Features

May 29, 2013

Help for fearful flyers: A chicken's guide to wingin' it

(Continued)

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.

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