How to overcome your fear of flying

It’s an opportunity most people take for granted: the ability to book a plane ticket, board a flight and enjoy a vacation without being plagued by a fear of flying.

Samson Frankel says he once drove three-thousand miles from New York to Florida to avoid flying.

“I remember looking up at a plane, watching it fly above and thinking to myself, 'There’s no way I can go up there into the clouds,'” Frankel said. “It’s just very all encompassing. You just do not want to take a step on an airplane under any circumstance.”

Frankel isn’t alone in experiencing these feelings.

Carey Reilly says she sent her kids on a flight to California with her sister while she stayed home. She missed out on the memories at Disneyland and many other family vacations.

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“I knew it was safe, but I just couldn’t get myself to embrace that knowledge so I let it paralyze myself for 20 years,” Reilly said.

Reilly says on another occasion, she was supposed to fly with her sisters to California to be on the TV show Family Feud. By the time she arrived at the airport, fear had overtaken her.

“I had a full blown panic attack,” Reilly said. “I absolutely freaked out. My sister came over and I’m screaming at her, ‘don’t touch me.’ I wouldn’t get on the plane so I ruined the trip for everybody.”

It’s a fear that isolates and limits not only the personal, but the business lives of those it affects.

As an event planner, Beth Shubert says she sometimes turned down work projects out-of-state.

“You dread the trip going,” Shubert said. “You get to your destination, and then you dread the return flight. You end up ruining your trip. Instead of opportunities or vacations being wonderful times, they end up being something you dread... It’s terrible.”

Frankel, Shubert and Reilly all now fly - thanks to “Captain Tom”, as they call him.

Captain Tom Bunn is a retired pilot and licensed therapist. In 1982, he established SOAR - a program aimed at helping everyone fly successfully. Since then, he has assisted thousands of people as they conquer their fear.

“He has literally changed my life,” Shubert said.

Frankel says his first flight in more than a decade was after taking Bunn’s course. He flew all the way to Israel for business meetings.

“It was amazing,” Frankel said. “It was a 12-hour flight and I was 6,000 miles away from New York, and that’s probably the furthest I’d gone in my entire life.”

So how did Frankel, Shubert and Reilly learn to fly again?

Bunn tells us there’s a series of steps he works on with his clients. He encourages them to first try to meet the pilot when boarding.

“Giving up control is a major issue, and if you can meet the person that has the control, it’s kind of like then you have a kinship with the person who does have the control,” Bunn said. “You find out they’re real – not just a voice.”

Next, Bunn encourages clients to practice an exercise to lower stress hormones once they build up.

“It’s an exercise I call ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1,’” Bunn said. “You will first find something to focus on more or less straight ahead and use that as your focus point.”

The captain says count five things you can see, hear and touch. Then, count to four things you can see, hear and touch - and so on down until you get to one.

“It takes about two minutes and by the time you do that – the stress hormones are pretty much gone, maybe totally gone,” Bunn said. “And the particular thing about stress hormones is that when they’re kicking around, it forces you to focus on something that’s problematic. So if you keep focusing on it, you increase stress hormones. But if you can get rid of the stress hormones by using the ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ – then your mind is free to focus where you want to.”

Bunn says there are two main parts to the problem: worries about physical and emotional safety.

“Both of the things need to be worked with, but if it’s simply a question of ‘is the plane safe?’ Then, you can get a lot of information on the Internet about that,” Bunn said.

He says as individuals with physical concerns learn more about how flying works, the more reassured and calm they will be.

For those dealing with emotional concerns, Bunn says he works with clients on determining what moment sets them off and figures out how to shut down the fear system.Bunn encourages his clients to think about ‘what is’ instead of ‘what if.’

“There’s really no limit to things that you could come up with if you’re imaginative that could go wrong and none of them are,” Bunn said. “So if you can shift away from 'What if the wings fall off, what if there’s a terrorist on the plane, what if this, what if that?'...and away from the imagination, that helps a lot.”

While some people can learn how to successfully fly on their own without professional assistance, Bunn says others require more help.

“If a person has a mild problem and doesn’t have panic, that helps a lot,” Bunn said. “But if the person has trouble with panic on the ground, it’s definitely going to be a problem on the plane and there’s no way I know to control it unless we set up a way to automatically control it.”