running away actually reinforces our fear. That is why, if you are afraid of cotton, you should not appear on The Maury Show and being chased by a man in a cotton ball suit. Hilarious, but that doesn’t help.
Back on the plane
After my exposure therapy at home, I was okay with flying a fake plane, but when it came time for my next real flight, I still spent the days leading up to it in a state familiar fear. Once we were airborne, something was different. I was a little nervous, but only a little. Previously inexplicable mechanical noises now make sense, thanks to my gaming experience Flight simulator—tthat squealing noise is the landing gear retracting, not the start of a mechanical failure! Turbulence is common; it happens all the time in Flight simulator by the haptic growl of the flight stick.
Flight simulator is designed to be as realistic as possible. I’ve flown virtual planes in the worst weather imaginable and flew in completely ridiculous ways, and only crashed if I deliberately pointed my plane at the ground, and there’s tons of horns and indicators along the way. All those hours of video game “experience” just melted away my fear of crashing.
Now I to like flying. I like to have a few hours to read a book or something, and I never thought about a fatal plane crash.
Should you seek professional help for a phobia?
Although I am anecdotal evidence that it is possible to self-treat some phobias, you will almost certainly get better results if you do so with the help of a mental health professional, especially if your fear is severe. or debilitating. Research shows that even a single session with a therapyThis can have dramatic effects, and self-directed approaches are much less effective. Unlike Maury Povich, a trained therapist will guide you through the stages of exposure in a logical way, provide reassuring presences, and give you mental tactics to deal with the anxiety you will initially feel. This is usually done through mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
Technology against phobias and anxiety
There are plenty of apps you can download that claim to treat mental illnesses, from post-traumatic stress disorder to phobias and panic attacks, and while they probably don’t all work, the general idea of using computers as part of a treatment for specific phobias has a growing body of evidence to suggest it is effective. VRET (Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy) has been shown to help people with specific phobias. This VR experience for people afraid of sizes, for example, seems to work well even without a flesh-and-blood therapist. Augmented reality apps for spider exposure show promise and are available now if you want to check them out.
When it comes to aanxiety disorders, such as PTSD, are a little trickier. Early studies are promisingbut further research is needed.